Review policy

Due to time pressures, I am unable to commit to reviewing books at the moment. However, please feel free to recommend or discuss by tweeting @MsTick68 or commenting on here. Thank you!

Friday, 28 December 2012

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner...

That I love books about London! 


Image: foyles.co.uk

Catherine Johnson's A Nest of Vipers is a thrilling adventure story set in a lawless and brutal 18th Century London. Young Cato Hopkins is being brought up by a gang of "coney catchers", confidence tricksters overseen by Mother Hopkins, who claims that she bought Cato from Newgate Gaol for a few pennies. The Hopkins "family" (Addy, who can pass as a boy and part fools from their money at cards; beautiful Bella, who has been parted from lovelorn young aristocrats at the altar- for a price; escaped slave Sam and Cato, who has been sold into slavery, but can crack any lock going, especially if there is something valuable on the other side of the lock) are famous among the London Underworld, and live at the Nest of Vipers pub east of Drury Lane, London. They pride themselves on only conning those deserving the con, especially slave traders.

But things are getting too hot for them in London, and Mother Hopkins is ageing. She has a dream to retire to Bath. Bella wants to marry Jack, who with Sam is in the Sedan chair business, and want to go straight. And surely Addy can't pass as a convincing boy much longer? In order to buy a house, Mother Hopkins plans one last con trick. But when she involves proud Quarmy, the son of a West African king, his unfamiliarity with their cons and his love-sickness for his former tutor's daughter may prove the family's undoing...

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is framed at the beginning and the end with Cato in Newgate, dictating his story to the Ordinary, the gaol's chaplain. More detail about Ordinary's accounts can be found on the Old Bailey Online website. The historical detail is rich: accounts of London pubs, coffee shops, pie shops and the houses of the wealthy is finely drawn, and never overwhelms the pot, which rushes along like an 18th Century episode of Hustle. The use of thieve's cant also enriches the story (as it does, for example, in Georgette Heyer) and since Cato is often reproved for using it, it adds to the authenticity but doesn't make the dialogue less comprehensible for young readers. Like the best sorts of historical fiction, we are able to enter the world of a young Black boy in 18th Century London, learning more about his times and also about why our world is the way it is. Highly recommended for 9+.

I reviewed Catherine Johnson's Brave New Girl here. She's a fabulous writer; make sure you read her in 2013!

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Seasonal reading 8: Lost Christmas by David Logan

Last year I watched the BBC TV film Lost Christmas with Eddie Izzard. You can see the trailer here. I found it an incredibly moving and very beautiful film, so I was excited to see that one of the writers, David Logan, has adapted it into a novel.

Image: lost-christmas.co.uk

10 year old Goose wakes up one Christmas Eve to the sound of a puppy barking. He runs downstairs to find his parents unsuccessfully trying to hide a mongrel puppy. Goose is full of plans to play with him, but then his firefighter dad receives a call and has to go to work. Disappointed, Goose hides his car keys. Of course, that doesn't stop his father from going to work; instead his mum gives him a lift in her car. Goose's spur-of-the-moment act means that he loses both parents in a car crash.

A year later he is living with his grandmother, who is in the early stages of dementia. He still has Mutt, his dog, but he has lost everything else, including his ability to feel. He is also involved in crime, stealing and handing over the objects to his dad's former best friend, Frank, whose wife left him when Frank's grief led him to drink heavily. 

Then after a heavy night in a pub, Frank meets a strange man, Anthony. Anthony seems to have lost his memory. However, he seems to have a strange power, to "read" people and know their secret- and not so secret- losses. As Goose and Frank become more involved with Anthony, he helps them to make amends and return lost things to their owners. 

This book deserves to become a Christmas classic. I think it is probably aimed at 10+, but I think it could be a fantastic book for a family to enjoy together, with an adult reading it to children 8+ and helping them understand allusions, to, for example, Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince. 

I wish you all a Happy Christmas, and hope that you enjoy some wonderful Seasonal Reading too!

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Seasonal reading 7- Beauty by Robin McKinley

Well, Christmas needs a pantomime, and most pantos are based on traditional tales, after all!


Image: bookpeople.co.uk


Beauty lives with her sisters, Hope and Grace, and her widower father, in comfortable circumstances. Her father is a merchant, and while Hope and Grace are happy to live like proper, beautiful young ladies, Beauty (whose real name is Honor) is a plain, bookish girl, who loves her family and her horse, Greatheart.

However, life changes for Beauty when her father's fleet of ships (one captained by Grace's fiance) are lost in a storm. They sell up and move with Hope's husband, a blacksmith, to a remote village. Beauty's father is happy to start again as a carpenter, and the girls learn to cook, keep chickens and, in Beauty's case, help out in the forge.

Then one wintery day Beauty's father gets lost returning from the city through the forest, which they have all been told is dangerous. He is carrying with him a rose, which, when Beauty puts it in water, drops one petal. When Beauty picks it up, she sees that it is gold. The girls' father then tells them of his seeking shelter at the mysterious, empty castle, where he is waited on by invisible servants. On leaving in the morning, he remembers his promise to bring Beauty some rose seeds, and he picks the rose mysteriously growing in the castle garden, despite it being midwinter. Then the Beast appears, angry at what he sees as Beauty's father's dishonouring of his hospitality, and extracts a promise that Beauty will come and live in the castle if he spares the old man's life.

From this point, the story is the familiar one from the traditional tale, but with some twists: the Beast's library contains not only all the books ever written, but those not yet existing, which is a fantastic idea! Beauty and the Beast bond over books. The invisible servants gossiping and (unsuccessfully) trying to control Beauty through clothes are fun to read, as well.

I like also the way that Beauty's position in the Beast's castle is an uncomfortable one: she is a prisoner, even if she is an unwilling one, and since the novel is told in the first person, her frustration, loneliness and homesickness are very clear to us. 

This was Robin McKinley's first novel, first published in her native USA in 1978. It's a wonderful seasonal read for 10+. McKinley revisited the Beauty and the Beast story in Rose's Daughter, a more unsettling book, probably more suited to older readers.

I had the Overture to Philip Glass's score for Cocteau's La Belle et Le Bete running through my head as I read this book. Its rather icy beauty is perfect for this time of year.






Saturday, 8 December 2012

Seasonal reading 6- Leah's Christmas Story

Image: karinlittlewood.com

Leah's father keeps an inn in Bethlehem. One very busy day, Leah has been out shopping, and keeps getting pushed and bustled by the crowds arriving in the town to be included in the Emperor's census. When she gets kicked on the knee by a donkey, trips and drops her shopping basket, a kind man picks her up. His heavily pregnant wife is riding the donkey, and when she calls out that the baby is coming, Leah's father lets them stay in his stable because all the inns are full. Leah makes a little bed in the manger with her own blanket, and waits to see the baby. Later, she witnesses the visits of the shepherds and the wise men, and then waves Mary, Joseph and Jesus off on their journey to Egypt.

