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.

Saturday, 31 December 2011

Seasonal reading 4: The Thirteen Days of Christmas

Image: LibraryThing.com

In vaguely 17th Century England, the Kitson children (Prudence, James and Christopher) live with their widower father and grown up sister Annaple. Annaple is a distressingly poor cook, but in all other ways mix of the romantic and the bossy. The children try to use her romantic nature to advise the wealthy merchant Francis Vere to woo her; however his initial romantic idea (a partridge in a pear tree) pleases her so much on Christmas Day that he doesn't stop there, and since he is used to buying in bulk the family is soon inundated with livestock and their produce, threatened by the mayor with fines for blocking traffic and are the talk of the town.

This is a fantastic short historical novel. My copy (published 1977) has lovely illustrations by the wonderful Shirley Hughes. The most recent edition is illustrated by Hilda Offen; I haven't seen it, and while her illustrations are not to my taste, the charm of the story would not deter me from buying it. The delight of this story is not just the imaginative explanation of the origin of the carol The Twelve Days of Christmas, but also the inclusion of Christmas traditions and carols such as The Dancing Day carol and Here We Come A-Wassailing. It would be a wonderful book to read to children 7+, a chapter a night from 23rd December (the first chapter is on the Feast of St Nicholas, 6th December, but then there is a gap until Christmas Eve) with the final chapter on The Feast of Three Kings, 6th January, so is a perfect Seasonal Read! If you don't know the wonderful Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band carol albums, they would be be the perfect accompaniment to reading this book. You can find them all on Spotify.

I hope you've enjoyed my seasonal reading suggestions. What are yours?

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Seasonal reading 3: Wintersmith

Image: fantasticfiction.co.uk

I have already explained how much I enjoy Tiffany Aching books. Until I decided to re-read it as a "seasonal read", Wintersmith  it wasn't one of my favourite Discworld witch  books. However, reading it at Christmas time, with memories of the last two snowy winters still fresh, has made me reconsider this point of view.


Tiffany Aching is now nearly thirteen years old. She is living with the 113-year-old Miss Treason, learning witchcraft from her. Miss Treason is different from the very diligent Miss Level, who was Tiffany's teacher in A Hat Full of Sky, who demonstrated a Discworld witch's role- a combination of vet, social worker and district nurse. Miss Treason, by view of her great age and the remoteness of her steading (area a witch is responsible for) is all those things, but also has a role in maintaining law and order and mediating disputes. In order to do this, Tiffany learns, she relies a great deal on "boffo" (show business) as much as on her skill.


Tiffany is a good apprentice to Miss Treason, but she is still a young girl. She and Miss Treason fly into the woods (Miss Treason seeing through Tiffany's eyes since her own no longer work) to the Dark Morris (performed without music to bring in Winter) she joins in, despite being told not to. By doing this, she attracts the attention of the Wintersmith, the Elemental personifying winter. He confuses Tiffany with the personification of summer, the Summer Lady- they only ever meet at the dance, and of course can never be together. His obsession with Tiffany has terrible consequences, as he goes to greater and greater extremes to impress her. Finally, when the snow and ice threaten the Downlands and Tiffany's family's sheep, she knows that she must confront him. With the help of the Nac Mac Feegles (small, blue, vaguely Scottish pictsies renowned for their fighting and drinking skills) and Roland, son of the baron local to the Aching family farm, she must return the seasons to their natural places.


On re-reading Wintersmith, I was struck by Pratchett's assertion of the importance of Story. Of course stories  about the stealing of Summer by Winter and the need to placate Winter to bring back the Sun are behind so many winter and light festival traditions (lights on trees, the Yule log and so on). In the Classical tradition there are several stories that Wintersmith echoes: Orpheus and Eurydice, Persephone and Hades. In the confusion of  Summer Lady with Tiffany,  she is sent a Horn of Plenty which dispenses food (ham sandwiches and live chickens, as this is what the wishers ask for!)

