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 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.