This is a beautiful picture book, illustrated by the wonderful Karin Littlewood, illustrator of Mary Hoffman's The Colour of Home. The retelling of the Christmas story through the eyes of a little girl is fresh, but the narrative is true to the account of Jesus's birth in the Bible. I would say that Leah's Christmas Story is well worth keeping on your bookshelf to read to children at Christmas. I loved both the rich illustrations (how nice to see Jesus's family portrayed as middle Eastern, not European!) and the simple, but not simplistic, story. 


This is my final Illustrated Year post. It has been a great way for me to read and appreciate a wider range of books, rediscover some old favourites and encounter some new ones. I hope you have enjoyed reading these posts!


Sunday, 2 December 2012

Seasonal reading 5: Hogfather by Terry Pratchett

It was the night before Hogswatch. All through the house...
... one creature stirred. It was a mouse.

Image: hive.co.uk


In the city of Ankh Morpork, the chief of the Assassin's Guild, Lord Downey, has a visitor from the Auditors of Reality, who manage the Universe. They dislike humanity, because humans' unpredictability and illogicality interfere with their smooth bureaucracy. The epitome if the illogical nature of humans is their irrational belief; and this is exemplified in the Hogfather, Discworld's Father Christmas. The Auditors want the Hogfather done away with. Lord Downey can only think of one assassin who would do such a terrible thing: Mr Teatime (pronounced Te-ah Tim-eh). 

Meanwhile, Susan Sto Helit, Death's granddaughter, is working as a governess to a rather pretentious Ankh Morpork family. Their former governess has tried to discipline the children (Gawain and Twyla) by telling them that monsters would come for them if they weren't good, and Susan knows that it is futile to tell them otherwise. The children believe in the Hogfather, the Soul Cake Tuesday Duck and the Tooth Fairy, so why would they not believe in the Bogeyman, the Scissor Man who cuts the thumbs off thumb suckers and the step-on-the-crack bears? Instead, Susan kills them with the nursery poker.

The Hogfather disappears, and Death, always fascinated by humans, decides to take his role, with a cushion stuffed up his robe and riding the Hogfather's boar-pulled sleigh instead of his white horse, Binky. Death understands that since the Hogfather is the personification of Hogswatch rather than a living being, he cannot die, but if children stop believing in him he will disappear. He persuades Susan to find the Hogfather. Along the way she meets Bilious, the Oh God of hangovers, and together they travel to the land of the tooth fairy to confront Mr Teatime and his companions from the Guild of Thieves.

At the same time in the Unseen University, many strange Small Gods and personifications (such as the Verruca Gnome and the Cheerful Fairy) are being created due to the superfluous belief that has come about due to lack of belief in the Hogfather. Can Susan rescue the Hogfather, and can Death's rather over-literal interpretation of "it is better to give than to receive" save the day?

This is one of my favourite Discworld books, and is a staple of my Seasonal Reading. It is an adult book in the Discworld series (younger readers might prefer Wintersmith) but is perfectly accessible to confident readers of 12+. A TV dramatisation is available on DVD, as well. Enjoy it!
And don't forget to leave a pork pie for the Hogfather and turnips for the pigs.,

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Bansi and Nina- two magical stories

I've written recently about how important I think it is that children see themselves represented in books, and how important it is that teachers have books that represent the children in their classes. So with this in mind, I'm really glad to share these books with you this week. They are both about children with Indian heritage, but they are not worthy "issues" novels- a teacher friend of Asian heritage characterises a lot of books featuring British Asian families as "Saris and samosas stories"- they are great fun.


Image: Goodreads.com

Nina and the Travelling Spice Shed by Madhvi Ramani is a lovely book for 6+. Nina's parents are from India, but Nina feels wholly British. She gets a bit fed up with her dad constantly comparing her to Indian children. One day she is late for school, and discovers that all the "good" countries her class are to research for their class project are gone, and she'll have to research India.

Nina is really fed up, and goes to her eccentric aunty's house. There, she is sent to the spice shed in the back garden to get some turmeric, when she discovers that the shed is in fact a travelling shed, which whisks her off to India! Here, Nina learns about the mystic sadhus in the Himalayas, about Bollywood in Mumbai and about the tigers of West Bengal!

This is a delightful book for children developing the stamina to read chapter books. It's funny and enjoyable, and great for dispelling stereotypes about India. I can imagine that children of Indian heritage would really enjoy reading about a girl like them, but also children of other heritages would enjoy it too.


Image: hive.co.uk

Bansi O'Hara and the Bloodline Prophesy by John Dougherty (author, poet, songwriter, library defender and all round Good Egg)- Bansi O'Hara is on her way with her Irish father and Indian mother to visit her Granny O'Hara in Ireland. She's really looking forward to her first trip to Ireland. Little does she know that her visit is also being anticipated by some magical peoples in Ireland. Bansi is descended from magical beings on both sides of her family, and engineering her presence in the magical land of Tir Na N'Og would fulfil a prophesy bringing incredible power for whoever brings her there. So Pogo the Brownie and a shape shifting Puca called Tam are sent by the good Fairy People to protect her, but the Dark Sidhe are seeking to capture her. 

But on Bansi's first night at Granny O'Hara's house, Conn, a boy who can change into a wolf, crashes through the bedroom window, trying to capture Bansi. It is Midsummer, when the barriers between the mortal world and Tir Na N'Og are thinned, and the Lord of the Dark Sidhe has sent Conn to bring her to him. Luckily, Bansi doesnt just have Pogo and Tam to look after her. She has Granny O'Hara and her best friend, Nora Mullarkey, to look after her, and speeding around in Nora's Morris Traveller, they set out to prevent the Lord of the Dark Sidhe, before sunset on Midsummer's Eve.

Exciting and hilarious by turns, this is a brilliant book to read aloud to children 7+. I would also use it for guided reading or have it in my book corner for independent reading in school. I think it would be particularly good in a culturally diverse classroom, particularly one with children of mixed heritage. I have already recommended it to a friend whose little cousin is being excluded by friends due to her mixed heritage. A fantastic read. 

(I have posted both these reviews on Goodreads as well. I want as many people as possible to buy these books, including schools and libraries!)

Sunday, 18 November 2012

An Illustrated Year: Into the Forest by Anthony Browne



This is possibly my favourite Anthony Browne book.

Image: walker.co.uk

A boy is woken by a terrible sound. Outside there is a storm, but when he goes downstairs in the morning, his dad is gone. His mum is sad- in front of her in the illustration of breakfast, she just has an empty mug, and is staring in front of her. The boy misses his dad, and writes labels saying so. His mum gives him a basket and tells him to take a cake to his Grandma, and to be sure to go the safe way, not through the forest. But the boy wants to get there quickly, so he can be home in case his dad gets back.