Image: Livia as Ceres, the Corn Goddess with Horn of Plenty (Louvre)

There is also, through the Witches (Miss Treason, Nanny Ogg, Granny Weatherwax, Miss Tick and Letice Earwig, as well as the young witches Annagramma Hawkin, Petulia Gristle, Dimity Hubbub and Lucy Warbeck), the consideration of the importance of the stories that we tell ourselves, constructing our own narratives, and respecting the stories of each other. Through doing this we can treat each other with more respect and understanding. Tiffany's exasperation with Annagramma as she understands the narrative Annagramma constructs of herself, and frustration at Granny Weatherwax's manipulation of her and others lessens, and we can see her growing maturity. The final novel in the arc so far, I Shall Wear Midnight, is one of the finest children/ Young Adult novels I have ever read. I sincerely hope that Tiffany appears in further Discworld novels. This is a funny, thought-provoking read, perfect for cold weather. I'd recommend it for readers 10+, and it would be great to read to children 8+.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Seasonal reading 2: Grimble at Christmas

Image: childrensbookshop.com

Sir Clement Freud, chef, theatre impressario (he launched the Royal Court Theatre Club, a cabaret club, which later became the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, London), journalist, Liberal MP, TV and radio personality and raconteur, wrote two short children's books; Grimble and Grimble at Christmas. Richard wrote about Grimble in his guest post here; and I will write about the very funny second story today.

Grimble's parents are very vague (they forgot to give him a first name, they're not sure when his birthday is, so he is "about 10", and will often forget to tell him they're going away, so he has to look after himself), and in this story he is convinced that they have forgotten about Christmas. Grimble plots to make enough money so that he can buy presents, a tree and, most importantly, Christmas dinner for himself and his family. Grimble sets himself up in a toast-making and delivering business, delivers Christmas trees and is even sent a pound note by his aunt (Grimble at Christmas was published in 1974!), but just when all seems lost, he receives a wonderful Christmas surprise from an unexpected source.

I first encountered this book 20 years ago, as an adult. It was a childhood favourite of a friend of my sisters, who gave it to her. This is very definitely a much-loved second hand copy; priced 10p, it is very creased and the pages are yellowed. Children's books very often migrate to my bookshelves from my family's, and I read it, giggling. This is a very funny book, with Freud's dry wit and love of food evident on every page. It is only 5 chapters long, and would be a wonderful book to read to children 7+ in the run-up to Christmas. Children 8+ would enjoy reading it themselves, but may need prices of items explained (for example, a loaf costing 6p!)

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Seasonal reading 1: Winter Holiday, by Arthur Ransome



I loved the Swallows and Amazons series of books as a child. The Swallows (John, Susan, Titty and Roger) and Amazons (Ruth- known as Nancy- and Peggy) are the protagonists of the first two books, Swallows and Amazons and Swallowdale, are middle-class children who attend boarding school, and the books are the stories of their summer holidays in the Lake District. Their adventures sailing on the lake and on the fells are sanctioned by Nancy and Peggy's mother, Mrs Blackett, and the Swallows' mother Mrs Walker is reassured by the famously sanguine telegram from Captain Walker, the children's father- BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN. The children are initially at war with, then aided and abetted by, the Amazon's Uncle Jim, known by the children as Captain Flint, since they spent Swallows and Amazons being pirates.

The fourth novel in the chronology of books, though the third set on a lake inspired by Coniston Water, it is the first appearance of the D's, Dick and Dorothea Callum, who are spending the last week of their Christmas holiday on Dixon's farm. Mrs Dixon was their mother's nanny. The children's parents are going abroad on their father's first foreign posting. The children have no experience of sailing, but are experienced skaters; Dick's main interest is in Science and at the point the story opens, he is involved with astronomy. Dorothea is extremely imaginative, a keen reader and storywriter (though in a less irritating way than the unfortunately-named Titty). They become friends with the Swallows and Amazons, making an igloo from an abandoned hut, cooking out of doors and skating on the beck. The children know that a great freeze is forecast; they are re-imagining the landscape as Polar explorers and lament the fact that they will be returning to school before it comes.

