Review policy

I am very happy to review any novel that fits in with the theme of this blog: novels aimed at 9-14 year olds, preferably with a fantasy/ speculative world setting. However, I will make clear in the review that I was sent the book by the publisher and I will write my honest opinion. Please feel free to contact me via Twitter or Facebook, or fantasticreads at gmail dot com.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Buzzing about books

The Booktrust Bookbuzz list has just been announced. This is a list aimed at Year 7 children who have just started Secondary school. Children from participating schools can order a book from the list; the aim is to encourage children to read for pleasure. I'm delighted that Stephanie Burgis's A Most Improper Magyk is on the list; I reviewed it here.

Image: nosycrow.com

Christopher Edge's Twelve Minutes to Midnight is another favourite on this list. At the end of the 19th century, thirteen year old Penelope Tredwell has inherited the Penny Dreadful magazine, whose fortunes she has revived through her macabre Gothic stories, written under the name of Montgomery Flinch. Unfortunately she has been almost too successful; her public are longing for a glimpse of the author, so she hires a shambolic, unsuccessful actor to play him. After a public reading, she and "Flinch" are asked to visit Bedlam, where the strange behaviour of the patients has alarmed the doctors: at twelve minutes to midnight, they all start to write compulsively. Penny and her friend Alfie investigate, and the solving mystery involves famous names, deadly spiders and a wonderfully compelling female villain.

This was a fabulous, exciting read for 10+. I'd recommend it to fans of Philip Pullman's The Ruby in the Smoke and sequels; like Sally Lockhart, Penny is brave and resourceful, and it has a pleasing classic Victorian adventure-mystery feel. In a Twitter conversation about Sally Lockhart, Matt Finch said that what he liked about the books was that Sally can be a "kick ass" heroine without having a stupid boy as a foil, and I liked that about Penny, as well. Penny doesn't have to disenfranchise Alfie to be a strong agent; it's a book that I would happily recommend to boys as well as girls.

A word about Nosy Crow: I am so impressed by the consistently high quality of their list. I have not yet read one of their list that I didn't enjoy. Wonderful books for all ages.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

A Face Like Glass- Frances Hardinge

Image: panmacmillan.com

I am a big fan of Frances Hardinge. There are links to my interview with her for Playing By The Book and a review of Fly By Night here . It is always with trepidation that I pick up a new book by an author whose work I've admired so much, but I'm very grateful that I managed to get a review copy at the Federation of Children's Book Groups conference last month.

After a cataclysmic war and climate change, a city has retreated underground to the caverns where they have stored food, and developed a new city, Caverna. At the beginning of the novel, Master Grandible the cheese maker is tending his cheeses when a small girl pops up in a barrel of curds. Since it is the name of the cheese he is making, he calls her Neverfell and looks after her, but there is something so strange about her face that he makes her wear a velvet mask- unlike all the other residents of Caverna, whose faces are blank unless they buy expressions from a Facesmith, Neverfell is incapable of dissembling. Not only does her face show everything she is feeling, she blunders about court telling people what she thinks as soon as it comes into her head.

Caverna, we learn, is ruled by the Grand Steward, who is preserved by the True Delicacies- food with almost magical properties (cheeses that are hallucinogens amongst other things)- and an army of food tasters. After Neverfell runs away from Master Grandible's tunnels, she becomes involve with the Childersin family, master vintners, and particularly Zouelle who creates the alchemy involved in mixing the True Wines. There are wines that help you forget or remember, and Zouelle carries one with her at all times. The Childersins take her in after she is released from arrest on suspicion of being an assassin, and after an accident at a state banquet, she is taken on by the Grand Steward as a foodtaster. However, beneath the factions at court and the daring exploits of master thief the Kleptomancer, there is something else going on- is it a plot to take control of Caverna? and can Neverfell survive?

This novel is as rich and perfumed as the food and court life it describes. When I started reading it I found it almost too rich, being able to only read a couple of pages at a time. But this morning I have read half the book at one sitting, greedily gulping down Hardinge's opulent prose. I highly recommend it for readers of 11+, as I do her other novels. She's a fantastic writer.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Diversity in fantasy fiction 2: Huntress by Malinda Lo

Recently, a representative from gay rights organisation Stonewall came to my University to talk to my teaching students about combating homophobic bullying.

Homosexuality was only decriminalised the year before I was born, and the whole time I was teaching in schools Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 was in place. As a teacher it was illegal for me to "promote homosexuality" or to "promote the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family unit". The viciousness of this wording made it very difficult for teachers to challenge homophobic language, bullying or exclusion of children in schools due to their perceived sexuality or the real or perceived sexuality of parents or family members. I could not, for example, have imagery of successful, happy gay people in my classroom the way I could of people of different religious or cultural backgrounds. I taught children who had gay parents or siblings and children who were quite clear that they were gay (and one boy who was insistent that he was going to grow up to be a girl) and as a young teacher it was very challenging for me that I couldn't reflect their lives in my classroom. As I became more senior and confident as a teacher, I did more to actively challenge gender stereotyping and "heteronormativity" (clumsy and awful word!) by reading stories such as Babette Cole's Prince Cinders and Anne Fine's Bill's New Frock.

Thankfully, Section 28 was repealed in 2003, but sadly some teachers still worry about the legality of challenging homophobic language and bullying in schools- under the 2010 Equalities Act teachers in fact have a duty to do so. Stonewall have some fantastic age appropriate resources (their primary resources are all about different images of families), and they have some brilliant booklists for primary classrooms.

