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 March 2012

The New Mistress At The Chalet School by Elinor M Brent-Dyer


This is part of the Girls' Own blog carnival. Please do check out Did You Ever Stop To Think and Forget To Start Again to see what other bloggers have written about!


I adore the Chalet School series for many reasons. It is a long running series- the first book, The School At The Chalet, was published in 1925; the final one, Prefects Of The Chalet School, in 1970. The New Mistress At The Chalet School is a later book, published in 1957, when the school is based in Switzerland post- World War II.

One of the features I have always enjoyed about the books is that while there is always a protagonist (Joey Bettany in the earlier books, a variety of characters including Daisy Venables and Bride Bettany in novels set in Guernsey and Wales during and immediately post World War Two and Mary-Lou Trelawney in many of the Switzerland ones) there are often multiple points of view. In New House at the Chalet School (1935) this included an unsympathetic new Matron. However New Mistress is in my experience unique, as the protagonist is a teacher, although there are multiple points of view.

Kathie Ferrars has just completed her degree, and her post at the Chalet School is her first teaching job. Her own school was a day school rather than a boarding school, so she is unprepared for the different staff- pupil relationship of boarding school life. She seems a little young for her age, still very reliant on the approval of her uncle and aunt who brought her up; in the first chapter she kneels on the carpet with her head in her aunt's lap (frequently an attitude of repentance of the school girls in Chalet School novels), and her aunt advises her that she needs to maintain her dignity with the girls. We are told at the end of chapter 1 that this advice is a source of some trouble for Kathie in the future (Brent-Dyer does like a foreshadowing authorial voice!)

The journey to the Chalet School (involving trans- European train travel) is mostly explained through food- American chocolates, French patisserie, breakfast in Basle including Swiss jam- must have been extremely exciting for readers, as rationing had finished only in the early 50s- my mother read these books well into her teens, and I'm sure this was the case with other readers. Memories of the shortages of cream, sweets, cakes and jam would have been still vivid.

Kathie makes friends among the other teachers, and takes advice on her new class- Inter V, girls who are either too young to be seniors (such as the incredibly fertile Joey's triplet daughers, Len, Con and Margot) or whose academic work is not up to the standard of the girls of their age, such as new girl Yseult Pertwee. All the features of the Chalet School education- tri-lingual in English, French and German, European in outlook, care of the girls' health and physical needs by abandoning the timetable and getting out into the fresh air for climbing, walking and skiing in the right weather- is established through explanation of the routines to Kathie, which felt natural- also making this book a good one to start with if you're not familiar with the series.

Conflict comes very quickly with Mary-Lou Trelawney, a prefect in this book. Mary-Lou is an interesting character. After her arrival in Three Go To The Chalet School when she is 10 Brent-Dyer is clearly enamoured with her informal way of addressing people (we are often assured that it is not "cheek") and her easy- going character, but I find her bumptious and irritating, and find it hard to believe that she would be so un-self aware at 17 or 18, particularly in a school where character is so important. Kathie finds her so to begin with, although after Mary-Lou has saved her from certain death in a crevasse of a glacier, she starts to think differently (as you would!)

Kathie makes other mistakes with discipline, but starts to loosen up after her accident, using her judgement to re-think her punishment of Margot for lighting a sparkler in prep that would have resulted in her missing part of her birthday treat. However she continues to misjudge situations, resulting in new girl Yseult breaking her collar bone in a skiing accident after she tries to take out Mary-Lou, whose  part in the Christmas play she is understudying. While the Chalet School is very forward thinking in many ways, in particular in the thematic approach to the curriculum, with an emphasis on thinking and understanding rather than learning facts by rote, the class conscious comments (for example about Joan Baker's permed hair) and disapproval of any parenting views out of the middle class norm (such as Mrs Pertwee's) are still in evidence (I wrote about this here).

This is a fascinating book. Not one of the most exciting plot-wise, maybe, but the only one I can think of where a teacher's first steps into professional life is depicted in a story for young readers.

