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.

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.,