Going through the forest, he meets fairy tale characters: there is Jack, with his cow, Goldilocks, Hansel and Gretel (or maybe the Babes in the Wood). The illustrations go from full colour to black and white (except for the boy) in the forest, and the trees are threatening, with strange faces in them- and other fairy tale objects, such as an axe, a spinning wheel and a pumpkin. 

The boy finds a red coat hanging from a tree, which he puts on, and then continues to Grandma's house. Snow is starting to fall. He knocks on the door, and when a strange voice says "Come in, dear," he enters, and finds.....

Grandma! He hugs her, and turns round to find his dad there. They eat cake, and go back home to find mum smiling.

What I love about Anthony Browne's books is that while the story may be fairly straightforward, the illustrations interact with it so well, enriching, sometimes contradicting, the text. The reader can know the story off by heart, but pouring over the illustrations can always find something new. A fabulous book for 6+.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Writers and writing

This post is part of Playing By The Book's I'm Looking For A Book About... Carnival. Make sure to check out the other posts from Monday 12th November!

The two books I'm writing about today are rightly termed "classics". Nowadays they are often considered "young adult" though of course at the time of publication this was not a term used. I know that I read them between the ages of 12 and 14, and still read them today.

Image: virago.co.uk

Miles Franklin (Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin) grew up in New South Wales. Famously she wrote My Brilliant Career at the age of 16; it was a sensation when it was published in 1901, and she did not allow it to be republished until 10 years after her death. It is the story of Sybylla Melvyn, like Franklin the 16 year old daughter of a New South Wales farmer who is in reduced circumstances due to mismanagement, bad luck and drink. Sybylla is passionate, talented and intelligent; she longs for a "brilliant career" where she can use her brains, courage and imagination, but as a "mere girl" is destined for a life of drudgery.

Then as life is about to become even harder and she is about to go into service, her grandmother and aunt send for her to live with them. Here for the first time, Sybylla is loved and appreciated, but still she is restricted by the expectations of her gender and social class. The book ends with Sybylla being forced to choose between marriage and writing: it is clear that it will be impossible for her to do both.

Image: hive.co.uk

Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle was written in 1948, when the author and her husband were living in California, where they had moved during the war due to her husband's status as a conscientious objector. There is no mention of the war in the novel, so it can be assumed that it is set in the 1930s. It is the story of Cassandra Mortmain, to my mind one of the most enchanting protagonists of any novel I have ever read. 

Told in the first person, the novel starts "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink", in my opinion still one of the best opening lines of any novel; it is 17 year old Cassandra's diary, which she is keeping to train herself in speed-writing and in describing characters and settings with a view to becoming a writer. She has a lot to write about; Cassandra and her family lives in poverty which is teetering on the verge of genteel, kept there by her once-famous author father, who wrote an experimental novel when Cassandra was a small child. It was a huge success, but he has been blocked ever since, and all the money he earned from Jacob Wrestling is long gone. They live in crumbling Scoatney Castle in Suffolk, and again are prevented by their class from achieving independence: as girls Cassandra and her sister Rose's education has been genteelly rudimentary; they are suited only to marriage. However, without connections and money, who are they to meet?

Then the owner of the castle dies, and their new landlords, the wealthy Simon and Neil Cotton, arrive from America. Rose decides that she will marry Simon, and behaves, in a scene of toe-curling embarrassment, like a latter-day Blanche Ingram from Jane Eyre to attract him. He does, however, fall in love with her, but one evening Simon keeps Cassandra company, and they kiss. Cassandra realises that she is in love with him.

What is Cassandra to do? She knows that Rose doesn't really love Simon, but Rose is more desperate to leave Scoatney than Cassandra. Events unfurl in the three different notebooks in which Cassandra keeps her diary, and again at the end of the novel it is unclear whether Rose will follow her love for Simon or her need to write. 

Of course, the expectations that society puts on women who are writers (and women put upon themselves as a result of society) is still evident, over 100 years later. See this blog post by Shelley Harris, and the comments. 

Both books are glorious. I recommend them as the stories of young writers growing up to readers of 12 plus. I Capture the Castle in particular should be read by every teenage girl, and if you haven't read it, get a copy and fall in love.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Reading in situ

Whitby Abbey and East Cliff

Last weekend I braved the five hour journey on three trains to visit Whitby for a few days. Of course, the town is where Count Dracula first sets foot on British soil, but there are plenty of local stories of witches, ghosts and other spooky goings on. It was the perfect place to spend time leading up to Hallowe'en.


Image: robinjarvis.com

While I was in Whitby, I read the second in the Whitby Witches trilogy, A Warlock in Whitby. I'll be writing about the first book shortly. It was great fun to read the book where it was set, almost at the same time of year: the book is set just before Bonfire Night (5th November). 

Jennet and Ben are happily living with Miss Boston, who is fostering them. However, she gets called away to visit a sick friend in London, and Miss Werther, from the post office, is looking after the children. Ben has second sight, and local children find him a bit weird. Because of this, he is being bullied. 

Following the events of the previous book, a mysterious stranger, Nathaniel Crozier, arrives in Whitby. He has a knack of getting himself invited into houses, and when there, can influence the inhabitants. Jennet- and many of the other women- fall for his charm, and will do anything for him. However, he is the Warlock of the title, and is in Whitby both for revenge and to awaken an ancient evil.

For me, this book didn't entirely work. There are three strands to the plot: Nathaniel Crozier in Whitby, Nelda the Aufwader (a race of Fisher Folk who live in the caves under the cliffs, who only Ben can see) and her need to atone for events in the first book, and Miss Boston in London, and for me, the three didn't entirely hang together. I was also disappointed with the extent to which Jennet was sidelined in the book; I would have liked her to have been far more instrumental to the plot.


However, the mystery and menace of Whitby is well evoked. A particularly scary moment takes place in St Mary's Church on East Cliff, near the Abbey ruins. Here is a gravestone, damaged by salt spray and wind: 


And I wondered whether this was where Miss Boston and the children lived:


I would say that this book is appropriate for 9+. I think that it would be best to read The Whitby Witches first, though.


Sunday, 21 October 2012

Illustrated Year: Ahmed and the Feather Girl by Jane Ray



Most of my teaching career has been spent in diverse, inner city schools; latterly in London where it is common to find that over 30 languages are spoken (although of course English is the lingua franca. There is a great incentive to learn to speak English so that you can communicate with the rest of your class!) As Britain becomes more culturally diverse outside the cities as well as inside, there is a real imperative for teachers to find books that represent the children in their classes. As I said here , it's very important for making children want to read.