Monday, 26 March 2012

May The Odds Be Ever In Your Favour

On Sunday morning, I went to the cinema to watch The Hunger Games. Sunday mornings are great for going to the cinema on your own; I have a shocking concentration span for films and am ridiculously easily distracted. The emptier the cinema is the more likely I will watch the film and follow the plot.

 Image: moviespad.com

I won't say too much about the film in this post: Juliette at Pop Classics writes brilliantly (as always) about it. It differs significantly from the books in some points (as Juliette points out, the complicity of the people of Panem in the continuation of the Hunger Games, and also in the lack of mutant spy animals created by the Capitol to control the population among other aspects) but I think the adaptation was very, very good. 

The book is told in the first person by Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen year old girl living in District 12 (the former Appalachia) in Panem (what remains of the United States of America after an apocalypse). After an unsuccessful uprising 74 years before the events of the book, each district is forced to send a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to fight to the death in a televised battle, the Hunger Games. Katniss volunteers to be District 12's Tribute after her little sister Prim's name is drawn, the first time that she is eligible to be entered into the Reaping, where the tributes' names are drawn from the lottery.

This is a rich, complex book. Suzanne Collins has said that the inspiration came from channel surfing, where she saw coverage of the Iraq war and flicked over to a reality TV show. There are also many parallels with classical myth- Theseus and the Minotaur, where the Athenians are forced to send 14 young men and women to the labyrinth to appease the Minotaur. However I was most struck by the Roman elements: the Roman names of the Capitol- dwellers (Cinna, Seneca, Caesar, Flavius, Coriolanus, Venia, Octavia), the name Capitol, and the Bread (Panem) and Circuses (Hunger Games) approach to controlling the people. 

The inequalities are stark in the book: even in a poor District like District 12, the poorest (like Katniss and her best friend Gale) have a greater chance of being selected than Madge, the mayor's daughter or baker's son Peeta, the male tribute of District 12, as the poorer young people enter their name multiple times into the lottery in exchange for a portion of grain or oil. Katniss explains several times that starvation is not uncommon in the Seam, the poorest quarter of District 12 where she lives.

On the other hand, in the richer Districts, where food is more plentiful, young people have been trained from a young age to fight in the Hunger Games, and they usually win. However, they are not used to hunger, like Katniss and little Rue, the 12 year old tribute from District 11. Katniss's prowess with bows and arrows and snares, from years of illegal hunting to supplement the meagre food her widowed mother can provide, and Rue's experience of climbing to harvest fruit, stands them in good stead.

Peeta is far more aware than Katniss of the need to play up to the Games audience's desire for narrative, but Katniss is also constantly aware of the cameras in the Arena where the Games take place. This makes for an incredibly tense read, I found. This link with our society's obsession with reality TV, fame and celebrity makes this a powerful read.

The film is fantastic, but I recommend the book as well, for readers 10+. Both are gory, but not explicitly so. It might be good to read along with your pre-teen child, to discuss any issues that crop up for them.

The title of this post comes from the slogan said by several officials of the Hunger Games. It reminded me of what gladiators reportedly said before combat: "Hail Caesar, we who are about to die salute you".

The District 12 scenes in the film brought this song to mind: Michelle Shocked's the L&N Don't Stop Here Any More. I think it was because the setting reminded me of the 1930s depression, and because it is the coal mining district.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Review: Brave New Girl by Catherine Johnson

I have been visiting a group of schools in Hackney this half term, supporting student teachers. Having a little time between appointments one day, I popped into the lovely Broadway Bookshop where I saw Catherine Johnson's Brave New Girl.
image: amazon.co.uk


Set in Hackney, this is the story of Seren Campbell Ali, her mum, dad, half brothers and sister in the near future: the run up to the London Olympics. 13 year old Seren in a loveable character, whose well meaning impetuosity gets her into scrapes. Her best friend Keith is making a short film to be shown in the Rio Cinema, Hackney, as part of the Olympics celebrations. The film is based on The Tempest, and Seren is to play the part of Miranda, whose island is the estate where Seren and Keith live (hence the title of the book, based on Shakespeare's phrase "this brave new world"). Seren is loyal and loving to her friends and family, leading her to embarrass her sister in front of the school heart throb, to falling out with a friend and having a humiliating photo of herself posted on a social networking site; will the film make everything right with her family and friends?

