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, 29 August 2011

Holiday reading

Earlier this month, I went to Lake Garda in northern Italy on holiday. The friends I went with are keen climbers, mountain bikers and kayakers, and unfortunately I have a shoulder and back problem which means that the most strenuous activities I could do were walking and swimming in the pool. However, this enabled me to do some reading while they were off being active!



The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness was the choice of the children at the book club I hope to run, and I must say I was a little nervous when I first started reading it, since although the club is for 8-12 year olds, most of the members are 8-10. Todd Hewitt is about to turn 13, and in his world, he will become a man. Todd belongs to a pioneering community of settlers on another planet, and like the Pilgrim Fathers, the original settlers were escaping what they perceive as a a sinful world. Todd grows up in Prentisstown, totally inhabited by men. He has been told that germ warfare released by the indigenous people of New World planet (the Spackles) killed all women, including his mother, but the only side effect it had on men was making all their thoughts audible. Todd appears to be growing up in a world with no secrets. Even dogs and men can read each others' thoughts.


Image: walkerbooks.co.uk
 Then, in the swamp, Todd encounters a pocket of silence. Living in a world of constant noise from others' thoughts- really well depicted in the book as overlaying sentences of text- this is a new experience for him, and unfortunately not one he can keep secret: Mayor Prentiss uses thoughts as a way to control his population. He also encounters the preacher, Aaron, who attempts to provoke a fight with him. On returning home, his foster fathers Ben and Cillian realise what has happened and perceive the danger Todd is in. They have been planning Todd's flight for 11 years. They give him Cillian's hunting knife, Todd's mother's diary, a map and a bag of supplies, and Todd and his dog, Manchee, must escape. However, Todd cannot read: Mayor Prentiss has banned books and shut down the school, so Todd discovers only by degrees that everything he has known about his world is a lie.

This is an amazing book, which reminded me in many ways of Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, particularly in the narrative voice and in premature adulthood thrust upon Todd. I was a little alarmed that the bookclub would find it too violent, and that the (very mild) references to sex might be too much for them, but I needn't have worried: these aspects seem to have passed them by. They found the death of one of the characters more upsetting (and I won't spoil it by saying who). One boy in fact carried the book around for days, even reading it at playtime at school!

image: nnedi.com
The second book was Nnedi Okorafor's The Shadow Speaker. Set partly in Niger in 2070 and partly on Ginen, the planet where Okorafor's earlier work Zahrah the Windseeker is set. Post-nuclear event, the portal between the world of Ginan and Earth has opened, and there are metahumans, such as Ejimafor who can speak to shadows. Her father was a local politician, who imposed a strict interpretation of Islam on Ejii's town. He enforced veiling for women, and took other wives, before throwing Ejii and her mother out. Hypocritically, however, he still had Ejii sitting on the platform at a political rally when the ruler of Ejii's state, Jaa (who is from Ginen) arrives and beheads him. Ejii hated her father, but still feels both attracted to and repelled by Jaa. However, when she arrives at Ejii's house with news that the inhabitants of Ginen intend to attack rather than have the corruption and pollution of Earth damage their planet, Ejii is determined to go with Jaa and help. Her mother forbids her to leave, so she sneaks off in the night with Onion, her talking camel. On the way she encounters talking desert cats, murderous sentient sandstorms and a boy who was sold into slavery in a cocoa plantation by his own family, who has powers of his own.

This is a good book, but not a great one; it is interesting to see how much better Akata Witch is, where Okorafor appears to be keeping her imagination a little more under control, leading to a much more coherent narrative in my opinion. However, a less-good book by an amazing writer like Okorafor is far more worth reading than anything by a mediocre writer, and it gripped me from beginning to end.

Image: bookdepository.com

The third book I read was The Last Elf by Italian author Silvana De Mari. It is a little obsession of mine, reading on holiday a book written by an author of the country I'm visiting. We publish very few children's books in translation in the UK, sadly. Yorsh the elf is discovered by a woman and a hunter as a little child. Elves are both despised and feared in his world, and the trio are imprisoned by the dictatorial leader of a town where they are discovered. In prison, Yorsh discovers part of a prophesy which implies that his destiny, as the Last Elf, is tied up with that of the Last Dragon, and they travel to the abandoned library where the dragon lives.