Image: malindalo.com

Inspired by the Stonewall presentation I sought out Malinda Lo's Huntress. In a fantasy world where fairies and humans have lived alongside each other in truce for centuries, something is wrong. There has been no summer for years, crops are failing, there is hunger and discontent in the land, and there are tales of strange creatures in the Forest.

In the iron fortress of the sages, Taisin, a trainee sage, has had a vision. As a result, she and another trainee, Kaede, must travel with a small band to the land of the fairies to ask the Fairy Queen to bring back the Sun. But first they must go through the Forest, where dangers in the shape of strange creatures but also malignant magic lurk. Can Kaede and Taisin fight the feelings that they are developing for each other? and what does Taisin's vision of Kaede travelling alone to face danger mean?

This is a wonderful fantasy book, with Chinese mythological background- as I've said before, I believe that it is vitally important that young people see themselves in the books that they read. I found the relationship between Taisin and Kaede really positive: the difficulty in their relationship is not that they are two girls, but because Kaede's wealthy family want her to marry for political reasons, and Taisin must be celibate to be a sage. It's great that being a lesbian is not remarkable in their world, and I think that this would be a very positive message for any young person reading this book, whether they were gay or not. There is passionate kissing, but no explicit sex in this book. My one criticism is that there's an awful lot of crying. I'd have liked Kaede and Taisin to have had some laughter and happiness! Recommended to young adult readers of 12+.

Here's Rob Bryden reading another great Babette Cole fairy tale, Princess Smartypants.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Illustrated Year 5- Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak


I was saddened to hear today of the death of Maurice Sendak. His In The Night Kitchen delighted me as a child, mainly because I was fascinated by the boy's lack of pyjama bottoms (I had no brothers!) Where The Wild Things Are is his book that I used the most as a teacher. The story of Max, who puts on his wolf suit and creates mischief of one kind or another until his exasperated mother sends him to bed has been a sensation since it was published in the early 60s. Why is it still so popular today? Well, I think it speaks to adults and children in a profound way. Children experience emotions that sometimes seem too big for them; the Wild Things that Max encounters, with their terrible teeth and terrible claws, could be seen as the anger that he can't contain; only when he becomes king of all Wild Things, tames them and sends them to bed without supper can he realise that he misses his mother and wants to go home where he finds forgiveness and love. I have read this story again and again to children with emotional and behavioural issues; even big boys of 9 loved to lie on a bean bag, leaning against me and cuddling a toy Wild Thing as I read it to them. Goodbye Maurice Sendak, you are much missed.

Here is a video clip of the book being narrated.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

A reading list for Tim Lott

Tim Lott (columnist in "liberal" UK newspaper The Guardian) has published this column where he (with his tongue firmly in his cheek, I'm sure) describes his life as a dad of girls- a pink hell full of x chromosomes who can't ride bikes, Peppa Pig and Rainbow Fairy books, apparently. I have some suggestions for him for other books that he might want to read with them.

Image: Indiebound.org

Ronia the Robber's Daughter is wonderful, by the author of Pippi Longstocking. I have reviewed it here. I will add only, look at the Puffin cover above. Ronia is strong, independent, active, everything that I would want my daughter to be. She's a great role model for a girl.

The Dragon Whisperer by Lucinda Hare. Again, I have already written about it here. Set in a fantasy world (which Tim's fairy-loving girls may enjoy), it is the story of a brave, resourceful girl with the special gift of being able to communicate with dragons.

Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole is the story of a very modern, motorbike riding princess who doesn't want to get married. She has lots of suitors, who she sets impossible tasks. Finally Prince Swashbuckle fulfils them, but when she kisses him he turns into a frog, so she stays in her castle with her pets. A witty fairy tale.

The Ordinary Princess by MM Kaye is another subversion of a traditional fairy tale. Princess Amy is given the gift of ordinariness at her christening by the Fairy Crustacea. She grows up to be ordinary indeed- brown haired, freckled and preferring to play in the woods than the usual princess pursuits. She discovers that her parents are planning to hire a dragon for her to be rescued from by a prince, so she runs away to live in the woods. Eventually she goes to work as a kitchen maid in a neighbouring king's palace. Eventually she meets an ordinary prince. It's a lovely book for a princess loving little girl.

Joan Aiken's Dido Twite series (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and sequels). Dido Twite is a little London urchin being dragged up in an alternate version of early 19th century England. I wrote about her here. She's vulnerable, tough and loyal, and the books are inventive, exciting and great fun to read.

For his older daughters, The Thirteen Treasures and sequels shows a more Shakespearean version of fairies; malignant and without morals or pity. I wrote about the first book here. In particular Red, the girl that Tanya meets, is a strong girl. They are great, exciting adventures.

Tamora Pierce's Lioness books are about Alanna, a girl who wants to be a knight rather than a lady. Her twin brother wants to learn to be a magician. Brother and sister swap places. Alanna is a great character, and while I usually don't enjoy books where girls have to be honorary boys in order to have worth, the conceit in this book works effectively. The negotiations that Alanna has to do between her wishes to be more than decorative are a great metaphor for girls growing up and working out who they are.

Finally, I have written about Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching several times, but she is such a great character. I'd have adored her when I was 10.

If he wants more ideas of books and films to watch with his daughters that will empower them rather than make them feel like rubbish for being girls, then A Mighty Girl has some fantastic ideas. Thankfully, my dad didn't seem to feel that being the father of three girls was such a tragedy of pinkness as Tim does.