Image: franceslincoln.co.uk

This beautiful book, from the wonderful Frances Lincoln Children's Books is the story of Ahmed, a circus boy. The circus is run by the cruel Madame Saleem. One winter's day, when Ahmed is gathering firewood, he finds a large golden egg in the forest. Madame Saleem locks it in a golden cage, and when spring comes a little girl hatches out. Madame Saleem puts the girl, names Aurelia, on display and charges a lot of money. Gradually Aurelia grows feathers, and Madame Saleem grows rich, but Aurelia stops singing and grows sad. Ahmed steals the key to the cage and rescues her.  Madame Saleem of course is very angry, and beats Ahmed, but in his dreams Aurelia visits him, and every time she leaves him some feathers. Eventually he has enough, so that he can fly away with her.

This is a wonderful fairy tale, one that I recommend to read to children of 6+. Look out for it, and if it's not in your local library, request it! There are still not enough picture books featuring Asian children as protagonists, apart from rather worthy books explaining religious celebrations. 

Sunday, 14 October 2012

An Illustrated Year: So Much! by Trish Cooke


Most of my teaching career has been in culturally diverse, inner city schools. I started training as a teacher 20 years ago last month (where has the last 20 years gone?) and of course, one of the most important duties of a Primary school teacher is to ensure that the children in their care make progress with their reading. However, I found that we can make sure that children learn their letter sounds and apply that knowledge to words- this is a relatively easy job- but making children want to read is far more tricky. Over my teaching career I have become more and more convinced that young children must see themselves and their cultures presented to them in books, as well as the cultures of their peers.


So Much! by Trish Cooke was published nearly 20 years ago, in 1994. I remember picking up a copy to read to the children I was teaching as a Traveller Support/ English as an Additional Language support teacher in Beeston, Leeds. It's the story of Mum and Baby, sitting at home, when- DING DONG! the doorbell goes, and relatives arrive one by one to see the baby to show him how much they love him. They want to hug, squeeze, kiss the baby- and also eat and fight him! At the end of the book, we see that the family have gathered to celebrate the baby's Daddy's birthday.

It's told in the sing-song rhythms of Dominican English, and I absolutely love this book. I love the fact that the family is an ordinary family, gathering for a celebration the way that other families do, but the family is shown playing dominoes, dancing and singing, giving the book a distinctly Caribbean flavour. We don't see outside the house, only the front room and the baby's bedroom, but the tiled hall in front of the door in one picture (when Auntie Bibbi arrives) reminds me of the one in the terraced houses in Leeds where I lived as a student and young teacher. Trish Cooke grew up in Bradford with her Dominican parents and brothers and sisters, so Helen Oxenbury may have taken inspiration from this.

I recommend this book for children around the ages of 3-6. It's lovely!

I'm looking for picture books showing Asian children in urban settings for my students who are starting their teaching practice in London schools. Please do comment if you know of any! It's a shame that in 20 years we don't seem to be moving forward in representations of diversity in picture books.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Dance to the Music

This post is part of Playing By The Book's I'm Looking For A Book About... carnival. This month the theme is music. Please do go and check out the links on 15th October; there are always amazing recommendations from all over the world.

Writing a novel for children or young people based in popular culture is a fraught matter. Just look how quickly we've moved technologically in the past few years, and how that has influenced the way that popular culture is consumed and valued. Oddly, reading novels from the 60s and 70s can seem less odd than reading those from the 80s and 90s, with references to cassettes and videos.

Image: gillian-cross.co.uk

Chartbreak by Gillian Cross is a case in point. First published in 1986, it is the story of Janis Finch, about to leave school, living with her mum and mum's boyfriend, fed up of school and of her life in Birmingham. After a row with the boyfriend, she runs out of the house in a temper and ends up at a cafe near the motorway. As she's eking out her coffee, avoiding going home, a group of young men come into the cafe, and sit near her. They are the band Kelp, and the charismatic but confrontational singer Christie provokes Janis into singing. Pretty soon she has run away from home to South London to join the band, and her identity as Finch is born. However, Christie's controlling nature and charisma both threatens and attracts Janis. Is it love or hate that she feels for him? and can she continue to assert herself in the face of it?

I loved this book, and despite the outdated references, and I think older children/ younger teenagers would too. Janis/ Finch is a great character, and the descriptions of the excitement and emotion that music creates both in listener and performer are really believable. I like the fact that Janis is emphatically not a pretty girl, but supremely talented, and as someone who has sung and hung out with bands, the portrayal of the band is believable. They are a hard working, up and coming band at the beginning of the book, playing awful support slots in grotty clubs, sound checking, setting up and taking down themselves, and it is Christie's drive and perfectionism, while frustrating, that gets them on the road to fame. 

Image: girlsheartbooks.com

I have written about Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes and The Growing Summer, but I think that Apple Bough (also known as Travelling Shoes- You've Got Mail has a lot to answer for!) is well worth revisiting. Three of the four Forum children are talented: Ethel as a dancer, Wolfgang as an actor and pop composer, but Sebastian is a very gifted violinist, and the family are touring the world with him. Myra, the oldest Forum child, is not talented, but is a loving sister and an ally of Miss Popple, the governess hired to teach them, since Sebastian's music career means that he can't go to school. When Ettie and Wolf decide that the time has come for them to assert themselves and pursue their own talents, it is Myra who finds a way for them to stay in London instead of travelling with Sebastian and their parents, who are totally oblivious that the children have tired of touring. Myra's love of their old house, Apple Bough, is eventually the inspiration for the family to find a permanent home.

Noel Streatfeild was an actress before she became a novelist, and I think that she portrays the realities of a career in performance for children very well: the hard work and dedication, but also the boredom, waiting around and sacrifices needed. The reader is often told that Sebastian is not considered a child by the other musicians he works with while playing, but outside music he is, if anything, quite young for his age.

Streatfeild fans will be glad to know that Madame Fidolia, the head teacher of the stage school attended by Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil, appears in this novel.

Sadly both books are out of print, but are readily available from online stores. Chartbreak is most suited to children 11+, and Apple Bough for 8+.

The title of this post comes from Sly and the Family Stone's Dance to the Music, a song which perfectly expresses the joy of listening to music!

Monday, 1 October 2012

Review: Operation Bunny by Sally Gardner

Image: amazon.co.uk

I'm a big fan on Sally Gardner, author of I, Coriander and many other fantastic picture books and novels for children. Her books are inventive and often use fairy tale with powerful effect.

Operation Bunny starts with the discovery of a baby in a hatbox at Stansted Airport in Essex, just outside London. The little girl is named Emily Vole and is adopted by the narcissistic Daisy Dashwood and her husband Ronald. Emily is treated more like a doll than a child until Daisy has triplets of her own, at which point 5 year old Emily is moved from her opulent pink bedroom to sleep on the ironing board in the laundry room and forced to become a servant, looking after the house and babies.