Some years later, a girl named Robi is in an orphanage in the town where the trio were imprisoned. The overseers of the orphanage abuse and underfeed the children, and set them against each other. However, one day when the children are working in the fields picking fruit, they see a dragon flying overhead, with a small figure riding it. How is Robi's destiny tied up with these two?

This novel is more gently paced than Young Adult novels in English. It has a dreamlike quality which was very enjoyable, although in places I felt it lacked impact. Unfortunately it seems that no other De Mari novels have been translated; but I'll be seeking out more translated works than I have so date. My horizons need broadening!

I'd recommend all these novels for confident readers of 12+.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Magical Detectives: review

Image: Waterstones.com

Brian Keaney's The Magical Detectives is set in the small town of Bridlington Chawleigh. Otto Spinoza's mother runs a bookshop. She is a terrible worrier, and the only thing that pacifies her is a packet of biscuits. One day she is worrying more than usual, and Otto pops to the shop to buy a packet. But when he gets back, she has disappeared, leaving a message HELP ME spelled out in magnetic letters on the fridge. What is Otto to do? On the community notice board in the shop he notices a card advertising the services of Maximillian Hawksmoor, Magical Detective Agency, and with Maximillian's services, and the accidental help of classmate Juliet Pennington and her cat Cornelius, he must travel through a magical portal in the grounds of a stately home to another world to rescue her.

This is the promising beginning of a series (I read and reviewed the second in the series for The Bookbag) and could be read and enjoyed by a confident reader of 7+. For children who like their mystery stories to have a touch of fantasy, magic and a few sherbert lemons, this would be a great, fun read. Brian is appearing at the Lewisham Literary Festival in September.

I would like to thank the Brian Keaney for sending me a copy of this book; however this review is my honest opinion.

Monday, 15 August 2011

An interview with Frances Hardinge


Image: panmacmillan.com

Today on Playing By The Book: my interview with Frances Hardinge! Please do pop over and read it, and return there tomorrow for Frances' desert island books. I wrote about Fly By Night here.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The boy done good

Image: http://harrypotter.warnerbros.com/harrypotterandthedeathlyhallows/mainsite/index.html#/downloads
It's the end of an era, which started in 1997 with the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and ended in July this year with the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2. Of course, no Evanesco spell will make the books and films vanish (at least I hope not; that would make a big hole in my book and DVD shelves!) There have been numerous articles and blog posts about Harry Potter and Hogwarts, including one outlining why Harry Potter will still be read in ten years from the always-excellent For Books' Sake, so I don't intend to make this post about the merits or demerits of Harry. However, I am firmly in the camp that says he is A Good Thing.

Firstly, because in my years of teaching experience, nothing excited reluctant readers as much as Harry. Children who would ordinarily have baulked at reading read him. Then they went on to read other fantasy; Narnia, Diana Wynne Jones, Eva Ibbotson, Jenny Nimmo's Snow Spider trilogy, Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series and Philip Pullman.

Secondly, because Harry's success renewed interest in these writers, some of whom were out of print, and publishers invested more in promotion. Jones' Chestomanci series was reissued with new covers, and her out of print novels were re-issued. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is of course wonderful without the comparison to Harry, but I wonder whether it would have got the critical attention without the comparisons, despite Northern Lights being published before The Philospher's Stone.

And thirdly, because while some of the media attention geared towards Harry Potter has been about the media attention the books and films have been getting, I am grateful for the critical attention children's literature now gains. All the broadsheet papers now review children's literature and British university English departments frequently have undergraduate modules in children's literature, even those without an Education department; this I think is crucial as children's literature is being viewed from an aesthetic perspective rather than a utilitarian one; that is the pleasure of children's literature is being examined rather than its use in teaching reading.

So where now for Potter fans? In my opinion, the books' fans are better catered for than the films'; witness the dreadful film version of The Dark is Rising; the ongoing "development" of the Artemis Fowl film (rarely a good sign), and there seems to be no second Alex Ryder or His Dark Materials film. Of course, we have The Hobbit to look forward to.

There have been lists of books for fans to go to; this one from Time (scroll down to the end of the page) and from The Guardian. However these do focus on what is often more of the same, and I responded to this discussion on diversity in children's literature. So much European and North American fantasy is of course based upon Norse, Celtic, Greek or Roman myths alongside Judeo-Christian imagery of death and redemption. Two authors I've read recently who do not come from these traditions are Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Nnedi Okorafor. Both these authors are now based in the USA, but Divakaruni was born in India and Okorafor in Nigeria. Once again, the joy of Twitter! I encountered Divakaruni in an article on Indian Young Adult fiction tweeted by one of the Indian tweeters I follow (sadly the link is now broken), and Okorafor via the Books and Adventures blog.

