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, 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.