Emily's life would be very miserable if she wasn't befriended by Miss String, the next door neighbour much despised by the Dashwoods, and her giant talking cat. Before long Emily discovers that she has inherited a magical shop and must defeat a fairy-hating witch whose magic lamp turns humans into pink bunnies, with the help from the cat, a fairy policeman and a grumpy detective called Buster.

In the press release from Orion, this enchanting book is compared to Roald Dahl. I'd say that apart from the Dashwoods, who are similar to the Wormwoods in Matilda, it reminds me more of Eva Ibbotson's books for younger readers. I loved it, and can't wait for the next one! It would be devoured by 7+ as an independent read, and 6+ as a bed time story.

My one quibble is that I felt the authorial disapproval of the Dashwoods very strongly (although Daisy does get to redeem herself) and it makes me a little uncomfortable in the way that Dahl's disapproval of "common" parents does. However, the Cinderella aspects of the story clearly need a weak father and unkind mother, and the pantomime tone makes it funny.

I am very grateful to the publishers for sending me this lovely book, but the review is my honest opinion.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Review: Ante's Inferno by Griselda Heppel

Image: femalefirst.co.uk

12 year old Ante has joined Northwell School on a music scholarship, where she discovers an old friend from Primary school, Florence. However, Florence and her friends seem to be going out of their way to be unkind to her, and one lunchtime they are chasing Ante through school to get her back for standing up to them. Ante ducks into the school hall and up into the organ loft. But Florence, following her up the stairs, lunges for Ante. There is a crack, and they both fall over the balcony.

When they come through, there is a boy wearing odd looking clothes nearby. His name is Gil, and he leads them down a dark corridor to the Underworld. Why are they there? How can they get back to Northwell? And why is Florence so convinced that Ante has stolen something from her?

I absolutely loved this gripping novel. Peopled with figures from classical mythology and following the structure of Dante's Inferno, with Gil (who has learnt stories from the classics) leading Ante and Florence in the way that Virgil leads Dante through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, it is an exciting, interesting read. It is not necessary to be familiar with either Dante or classical mythology, as Gil has to explain the stories to Ante and Florence, but readers who are familiar with Percy Jackson will be familiar with many of the figures, even if they haven't read Greek myths. A fantastic book for readers 9+. I'm glad to see that Griselda Heppel's next book, The Tragicall History of Henry Fist, is forthcoming. I hope we don't have to wait too long!

Disclosure: I received this book from the author, who kindly sent a review copy. However, this review represents my honest opinion about the book.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Maps and ponies

On Friday, I went to an excellent British Library event celebrating The Hobbit's 75th birthday. One of the speakers was David Brawn, who spoke about Tolkein's illustrations for the book, including his maps, and again I was reminded of my love for stories with an epic journey and maps in books.

Image: amazon.co.uk

Anne McCaffrey is probably best known for her Dragons of Pern series of fantasy novels for young adults and adults, and I had never heard of this novel until I saw it in the wonderful Pulp Fiction Books in Edinburgh. It's the story of Lord Artos (later King Arthur) travelling to France to buy warhorses strong enough to carry a man and armour. Galwyn, a Romanised Celt with a facility with languages, travels with Artos and his band to France to help to translate. Galwyn's pony is the only one that stops the most valuable horse from injuring the other horses and men, so he gains a privileged position, more so when he learns the developing trade of the farrier, and this puts Galwyn, Artos and the horses in danger.

This was a great read, combining horses, a "quest" and convincing evocation of history, and a useful map of Galwyn's journey with Roman names for British towns. I really enjoyed it. However, the climactic scene (much like in the Hobbit!) Galwyn is injured and takes no part in, which for me is a little less than satisfactory. However, I highly recommend it for anyone 10+ who loves horses.

Image: amazon.co.uk


Robin McKinley's  The Blue Sword, winner of the 1983 Newberry Honor award, is the story of Anghared (Harry) Crewe, an orphan in a period that feels like 19th Century. In a sort of fantasy version of colonial India (Daria) Harry does not fit in. She is not a dainty, demure girl; she is a strapping young woman who loves riding and is unfashionably enthusiastic about the history and culture of Daria and the part of the country called Damar, which is uncolonised.  One evening the army station where Harry is living is visited by Corlath, leader of the Hillfolk (a tribe of Damarians) warning of an impending invasion from the North, a land of evil magic. Corlath spots Harry, and feels that her destiny is linked to the future Damar, so he kidnaps her.

As is the way in much epic fantasy, Harry's failings as a colonial miss are advantages for life with the Hillfolk- she is strong, brave, a good horsewoman and quick to learn sword fighting. She discovers that she has a "kelar" (magical second sight linked to Corlath's royal bloodline) and in a vision sees Lady Aerin, an ancestor of the royal family. She enters a tournament to become a Kings' Rider, succeeds and becomes Harimad-Sol. Her destiny is linked to the future of Damar in ways she could never have foreseen.

I enjoyed this book greatly, although there are some implications of the colonial theme which now (after two Gulf wars and other post-colonial legacy in the Indian subcontinent) seem rather uncomfortable. Personally I found the journey of Harry and Corlath rather hard to visualise; I would have liked to have had a map to follow. Having said that, I'm sure I'd have loved this book as an 11 year old, and would have loved the horsey aspects as well as the sword fighting and magic.

Sadly it seems that both these books are out of print, but there are plenty of second hand copies on most of the common second hand book sites. 

Monday, 10 September 2012

Warrior Scarlet by Rosemary Sutcliff

Image: bookdepository.co.uk

This month's theme from Playing by the Book's "I'm looking for a book about..." carnival is disability. Of course, it is a very appropriate theme given the wonderful closing ceremony of the awe-inspiring Paralympics was yesterday. I am very proud that my city has been the host to this and the Olympics, and has welcomed athletes and visitors from all over the world with the humour and creativity our beautiful city is famous for.

When Zoe announced that this month's theme would be disability, I immediately thought of Rosemary Sutcliff's  Warrior Scarlet. It is the story of Bronze Age Drem, who is 9 at the start of the novel. He lives with his mother, brother, grandfather and his foster sister Brai in a village on the South Downs. Drem is expecting to join the Boy's House, train as a warrior and earn his Warrior Scarlet cloak by killing a wolf. However, Drem has been born with a withered right arm. Overhearing his grandfather's doubts about his ability to kill the wolf and fully become a man, Drem runs away, but meets Talore the one handed hunter who convinces him that if he use a bow and arrow, he must learn to throw a spear so well that others forget that he doesn't do so by choice:
"If the thing is worth the fight, fight for it... There are ways- ways round, and ways through, and ways over"
Drem does indeed learn to throw a spear, to ride and to fight, and he joins the boys' house. However, his path to manhood and his warrior scarlet is not straight forward or easy, and he does indeed both fight for it and find ways round, through and over.