The characters and setting felt very real to me. Having taught for many years in North London, I was delighted to see a protagonist with Turkish heritage; as I have said before, it is very powerful as a reader to see yourself represented in your reading. The Hackney setting is well defined; travelling as I do by bus, I found myself spotting locations in the book, and trying to plot Seren's bus driver mum's route.

It is a very funny book, as well as being touching and warm. It would appeal I think not just to North East London readers, but to anyone who has been a sibling, a friend, a teenager... in short to everyone! I think that this would appeal most to 11+ readers. I loved it, and now have Catherine Johnson's A Nest of Vipers to read: this seems a very different book; it's a historical novel set in 18th Century London.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Cats and More Cats

A reminder: the Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress giveaway ends on 19th March!

I am a cat lover. My family has always had cats, and I have a lovely, rather elderly cat called Spike.
Here he is doing what he does best: sleeping on the back of the sofa.

Recently I have read three books about cats. I briefly met Tom McLaughlin at the Big Green Bookshop where he was doing an event for the children. A group of small children were waiting with rapt attention for him, so I got hold of a signed copy of The Diabolical Mr Tiddles. It is wonderful.

Image: amazon.co.uk

Harry longs for a cat, and when he finally gets his heart's desire, he names his new friend Mr Tiddles. He loves his pet and pampers him, giving him delicious food, attending to his comfort and entertaining him. Mr Tiddles wants to repay Harry's care, so starts bringing him increasingly extravagant presents, including cake, a train set, a rock star guitar, a grand piano and finally a horse! Harry becomes suspicious, and follows Mr Tiddles through the town. I can imagine the double page illustration of the town with Mr Tiddles' route in a dotted red line being a favourite with young readers. The route takes in a museum, a space centre and even a Western ranch! - which begins to give us a clue where these presents come from... And we finally catch up with Mr Tiddles outside a very important building, where an important person helps to resolve the story. I urge you to make sure you look at the end paper of this lovely picture book; it really made me giggle. The illustrations are incredibly detailed, with a lovely old fashioned cartoon quality without being grotesque. Highly recommended for 3+.

Image: amazon.co.uk

Comedian Natalie Haynes' first novel for children, The Great Escape, will not be her last I hope. 12 year old Millie is rather fed up. Her dad has just lost his job as a computer programmer, and is helping his friend out with his window cleaning business. Millie goes along with them to wash the windows of a laboratory to avoid being looked after by a nosy neighbour, and is astonished to see a cat escaping from the lab. She is even more astonished when the cat talks to her. It appears that the lab has been fitting the cats with voice boxes, and Millie, her friend Jake and his pre-teen hacker brother Ben must carry out the detective work to find out why, stop the testing and rescue the cats. Max the cat is suitably sardonic, and the book is very funny. While Natalie Haynes clearly has strong opinions about animal testing (the book won an award from animal rights charity PETA) this is not a polemic, but a witty, exciting adventure mystery. It would be a great read for 9+. This book does seem to be out of print, but is widely available from online stores.

