Tag Archives: children’s literature

Friday Faceoff – Then let the crabs be cursed by Odin…

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This meme was started by Books by Proxy, whose fabulous idea was to compare UK and US book covers and decide which is the one we prefer. This week the theme is Vikings, so I’ve chosen How to Speak Dragonese – Book 3 of the How To Train Your Dragon series by Cressida Cowell.

 

This cover, produced by Hachette UK in 2010, is the main template for the other covers. It is illustrated by Cowell herself, in the guise of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, who is her chief protagonist and heir to the Hooligan tribe. He grows up to be the greatest of all Viking chieftains, and this is part of the ongoing story of how he survives to adulthood – a mighty achievement in itself. I very much like this cover. It is eye-catching and humorous, while promising a big dollop of exciting adventures in the book. This is my favourite.

 

This offering was produced by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers in February 2010. It has a slightly slicker feel, having replaced the page in Hiccup’s journal with a purple background, but still features Hiccup and Toothless drawn by Cowell – and still clearly in yet another scrape. Once more it ticks the boxes for me.

 

This cover from Scholastic published in December 2009 features Toothless sitting in Hiccup’s helmet. Once more the illustration is recognisably Cowell’s and you get the sense that Toothless is sniggering about something. Another attractive cover that effectively gives a sense of the book’s content.

 

Produced in September 2008, this Spanish edition by Ediciones Sm still features the original illustration, but has changed the background. It’s pleasant enough, but I far prefer the blotchy, scruffy effect of the original, which is specifically aimed at reluctant boy readers, who are far more likely to be attracted by the odd ink blot and jagged page.

 

This Kindle edition, published in June 2017 by Hodder Children’s Books gives the first cover a very, very close run for its money as my favourite. While the original image has Hiccup and Toothless arguing, with Hiccup clearly losing, there isn’t a whole lot going on. However this cover features on of the most dramatic events in the book ripping a tear in the binding as a huge dragon hunts down his prey…

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Review of KINDLE Ebook Knights of the Borrowed Dark by Dave Rudden

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I requested this book from Netgalley far too long ago with the intention of reading and reviewing it – but got a tad overwhelmed. Better late than never…

Denizen Hardwick is an orphan, and his life is, well, normal. Sure, in storybooks orphans are rescued from drudgery when they discover they are a wizard or a warrior or a prophesied king. But this is real life—orphans are just kids without parents. At least that’s what Denizen thought. . . On a particularly dark night, the gates of Crosscaper Orphanage open to a car that almost growls with power. And on the journey Denizen discovers there are things out there that by rights should only exist in storybooks – except they’re all too real.

knightsoftheborroweddarkThat’s the slightly tweaked blurb – the original version gave away nearly a quarter of the plot, which is a shame because this tightly constructed, page-turner doesn’t deserve to be to be compromised by spoilers. Denizen is a cagey, awkward character who doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve – unsurprising, given the orphanage doesn’t come across as a place where much nurturing takes place. But I thoroughly enjoyed him as a protagonist.

His reaction to all the danger and the worn warriors he finds himself alongside is realistic and understandable. I really liked the fact that while he admires them, he is also resentful and grumpy at times, particularly with his elusive aunt who makes a point of avoiding him. This particular order of knights wear armour, wield swords and practice battle skills and aggressive spells ceaselessly. But they are also to some extent traumatised and exhausted, expecting to die in battle at some stage and while Denizen stays with them, several of the order try to persuade him to leave and lead an ordinary, safe life.
This is a very gritty fantasy, with some genuinely terrifying creatures oozing out of the woodwork and terrorising folks simply because they like inflicting fear and hurt. This enjoyable book may ping with tension and be full of adventure and action – but this isn’t some blithe swords and sorcery romp. Alongside all the mayhem and danger, the notion of loyalty is explored, as well as the ultimate cost of violence and revenge, which is shown to be very high. Everyone who takes part in this struggle pays a price and Rudden isn’t afraid to damage and kill some of the supporting cast.

As a result, I wasn’t really sure how this was going to end, despite the fact it is a children’s book and was gripped right to the end, which was both satisfying and provided a couple of major twists I didn’t see coming. This offering will appeal to early teens who enjoy gritty fantasy with an appealing, believable protagonist.

My arc copy of Knights of the Borrowed Dark provided by the publishers via Netgalley has not influenced or biased my review.
8/10

Favourite Time Travelling Novels – Part 1

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Loreen had posted a number of time travelling novels – which was when I recalled that I’m really fond of this genre and wanted to share my own selection with you…

Doomsday Book – Book 1 of the Oxford Time Travel series by Connie Willis
For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity’s history was as simple as doomsdayreceiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received. But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin–barely of age herself–finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history’s darkest hours.

This is one of my outstanding reads, ever. I love this book – it is such an intelligent, layered read, with splashes of dry humour amongst the fear and terror. See my review here.