I am a huge Rosemary Sutcliff fan. Her books lyrically and vividly evoke history, and I would certainly credit them with my love of visiting historical sites. Her research was impeccable, as The Independent noted in her obituary in 1992. She contracted a form of rheumatoid arthritis as a child and used a wheelchair for much of her adult life. She wrote sensitively about disability in several of her novels, both from the point of view of her characters and partly about the often cruel behaviour towards disability in the societies she wrote about.

Warrior Scarlet is perhaps my favourite of her novels. I love that Drem's character is influenced by his disability, but it is not informed by it. In many children's books, a period of disability is a test that characters must go through in order to become better people (such as Katy in What Katy Did or Deenie in Deenie) or disabled characters have special powers (Percy Jackson in Rick Riordan's novels who has dyslexia and ADHD but is the son of a God), but for Drem, his disability is something that he must learn to manage in order to become a functioning part of his society. The adjustments that he makes and ultimately the concessions that his tribe makes allows him to do this, and after all, isn't that what the able-bodied world should be doing with people with disabilities? Shouldn't that be our Paralympic legacy?


Monday, 20 August 2012

Illustrated year 6 and 7- two sad books



I have realised that I am two reviews behind in the illustrated year challenge, so I am combining two books with a linked theme.

Image: hive.co.uk

Michael Rosen's Sad Book was written in the aftermath of the former Children's Laureate losing his 19 year old son Eddie to meningitis. It is a beautiful and heartbreaking evocation of grief and bereavement, demonstrating that we may be feeling sad while not showing it; that sometimes unhappiness may come out in anger and destructiveness as well as in tears. Quentin Blake's illustrations truly are a visual realisation of Rosen's words. This is a fantastic book; one I would urge teachers and parents to buy. In my 20 years of teaching, there was never a year that I did not have a class where at least one child was affected by loss- of a grand parent, parent, sibling, once of the head teacher of the very small village school I was teaching in, and once, horribly, of a child in my class killed in a road accident. If nothing else, the death of a loved family pet can be a devastating loss to a child, realising sometimes for the first time that parents and medicine really cannot do anything to halt the inevitability of death. I wish I had had this book when I was still teaching in the classroom. I recommend this for 6+, to be read with an adult. 

Image: hive.co.uk

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, illustrated by Jim Kay, is deservedly a joint winner of the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway awards  for the best children's book and best illustrated book in June 2012. The novel is inspired by an idea from the late, great Siobhan Dowd, who herself won the Carnegie posthumously for her novel Bog Child

13 year old Conor has been having nightmares about a monster. One night he wakes up at 12:07 and hears a voice calling him from the garden. He looks out of the window and sees a monster; a huge creature of human shape, but made of branches, twigs and leaves, like the yew tree in the nearby churchyard. The creature insists that he has been summoned, and that he will tell Conor a story, in return for which Conor will tell him about his nightmare.

Conor's mother, we learn, has terminal cancer, but he cannot accept this. His parents are no longer together; his dad is living in the US with his new wife and baby. His grandmother is a busy professional woman, and is also processing her own grief at the imminent loss of her daughter. Conor also has problems at school. The monster's intervention (always at 12:07) in these problems initially seem to make things worse, but ultimately Conor comes to realise that he must accept the inevitable and say goodbye to his mother.

Again, Ness demonstrates that grief and hurt do not make us nicer people, as Victorian storybooks would have readers believe. Conor's fear and despair at losing his mother makes him behave quite cruelly to his friend, to being destructive to both objects and to people. Ultimately, the monster's stories, elliptical and baffling as they seem, make greater sense to him than teachers' well meaning platitudes.

Jim Kay's black and white illustrations are incredibly atmostpheric. He describes here  sitting in the back of the car driving through the countryside as night fell, and the way that familiar objects can seem sinister as they lose definition. The monster, in particular, is perfectly realised; anyone who has hurried down a dark lane between streetlights or by torchlight in the winter will recognise jumping at what seems to be monsters out of the corner of one's eye; on closer inspection they are bushes, or dustbins.

This wonderful book is highly recommended for confident readers of 9+. It is written in straight forward, clear prose, but is no less profound for that.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

School daze

This post is part of Playing By The Book's I'm Looking For A Book About... feature. Do please have a look at the other posts about going back to school, or starting school! If you're a teacher, a parent, or a student teacher, you'll be introduced to some fabulous books to inspire you.

Image: waterstones.com

Flora Fox is disgusted. Her parents are going to Italy for three months to help her grandmother, who has fallen and broken her leg, and after a disastrous summer holiday at Casa Boffi, have decided to send their daughter to a progressive boarding school instead of taking her with them. Furious, Flora is on the train when she falls asleep, and seems to hear voices chanting a strange rhyme. When she awakes, she is wearing an uncomfortable school clothes, including enormous knickers (of course Penrice Hall has no uniforms), and her mobile phone, iPod and laptop are all gone. She discovers that she has been switched with another girl called Flora, summoned by three St Winifred's schoolgirls from 1935: sweet but dim Dulcie, bright Pogo and charismatic but spoilt Pete. The girls have found a spell book in a mysterious closed room, and this is the first successful spell they've tried. Flora must survive mean girl Consuela Carver, fearsome Latin teacher Miss Harbottle and huge knickers, and work out how she can get back to the 21st century.

I really enjoyed this book. I've written before about why I love school stories, particularly the Chalet School, and Beswitched has all the best elements: the emphasis on character development, the opportunities for girls to be heroic, a rescue and resolution coming through conflict.  I particularly liked that Flora is not a particularly admirable protagonist to begin with, but the changes in her character don't come through punishment, as poor Eustacia from the Chalet School books, but recognising the unattractive aspects of her character in Consuela and Pete, and her influence on their characters has some unexpected outcomes. It is also a very funny book.

It would be a great book to read with children before they start a new school; Flora makes some mistakes in a strange new situation, but she survives and ultimately triumphs. Highly recommended to 8+, and to fans of time slip novels, particularly Penelope Farmer's Charlotte Sometimes. One word of warning- there are some minor swears (bloody, damn and bollocks) which are totally in keeping with Flora's character and development, but you may want to make this a discussion point about the time and place for such language with children if you're reading it with them, or decide on the appropriate age for this book accordingly.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Review- Leopard Adventure

I am delighted that Puffin Books very kindly sent me a review copy of Leopard Adventure. However, this blog post reflects my honest opinion of the book.

Image: puffin.co.uk

As a child, I loved Willard Price's Adventure books about Hal and Roger Hunt, who travelled the world collecting animals for their father's zoo while escaping from danger in exotic locations, so I was delighted to hear that the estate of Willard Price has commissioned Anthony McGowan to write four new books in the series.