Image: penguin.co.uk

I don't think I have ever had as many positive tweets about a book as I have about Barbara Sleigh's Carbonel. First published in 1955, it is the story of Rosemary, who lives with her widowed mother in a boarding house. They don't have much money, and Rosemary's mother supplements her pension by taking in sewing. During the summer holidays, while her mother is sewing at the house of the wealthy Mrs Pendlebury Parker, Rosemary decides to set herself up as a cleaner to help out financially.  Because she knows she won't be able to take one out of the house, she buys a broom from an untidy looking woman in a market. She buys a cat from the same woman, and is shocked to discover that not only is he a talking cat, but the Prince of Cats, enchanted by the untidy woman- Mrs Cantrip, a witch. Rosemary has broken part of the enchantment, but not all of it, and she and Mrs Pendlebury Parker's nephew, John, set out to break it.

This is still a great read. Part of the joy of the book is the freedom that 1950s children had: Rosemary and John buy and cook sausages on a gas ring and take the bus to a local cathedral town to find Mrs Cantrip's cauldron, as well as other unsupervised adventures. Sleigh's descriptions are also a joy; she describes Rosemary's plaits as flapping like "the blades of an old pair of scissors" as she hops up the kerb. As @mokuska reminded me, Carbonel is in the great tradition of grumpy magical helpers, like E. Nesbit's Psammead, and he reminded me of the magical characters of another favourite mid-20th century children's fantasy writers, Elisabeth Beresford. I wrote about her here.

This novel was followed by two more about Carbonel: The Kingdom of Carbonel and Carbonel and Calidor. Sadly they seem to be out of print but are listed at a reasonable price in the usual online shops. I have read Carbonel aloud to children of 7+, and confident readers of that age and above would enjoy reading it themselves.




Sunday, 11 March 2012

Guest Post: Judith Kerr's Out of Hitler's Time by Niamh Arthur

Today I have a guest post from Niamh Arthur, aged 10. She is writing about Judith Kerr's trilogy, Out of Hitler's Time.



Image: borders.com.au


When Hitler stole Pink Rabbit is one of my favourite books.  Anna is a 9-year-old girl in 1930s Germany.  She soon has to move away because her Jewish family think that Hitler will win the elections.  They go through many countries.  I like this book as it shows how her life would have been – frustrating, scary and secret.

Image: amazon.co.uk

Bombs on Aunt Dainty is the second book in the trilogy.  Anna now lives in London but her family cannot afford the hotel, so Anna has to get a job.  She goes to secretarial school, but soon has to move to the countryside.  This book is very good at explaining how terrifying and sleepless living through the blitz would have felt.

Image: harpercollins.co.uk

A Small Person Far Away is the final book in the series, it takes place after the war.  Anna’s mum is ill with pneumonia in Berlin, so she has to leave London, her husband, and her new job.  This book is set out differently to the other books as it is like a diary written in the third person. The chapters are different days which makes some very big chapters.  I did not like the way it was set out.  There were a few places where it would have been better to have split it into new chapters.
Despite that, this is my favourite series of books because her description of how Anna feels is amazing and the plot is very well thought about.

Thank you Niamh! This is a wonderful guest post. I haven't read A Small Person Far Away but you have convinced me to look out for it. The BBC's amazing Desert Island Discs archive includes a programme featuring Judith Kerr, which can be found here. She reflects on her own childhood, which was the inspiration for this trilogy.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Guest Post: Ravana, the Ultimate Bad Guy by Sarwat Chadda

I am delighted that Sarwat Chadda, author of the fabulous Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress, has agreed to write a guest post about the ultimate bad guy, Ravana. I wrote about it here