 

 

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
thetimetravelerswifeClare, a beautiful, strong-minded art student, and Henry, an adventuresome librarian, have known each other since Clare was six and Henry was thirty-six, and were married when Clare was twenty-three and Henry thirty-one. Impossible but true, because Henry is one of the first people diagnosed with Chrono-Displacement Disorder: his genetic clock randomly resets and he finds himself misplaced in time, pulled to moments of emotional gravity from his life, past and future. His disappearances are spontaneous and unpredictable, and lend a spectacular urgency to Clare and Henry’s unconventional love story. That their attempt to live normal lives together is threatened by something they can neither prevent nor control.

This remarkable book is not just about Henry – it’s main protagonist is Clare, who is scooped up in the middle of this adventure before she is old enough to make a choice. An issue that she eventually resents… I love Niffenegger’s leap of imagination to consider how it must be to live alongside someone with this ability. The film doesn’t come close in doing justice to the book, by the way.

 

 

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
“I’ve had a most amazing time….”thetimemachine
So begins the Time Traveller’s astonishing firsthand account of his journey 800,000 years beyond his own era—and the story that launched H.G. Wells’s successful career and earned him his reputation as the father of science fiction. With a speculative leap that still fires the imagination, Wells sends his brave explorer to face a future burdened with our greatest hopes…and our darkest fears. A pull of the Time Machine’s lever propels him to the age of a slowly dying Earth. There he discovers two bizarre races—the ethereal Eloi and the subterranean Morlocks—who not only symbolize the duality of human nature, but offer a terrifying portrait of the men of tomorrow as well. Published in 1895, this masterpiece of invention captivated readers on the threshold of a new century. Thanks to Wells’s expert storytelling and provocative insight, The Time Machine will continue to enthral readers for generations to come.

I read this first when I was a teenager and I reread in my 20s, still impressed with Wells’ prescience. If you haven’t encountered this one, I highly recommend it.

 

 

Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce
tomsmidnightgardenLying awake at night, Tom hears the old grandfather clock downstairs strike . . . eleven . . . twelve . . . thirteen . . . Thirteen! When Tom gets up to investigate, he discovers a magical garden. A garden that everyone told him doesn’t exist. A garden that only he can enter . . .

Like many children’s classics, this haunting, bittersweet book is worth reading no matter how old you are. I have often thought it’s because both protagonists are children is the main reason why it has ended up in that genre. Tom, the visitor from the future, and Hannah, the imperious Victorian girl who always seems to be playing alone in the garden, no matter the weather have lodged in my mind ever since I encountered this book when I read it to a class a long time ago.

 

 

Lightning by Dean Koonz
In the midst of a raging blizzard, lightning struck on the night Laura Shane was born. And a mysterious lightningblond-haired stranger showed up just in time to save her from dying. Years later, in the wake of another storm, Laura will be saved again. For someone is watching over her. But just as lightning illuminates, darkness always follows close behind.

I haven’t read all that much Koonz, but I really enjoyed this time-travelling thriller, where it is the shadowy character who keeps appearing to keep Laura safe who is the most intriguing person – see my review here.

 

 

In the Garden of Iden – Book 1 of The Company novels by Kage Baker
inthegardenofidenThis is the first novel in what has become one of the most popular series in contemporary SF, now back in print from Tor. In the 24th century, the Company preserves works of art and extinct forms of life (for profit of course). It recruits orphans from the past, renders them all but immortal, and trains them to serve the Company, Dr. Zeus. One of these is Mendoza the botanist. She is sent to Elizabethan England to collect samples from the garden of Sir Walter Iden. But while there, she meets Nicholas Harpole, with whom she falls in love. And that love sounds great bells of change that will echo down the centuries, and through the succeeding novels of The Company

This remarkable series is part of brilliant premise that is played out over seven novels and the first five are stunningly good – the dreadfully named Mendoza in Hollywood is one of the best books I’ve ever read. If you enjoy time-travelling books then get hold of this series – while the final two do get a bit silly, it’s worth it for Mendoza’s fantastic story up to that point.

Review of The Lives of Christopher Chant – Book 1 of The Worlds of Chrestomanci by Diana Wynne Jones

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This book was written and published after Charmed Life – see my review here – but occurs at least twenty-five years before the events that take place in Charmed Life. I’ve have the pleasure of reading this book to my granddaughter for the past month or so when she’s come to stay and this week-end we finally finished it. Would it be as much fun as I recalled?

livesofchristopherchantDiscovering that he has nine lives and is destined to be the next ‘Chrestomanci’ is not part of Christopher’s plans for the future: he’d much rather play cricket and wander around his secret dream worlds. But he soon finds that destiny is difficult to avoid, and that having more than the usual number of lives is pretty inconvenient – especially when you lose them as easily as he does!