A reprieve from return to school comes when Nancy develops mumps. Since the children must remain in quarantine for a month to ensure that they are free from infection before returning to school, Peggy moves to Holly Hawe farm with the Swallows (Mrs Walker and baby Brigit is in Malta with their naval Captain father) and they invent ways to communicate with Nancy via coded pictures and symbols on flags. On a trip to High Greenland (a snow covered fell) they find a sheep nearly dying, trapped on a narrow ridge. Dick (using his knowledge of gravity and pulleys) rescues it with help from Titty, Roger and Dorothea, and in gratitude Mr Dixon and Silas, his shepherd, makes them a sledge. He becomes very involved in their exploits, giving them sheepskins and rabbit skins to make hats and mittens with. The final adventure of the story, when the less knowledgeable Ds misread a signal from Nancy and set off alone in a snow blizzard, is truly thrilling. It is also gratifying for more bookish readers that Dorothea's romantic, storytelling feeling of what is fitting for explorers to do leads to their rescue.

Image: conistonwildlife.org.uk

This is a wonderful seasonal re-read. The wintry landscape is well evoked, it's beauties and dangers are evident. Many 1930s children's stories make the contemporary reader cringe (witness @knownasbowman's tweeting his reading of Biggles novels), but I was relieved that this wasn't the case with Winter Holiday. The children are middle class and attend boarding school, but Ransome portrays the Dixons, Silas and the other Cumbrian people, and their dialects, that the children encounter with respect. In particular I enjoyed the way that Mr Dixon and Silas enters into the polar explorer spirit with the Ds, so that they can join in the exploration on equal terms. A few years ago papers on Ransome's time in Russia reporting for the radical Daily News on the revolution and the Bolshevik government were released. MI5 considered his reports unduly sympathetic, although his politics remain unclear. However if he did have left wing sympathies it may explain this book's freedom from contemporary class prejudice (though I remember some condescending attitudes in Coot Club- perhaps more recent re-readers can enlighten me?). All in all, curl up with this book if you are 9+ and enjoy with hot chocolate, looking through the window at the cold outside. I think it would be a great read-aloud to 7+ as well.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Under the sea

Image: jwwaterhouse.com
Mermaids are fascinating. They seem to symbolise both the seductive beauty and danger of the sea, the borderline nature (or liminality) of the coast- of the earth but moulded by water; and also our human condition: do we belong to the natural, animal world, or are we separate? Stories of love between humans and merpeople can be the ultimate in doomed love; how can people who live in different elements ever marry? It's a compelling story, that has been told and retold since Homer's Odyssey.

Image: Waterstones.com


I have read two books recently that retell (in different ways) Matthew Arnold's The Forsaken Merman. Firstly, Liz Kessler's The Tail of Emily Windsnap. Emily lives on a boat in a seaside town with her mother. Despite them living so close to the sea, her mother has never allowed Emily to learn to swim. During a swimming lesson, Emily finds out why: as soon as she hits the water, her legs fuse to a tail, and she becomes a mermaid! Believing that her mother is terrified of water, she doesn't tell her of her discovery; instead she puts her new tail to the test, swimming further and making a new friend. However, she discovers that merpeople are forbidden to have contact with humans, and that her mother is being betrayed dreadfully by someone who has a reason to keep it that way... A great, fun read.

Image: Waterstones.com
The EDGE: Rivets series is an exciting-looking range of books for readers who are not yet ready for the challenge of sustained reading that novels for readers 8+ can present. Katherine Langrish, a writer I really admire, has retold the story of the Forsaken Merman from the point of view of Mara, the daughter of the merman and Margaret, the human woman who has left her family and returned to land. Mara journeys to find her mother and bring her back. Told in simple yet beautiful language, it's a compelling read. Highly recommended.

I'd recommend both books for 8+,  Forsaken particularly for children who enjoy stories but find reading quite daunting. And the title of this post? The jaunty song from Disney's The Little Mermaid, of course!

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Doing the Time Warp

I recently came across this blogpost by @Miss_Alaynius this week (via the very lovely tweeter and blogger @PrincessofVP), and it sent me to revisit Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce.

Image: amazon.co.uk
Widely regarded as a classic (John Rowe Townsend termed it a "masterpiece" in his book Written for Children) it was one of CILIP's Carnegie Medal top ten , chosen to celebrate the Carnegie Medal's 70 years' celebration. The novel won the medal in 1958.