Image: students.ou.edu


Ravana is the biggest villain of Indian mythology. He’s Satan, he’s Loki, he’s Hades all rolled into one. I love him.
                Indian mythology is quite unlike what’s available in the West. The boundaries between good and evil, morality, are bound by the notions of dharma, of right living. A warrior’s dharma is to kill his enemies so can achieved Heaven through war, through committing what we would view as evil deeds. One of the greatest epics of India, the Mahabharata, has a central moment when the hero Arjuna faces his enemy, made up of his own kin. Before him are cousins and friends and grand-parents that he must slay and he hesitates. It is only when his charioteer, the god Krishna, explains the nature of dharma does he resolve to fight.
                So it is with Ravana. It is his destiny to fight, to terrorise and to make war. And he relishes it. There is no doubt, not angsty whining about how unfair the world is. He seizes the world and shakes it by the throat. He has all the ambition and blood-lust and ruthlessness of any Roman emperor. He is villain writ large, writ epic.
                I love the larger than life villains because their excesses, their love of chaos, we enjoy, albeit perhaps with a frown of disapproval while secretly wishing we could be so free. They allow us, humanity, to indulge in our darkest dreams.Who wouldn’t want to be Dracula, to have power over death itself? Or the grandeur of Darth Vader? The Devil has the best tunes and the best lines. Just ask Milton.
                Heroes are measured by their bad guys. The tougher the better. They define them. The Batman and the Joker. Holmes and Moriarty (who, if you recall, only appeared in one story ever. Now name me any other of Holmes’s opponents. Not so easy, is it?).
                Ravana is the demon king. He kidnaps the princess Sita and unleashes a war with Sita’s husband, Prince Rama. The pair are destined to face each other and their story, the epic the Ramayana is one of my favourites. It’s wildly magical as gods and monkeys and demons and the king of the birds aid or hinder Rama in his search for his wife. The story ends, of course, with a massive battle. The city of demons, Lanka, burns and Ravana defies the gods, fate and Rama ‘till the bitter end, unrepentant up to the moment of his death. His colossal evil and colossal charisma dominates the tale. He has ten heads, twenty arms and once enslaved the gods themselves. Rama has his work cut out for him.
                I’ve taken the legend of the Ramayana as the basis of my new book, Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress. Fundamental to Hinduism is the concept of rebirth. From that idea it was a simple one to imagine that now, thousands of years after his death, Ravana is about to be reborn. But as villains come back, then so do heroes. Ash Mistry thinks he’s just a normal 13 year old boy. A bit lazy, a bit chubby and, if we’ll be honest, a bit cowardly. But it falls to him to stop Ravana and he’ll need the aid of the gods to do it. He’ll have to become more than he is and discover his destiny. His lessons will be harsh and there will be blood along the way, a lot of blood. So, if you’re interested in a tale beyond the boundaries of the west and the familiar myths and monsters of Europe, I might just have something for you.

Image: welovethisbook.com

Thank you so much Sarwat! Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress was published on 1st March, and is available from Waterstones, Amazon  and of course independent bookshops! If you would like to win a signed copy, please leave a comment letting me know who your favourite villain is and leave an email address where you can be contacted. A winner will be chosen on 19th March.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

An Illustrated Year 3: The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers


Today in honour of World Book Day I am writing about Oliver Jeffer's The Incredible Book Eating Boy. It seems appropriate to read a book that is about books and the importance of reading.



Image: bookdepository.co.uk

Henry is a book lover. He loves them so much that instead of reading his books, he eats them. He likes red ones best. And he finds that the more books he eats, the smarter he gets. However, after a while he starts to gobble his books down, making him feel sick in his stomach and muddled in his head, until a doctor points out that he should be reading his books, not eating them! This has the advantage of leaving the books for other people to read too.

I adore Oliver Jeffers. I love the look of his books (this has a lovely, slightly wonky old typewriter script, with slightly rough paper) as well as the stories, which seem very simple on the surface, have something quite profound to say. To me, The Incredible Book Eating Boy reminds me that sometimes, books are best savoured, relished and digested properly instead of being rushed over and gobbled down before racing on to the next one.

Jeffers' quirky illustrations are always a delight too. I love the use of labels, speech bubbles and other graphic effects, which leads the reader to look carefully at the illustrations, slowing the reading down. It would be a joy to share with children. The book deservedly won an Irish Book Award in 2007. There is a video of the dramatised version here.

If you would like to bring the joy of reading to children in sub-Saharan Africa, you can donate to Book Aid International. Happy World Book Day!