Image: Tower.com


Divakaruni is the author of the Brotherhood of the Conch trilogy (The Conch Bearer, The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming and Shadowland). I have read the first two, and have the final book on order. They are the story of Anand, a boy who encounters an elderly man in the streets of Kolkata in The Conch Bearer . The old man is a healer, on a mission with the magical conch; he is being followed by an evil magician intent on co-opting the power of the conch for his own ends, and Anand and a street sweeper called Nisa must help defend the conch. The journey from Kolkata to the Himalayas and the adventures the trio encounter are a fairly traditional quest story, but the Indian setting is beautifully evoked, and Anand in this novel has few powers of his own. However the Hindu aspect of the story makes it stand out; the Himalayas of course are the home of the gods, and a mongoose helps Anand and Nisha at one point of the book. A Hindu god is represented as a mongoose in art.

The second book is The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming, a far more interesting book in many ways. Nisa and Anand are now settled as apprentices with the Healers in their home in the Himalayas. Nisa is taking to her studies with enoyment and ease, but Anand is struggling to find his place. Then news of danger comes from Bengal, and Abhaydatta the healer travels there with an apprentice. However Anand has a vision telling him that something has gone terribly wrong, so he steals the conch and he and Nisa travel through a portal. They are separated on the way, and Anand loses the conch. He discovers a magic mirror, and stepping through it, he arrives at the court of a 16th century Moghul emperor. The period details of the Muslim court are beautifully evoked, especially the food- expect to feel hungry much of the time while reading this book!- and the time travel aspect of the book works really well. The separation of men and women in the Moghul court mean that the devices used so that Anand and Nisa can communicate must necessarily be magical, and I was reminded of Aladdin in the parts where Nisa and Anand meet in the gardens.

Image: amazon.co.uk

The first book I read by Okorafor was Zahrah the Windseeker, a science fiction fantasy based on the planet of Ginen. When she is thirteen, Zahrah gets her first period and discovers that she can fly. She is a windseeker, but she is afraid of using her powers. Only when her fried Dari gets dangerously injured on a visit to the Forbidden Greeny Jungle does she discover the courage to overcome her conventional upbringing and the rigid propriety of Ooni Kingdom life and travel into the jungle to find a cure. I enjoyed this book; the lushness of the world Okorafor creates where computers and other objects can be grown from plants, the West African hilife music played in the market and clothing the characters wear. The book won the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in 2008.

Image: amazon.co.uk

Okorafor's most recent book for children is Akata Witch, the story of four young people in the Igbo region of Nigeria, who discover that they are "leopard people", that is that they have special powers. The protagonist is Sunny, who at the beginning of the book is bullied at school, partly because she is albino and partly because she is Akata, that is, of African heritage but born abroad (her family has only recently returned from the USA). The use of the term Witch of course has a different power in a West African context; I myself have taught a Rwandan child accused of witchcraft and beaten by her aunt; and Okorafor has objected to the term "fantasy" when applied to her writing, since spirits of ancestors and magic are very much part of Igbo culture and beliefs. The four young people (Sunny, Orlu, Chichi and Black American Sasha) discover that they must work together to defeat a Leopard Person who is using his power for evil and is killing children. The satisfying, world building elements of Harry Potter are here, with an alternative system of education and commerce is here. I really enjoyed this book and am looking forward to The Shadow Speaker which I'm taking on holiday.

Sadly none of these books (as far as I know) have UK publishers. I ordered them from my local bookshop for little more than the online price for Akata Witch and Zahrah. I feel that this is a pity; partly because there are so any children from the Indian subcontinent and African heritage in the UK and black and Asian children that I taught would grab with both hands books that represented their culture, but also because they are great books that any person enjoying a fast paced, inventive novel would read.

I'd recommend all these books to confident readers 10+, or a particularly mature 9 year old.

(A note on the title: it comes from a footballing cliche, team managers would often use it in interviews when being asked about the performance of new, often young, players. A significant part of Akata Witch is when Sunny's confidence is boosted by her playing in a football match; before this point she has been unable to play outside as she burns in the sun. It is also the title of one of my favourite Billy Bragg songs, co written with Johnny Marr).