Tom's brother Peter has measles, so Tom is sent to stay with his childless aunt and uncle. They live in a large house now converted into flats, and Tom is disappointed to learn that there is no garden that he could play in alone- since he is in quarantine he can't mix with other children. Mrs Bartholomew, who owns the house, lives upstairs, but a grandfather clock remains on the landing from before the house conversion, as it is screwed to the wall. The clock still keeps good time, but is prone to strike hours at random. His aunt and uncle are kind, but his aunt is inclined to fuss and his uncle is rather pedantic. Due to his lack of exercise, since he is not allowed to play outside, Tom finds it hard to sleep, and when he hears the clock striking thirteen he gets up to investigate. Rationalising his disobedience to his aunt and uncle by explaining to himself that a thirteenth hour is not a real hour, Tom slips outside and discovers not a back yard with bins, but a sunlit garden with children playing: the house before it was converted to flats. Here he meets an unhappy, lonely little girl named Hatty wearing odd clothes, who becomes his friend. Tom returns every night to play with her, but strangely she seems to be growing up much faster than him, eventually becoming a young woman, and in my favourite section, it is no longer summer, but winter with a frozen river. Tom and Hatty skate to Ely and climb the cathedral tower, something he had been unable to do on his journey to his aunt and uncle. When the mystery is solved at the end of the book, there is a connection between the emotional states of Tom and Hatty; two children feeling isolated and misunderstood, longing for a friend, and the clock and its motto connects them both.

This beautifully written book is more than just a time-slip adventure; it is also a meditation on the nature of time and memory. An angel on the grandfather clock is holding a Bible with the motto "Time no Longer", which Tom and Hatty learn is from the Book of Revelations. Re-reading Tom's Midnight Garden has made me reflect on other books with time-slip and time travel themes. I have already written about Charlotte Sometimes, a book that I find profoundly disquieting. The History Keepers: The Storm Begins by Damien Dibben is a much more straightforward adventure story, and highly enjoyable it is.

Image: thehistorykeepers.com

Fifteen year old Jake Djones lives with his mother and father in Greenwich, where they run a bathroom fitting business. The firm isn't very successful, so Jake is surprised when they are called away suddenly on business, but very concerned when they don't return at the appointed time. Then Jake is kidnapped by a mysterious man dressed in a morning suit and top hat, and he discovers that his parents, and missing brother, are secret time travelling agents whose job is to protect history from rogue agents who would manipulate it for their own ends. Jake must travel through time to join them, rescue his parents, who have become trapped in history, and thwart the plot that the rogue agents are hatching.

This book has had favourable comparisons with Harry Potter, since it has a young hero and an action packed plot. For me this is overstating it a bit; it is certainly engrossing and a page turner, but it lacks the world building of Harry Potter. I couldn't imagine the History Keeper's HQ at Mont St Michel, the ship or the rogue agent's castle as well as I can Hogwarts. However, maybe this will come with later books. I would say that The Storm Begins is likely to appeal to fans of Charlie Higson's Young James Bond, Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider or Mark Walden's H.I.V.E. series.

I knew Mary Hoffman from her wonderful Amazing Grace picture books, rightly staples of UK classrooms, but was unaware of her books for older readers, until I spotted the cover of Stravaganza: City of Masks in a charity shop.

Image: maryhoffman.co.uk




The first in a series partly set in present day Islington and partly in an alternate version of renaissance Italy (Talia), the book opens with fifteen-year-old Lucien, who has cancer. His father buys him a beautiful notebook to write in as his throat is too sore to speak. His father tells him about Venice, where the notebook originated. Lucien falls asleep holding the notebook, and wakes up in Bellezza, an alternate version of Vanice. He discovers that he is a Stravagante, a time traveller, who can travel through the possession of a talisman: his notebook. 

In Bellezza Lucien is not ill. His dark curls, which fell out through his cancer treatment, have grown back. He becomes involved in the intrigue of Bellezza, through friendship with a girl named Arianna, Rodolfo, the advisor to the Duchessa who rules the city state of Bellezza, and the Duchessa herself, under threat from the powerful di Chimini family. His life in Bellezza, with Arianna, increasingly seems more "real" than his life in London. This wonderful book is very similar in many ways to Tom's Midnight Garden in theme- an unhappy child or young person can be transported to another time by means of an object connecting their two worlds. 

I would recommend Tom's Midnight Garden to confident readers of 8+, though it works well as a read-aloud to 7+. The History Keepers and Stravaganza are aimed at older readers: 10+, though Stravaganza's thematically may be more suited to 12+.