12 year old Amazon Hunt is the daughter of Roger Hunt. At the beginning of Leopard Adventure, she is spending her summer holiday at her boarding school as her parents are on a conservation trip. Returning late to school after watching badgers in a wood, she is saved from a fall when climbing into her dormitory by her 13 year old cousin, Frazer, who informs her that she is to go with him and Dr Drexler from her uncle Hal's conservation organisation TRACKS in Long Island and to meet her parents there.

At the TRACKS headquarters, Amazon learns that she and Frazer are to form part of the conservation team to rescue a rare Amur leopard and her cubs from a threatening forest fire in Russia. Amazon and Frazer are thrilled to travel there, but Amazon hears some alarming news- her parents haven't arrived in Long Island.

In Russia, Amazon, Frazer and the rest of the TRACKS team head into the forest with their tribal guide and his grandson, but Frazer causes an accident leading them to lose their satellite phones. So, isolated from the adults, the children must survive encounters with wildlife, hostile terrains and, ultimately, the most dangerous foe- humans with their own agenda- to rescue the leopards and return home.

I really enjoyed this book. I loved learning about the leopard and the Russian forests, and the pace of the plot meant that the exposition was nicely balanced with action. The story has a satisfying conclusion, but there are enough cliff hangers to make the reader long for the next book in the series, Shark Adventure (due January 2013) to find out more about TRACKS, the falling out between Hal and Roger and what has happened to Amazon's parents. Highly recommended for readers 9+, though confident readers of 8+  would enjoy it, or enjoy having it read to them.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Guest Blog: Olympic Reading by Tom Palmer


 I'm delighted to have a guest post from Tom Palmer, author of great thrillers for older readers and adventures for younger, based around football and rugby. Tom has fantastic resources on his website for teachers, parents and children, and wrote a great free story based on Euro 2012 football championship. He is passionate about getting children and families excited about reading. Do check out the Free Reads section of his website! Thank you, Tom!

Free Olympic football wall chart from coventry2012.blogspot.co.uk

The Olympics is a great opportunity to get children reading for pleasure. And there is no better time for the Games to be taking place than during the school summer holidays.
Parents know that children’s writing and reading skills can slip back during the six week break in July and August.
 If an Olympic athlete was to stop training for six weeks, it would take them months to get back to their previous fitness and skill levels.
The same can be argued for children. Research has shown that if you keep children interested in literacy during the summer, over their whole school career they can be as much as three years ahead of their peers who did not.*
I’ve put together some tips for parents who want to use the Olympics to keep their children reading for pleasure. I hope it helps.
One. Read about the Olympics yourselves. If your children see you reading about something, they are more likely to read about it too. Find bits you think they’ll be interested in and draw them in.

Two. Leave newspapers, magazines and books about the Olympics around the house. Perhaps on the sofa or wherever you are going to be watching the games. Charts. Lists. Pictures. Anything that you think will attract their attention.

Three. Deliver an Olympic Games newspaper supplement or magazines to your child’s bedroom door on the morning of a big competition. Try and find a copy of the children’s newspaper, First News, which is bound to feature the Olympics strongly.

Four. Print off interesting articles/profiles/wall charts and stick them up around the house. On the fridge. In the toilet. On their bedroom wall.

Five. Go to your local library, bookshop or newsagents with your children and browse the Olympics reading sections that are now stuffed with materials. Let your child choose something to read about the games. There is some really good non-fiction around, from biographies of sporting greats to guidebooks to the games aimed at kids.

Six. Have a look at the new Olympic fiction by authors like Owen Slot, Robert Rigby and others. It is easy to find in bookshops, libraries and online at the moment. If your children are still happy to, read it with them at bedtime in chunks.

Seven. Create some kind of prediction game in your household where you all have to guess who is going to win a game, competition or race. Encourage the children to read the Olympic pull-outs from newspapers, that should give them an idea of who the favourites are. Keep a tally throughout the Games to see who wins. Provide a prize.

Eight. Find out if your local library is doing any Olympic events. Many are. Author visits, activity days and other such things are planned nationwide. Visit your council website, find the libraries link and they should have a list of their summer activities. There will probably be summer craft activities too.

Nine. Find a good website about the Olympics and have it as your home page if you have a computer at home. There is lots of excellent journalism on the internet about the Olympics.

Ten. Join the Summer Reading Challenge, a six-book reading quest for children in libraries throughout the UK, where children can earn bronze, silver and gold stickers for reading books over the summer. More info at www.summerreadingchallenge.org.uk. While you are there look at the sports section. Has one sport in particular excited your child? If so, libraries have great sections of ‘How to Play’ books on their shelves.

I hope some of this helps. If it does and your children like football, there are lots of free football literacy activities and free stories on my website at www.tompalmer.co.uk. Check out the Free Reads and Schools & Library sections.

Tom Palmer writes sports fiction for Puffin Books, HarperCollins and Barrington Stoke. Tom is running 28 Olympic reading events in libraries during the summer across England. Find out where and when at his blog www.footballdetective.blogspot.com.  You’ll be very welcome.
* Sadly I cannot find the references for that research, so you’ll just have to take my word for that.




Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Review: Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian

Image: hive.co.uk

Eoin Colfer's  latest (and probably last) book in his highly successful Artemis Fowl series was published on 10th July. Artemis's arch nemesis, evil pixie Opal Koboi, has a plan to escape from custody, overthrow humanity and rule as fairy queen. At Fowl Manor, a portal to the underground fairy world, she raises the spirits of fallen fairy warriors, which possess the bodies of long-dead pirates, rabbits, dogs- and even Artemis's four year old twin brothers, Myles and Beckett, and Juliet, the sister of Butler, his chauffeur and bodyguard. Artemis, Butler and his friends from the fairy realm, Captain Holly Short and Foaly the centaur technician, are now on a mission to defeat Opal and save humanity. But will one of them have to make the ultimate sacrifice?

I enjoyed this book. It has been interesting to follow Artemis's character as he has developed from a teenage arch criminal to a positive character- and I do see why Colfer feels he can go no further. It might be interesting to follow Juliet, Myles and Beckett, possibly, if he didn't want to leave the characters behind totally. All in all, a satisfying end to a fantastic series. The book trailer is on YouTube here.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Guest Post- Juliette Harrisson Review: The Case of the Good-Looking Corpse, by Caroline Lawrence


I am delighted to have a guest post from Juliette Harrisson from the wonderful Pop Classics, reviewing the second in Caroline Lawrence's Western Mysteries. Thank you so much, Juliette!

This book was received as a review copy from the author, but the review represents my honest opinion.

Image: waterstones.com

Depending on how many British friends you have, you might not be aware of this, but here in Blighty we are currently experiencing what must be one of the worst summers in living memory. We’ve had bad summers before, but this one is something special. As I write, I have the heating on and I’m wearing a winter jumper.

The reason I’m sharing our national pastime (talking about the weather) with all of you is that one of the greatest comforts in such a situation is being able to pick up a book and pretend to be somewhere else entirely – specifically, somewhere much, much warmer. I was delighted, then, to receive a copy of the second book in Caroline Lawrence’s series of western-themed detective stories for children, The P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries. The series has been rebranded from its original title, The Western Mysteries, presumably to emphasise the importance of the central character, a slightly mysterious half-Indian 12-year-old with an autistic spectrum disorder. The story takes place in the thin air and hot sand of Virginia City, expertly described and including a handy map for those of us who’ve never been closer to the Wild West than New York.

One of the most fun things about this series is the element of wish-fulfilment its target audience. P.K., having acquired plenty of money at the end of the first book, lives alone and works as a private eye, going to saloons (to drink soft drinks), helping out poker players and meeting future famous authors. Although several adult characters comment on this situation, the lack of social workers and general lawlessness means they can’t do much about it. I remember how much I enjoyed reading stories about children having to survive on their own, or being allowed to go to bars, or live alone, or work for a living when I was 10-12 years old, and this aspect of the story will be great fun for young readers. The narrative also provides solid and plausible reasons for why the police are not investigating the murder P.K. is hired to solve, which sadly ring all too true.

Much of the story here revolves around the eclectic collection of people living in Virginia City in this period, and their different accents and dialects. The accents are wonderfully written. English accents are harder for me to distinguish because I am English and they just read like normal speech, but Irish and Southern dialects are beautifully rendered through grammar and vocabulary, as well as the usual spelling alterations to indicate the accent. I confess, I’m not sure I’d have followed the black Southern accent quite so well if I hadn’t happened to be watching DVDs set in Louisiana earlier in the week, but young British readers will easily recognise the French, German and Irish accents and the older ones may enjoy having a go at the Southern ones. (I remember how much I enjoyed delivering dramatic line-readings of To Kill a Mockingbird in school aged about 15, in full-on fake Southern accent. I loved playing with that accent!).

I think this series perhaps skews just a little older than The Roman Mysteries (though they had their fair share of danger and mature themes as well). The books are middle-grade, but as the title indicates, they are probably more suitable for the higher end of that age-range. There are some relatively gruesome descriptions of definitely not good-looking corpses, descriptions of Civil Wars battles, plot points built around the profession of Soiled Doves (though this profession is always alluded to rather than described in detail) and several gunfights. In some ways, this is no different to the fantasy novels beloved of children across the world, in which the hero fights with a magic wand or a sword. I remember re-reading Prince Caspian and being mildly shocked to discover a fairly detailed description of Peter Pevensie hacking a man’s legs off and then chopping off his head with the backswing, which apparently didn’t bother me at all at six years old. But there is something more immediate about guns that might frighten some younger children.

I’ve learned so much about American history from reading these books, and in a thoroughly enjoyable way. This second volume is exciting, entertaining and intriguing (OK, I confess, I guessed who the murderer was as soon as he appeared. But I didn’t guess his motivation). I especially enjoyed the odd hint or reference to P.K.’s Indian background – fingers crossed for a future volume that explores this side of Glares From a Bush’s heritage. In the meantime, this one comes highly recommended.

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Grown up books for children's literature lovers

Most of my reading is children's and young adult literature, mostly fantasy and SF. However, I do read literature for grown ups too! So, here are some suggestions for books that in my opinion have the strong narrative and vivid characterisation I love in literature for young people.
Image: hive.co.uk

If you love Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia, then Lev Grossman's The Magicians may be for you. New York high school senior Quentin Coldwater is a gifted student, but is miserable, still obsessed with a series of English children's fantasy novels about a magical land called Fillory and infatuated with his best friend's girlfriend, Julia. Quentin and his best friend, James, arrive at the venue of their Princeton interview only to find the interviewer dead. A paramedic gives him an envelope: in it is the manuscript for a final, unpublished Fillory novel. On his way home, chasing a page of the manuscript, Quentin finds himself at Brakebills, a very private, very secret university for magicians, where he learns magic alongside having the other sort of education that students have: in sex, alcohol, friendship, betrayal and an insufferable sense of superiority. Upon graduation, Quentin and his friends discover the challenge of living with their gifts: if you are able to obtain by magic anything you need (a cool New York apartment, money from the cash point whenever you need it, admittance to all the best bars and clubs) then what do you do to fill your hours? Then a former Brakebills student arrives, with some unbelievable news: Fillory is real, and they can travel there. This is a wonderful mixture of Harry Potter, Narnia and Donna Tartt's The Secret History. I found it an enjoyable, engrossing read. You can hear an interview with Lev Grossman about the book on the wonderful Wisconsin Public Radio programme To The Best Of Our Knowledge here. I thoroughly recommend subscribing to podcasts of this fantastic show.

Image: sarahhallauthor.com

If you enjoyed Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, then you may enjoy Sarah Hall's The Carhullan Army. It is Britain in the near future. After catastrophic floods, much of the country is under water. There is a fuel crisis, the country is committed to costly wars overseas and reliant on relief supplies from the USA. A repressive government, the Authority, has forced people to live in closely monitored urban areas, to hand in all weapons, and women are compulsorily fitted with contraceptive devices. The story is narrated by a woman known only as Sister, and the narrative is her confession from a prison cell. Sister tells how she leaves her husband and home in the Cumbrian town of Rith, and journeys to a remote farm in the fells to join a group of women living outside the law. The group is led by a charismatic woman called Jackie, and as Sister's story progresses, the reader is left to wonder whether this is a group, a commune or a cult? and is Jackie a rebel or a cult leader? and ultimately, is she any better than the Authority? I found this a thought-provoking read, by no means without flaws: I found the ending a little unsatisfying- but then, that is partly what makes it troubling. You can hear Sarah Hall talking about it on the BBC book club here.
image: hive.co.uk

If you enjoyed Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go, then you may enjoy Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker. Set in a post-apocalyptic Kent, it is the story of Riddley, who has just turned 12- the age of maturity in Riddley's world. Shortly after Riddley's naming day, three significant things happen: his father dies in a work accident, a wild dog seems to willingly die on Riddley's spear, and when the travelling puppet show telling a mix of the story of St Eustace (Eusa), the history of the nuclear catastrophe and government propaganda arrives in Riddley's settlement, he discovers that the government of Inland (England) is on the verge of rediscovering the technology that could create nuclear fission. Then Riddley finds a Punch puppet in the landfill site he is mining, and refuses to give it up. He is forced to run from the authorities, through Kent, accompanied by the pack of dogs whose leader he has killed. Told in Riddley's voice, in the language of a people who are "post literate", this is an astonishing book. I'm now on (I think) my fourth copy, since nobody I have loaned it to has ever returned it! You can hear Russell Hoban talking about the book to the Guardian book club audience here.