The joy of re-reading this book aloud is that I was able to thoroughly appreciate Wynne Jones’ technique, as she steadily builds the story. Christopher is an interesting character – he is misunderstood by the adults around him, coming across as arrogant and haughty, when in fact he is bitterly unhappy. It is a joy to read an adult who gets that miserable, traumatised children don’t necessarily sob becomingly into a hanky and pour all their unhappiness out to the nearest available grown up as often depicted in Hollywood. More commonly, they become one of the awkward squad…

That said, Christopher may be fundamentally unhappy, but this book is still brimful of biting humour, some of it laugh-aloud, some of it just deliciously sharp and grinworthy. If your taste runs to well-constructed fantasy, then consider giving it a go – because it happens to be parked in the Children’s section in the library doesn’t mean it isn’t a thoroughly enjoyable read. Wynne Jones is one of those marvellous authors who doesn’t write down to her audience. Christopher is also surrounded by a cast of enjoyable characters, ranging from Tacroy, his spirit guide in the other Words, to the Goddess of Asheth, who yearns to become a schoolgirl. The antagonist is also very well depicted and all too plausible.

As for the denouement – it is beautifully handled and had me reading to Frankie faaar later than I should, because neither of us were unable to pull away from the story. It is always a risk introducing her to books I’ve previously read and loved – what if they fall short? Not only do am I stuck with reading a disappointing book, but it also compromises my earlier pleasure. It’s one reason why I am not an enthusiastic re-reader. But Wynne Jones is worth the risk, because her writing is so enjoyable and wonderfully crafted.

It doesn’t hurt my rep with my granddaughter for picking great books, either!
10/10

My Outstanding Reads of 2015

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It was a cracking year, particularly for science fiction and fantasy. I read 121 books this year, wrote 108 reviews and these are the best – the books that have stayed with me long after I’d closed them up and written a review about them.

Fool’s Assassin – Book 1 of Fitz and the Fool by Robin Hobb
Hobb is one of my favourite authors anyhow, so I was delighted when she revisited Fitz and took his story further. And this new adventure didn’t disappoint.

Tom Badgerlock has been living peaceably in the manor house at Withywoods with his beloved wife Molly thesefoolsassassin many years, the estate a reward to his family for loyal service to the crown. But behind the facade of respectable middle-age lies a turbulent and violent past. For Tom Badgerlock is actually FitzChivalry Farseer, bastard scion of the Farseer line, convicted user of Beast-magic, and assassin. A man who has risked much for his king and lost more… On a shelf in his den sits a triptych carved in memory stone of a man, a wolf and a fool. Once, these three were inseparable friends: Fitz, Nighteyes and the Fool. But one is long dead, and one long-missing. Then one Winterfest night a messenger arrives to seek out Fitz, but mysteriously disappears, leaving nothing but a blood-trail. What was the message? Who was the sender? And what has happened to the messenger? Suddenly Fitz’s violent old life erupts into the peace of his new world, and nothing and no one is safe. See my full review here.

 

The Straight Razor Cure – Book 1 of The Low Town series by Daniel Polansky
Warden is an ex-soldier who has seen the worst men have to offer, now a narcotics dealer with a rich, bloody past and straightrazorcurea way of inviting danger. You’d struggle to find someone with a soul as dark and troubled as his. But then a missing child murdered and horribly mutilated, is discovered in an alley. And then another. With a mind as sharp as a blade, and an old but powerful friend in the city, Warden’s the only man with a hope of finding the killer. If the killer doesn’t find him first.
I’ll grant you the blurb isn’t full of joie de vivre – but this book is more fun than it sounds. Mostly because Warden is written in first person viewpoint and his grumpy, cutting narration throughout the story is often amusing and manages to render the more revolting bits less so. This is a strong start to a remarkable trilogy, which has stayed with me throughout the year and if you like your fantasy gritty with a strong protagonist, then I highly recommend this offering. See my full review here.

 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
This was recommended to me by a couple of my students – and it didn’t disappoint. But whatever you do, don’t look up the reviews written in The Guardian or The Telegraph because they have seen fit to provide the main spoiler which makes a big difference to how you’d read the book.Weareallcompletelybesideourselves

What if you grew up to realise that your father had used your childhood as an experiment? Rosemary doesn’t talk very much, and about certain things she’s silent. She had a sister, Fern, her whirlwind other half, who vanished from her life in circumstances she wishes she could forget. And it’s been ten years since she last saw her beloved older brother, Lowell. Now at college, Rosemary starts to see that she can’t go forward without going back to the time when, aged five, she was sent away from home to her grandparents and returned to find Fern gone.
As soon as I started reading, the surefooted first person voice pulled me in – and then about a quarter of the way in, came the revelation which I didn’t see coming. At all. This is such a clever, original book. What you think must be the themes when you start reading about the fallout surrounding Fern’s disappearance on her family, once you get past That Point, you realise there is another agenda alongside the expected issues of loss and identity. See my full review here.

 

Mars Evacuees – Book 1 of the Mars Evacuees series by Sophia McDougall
The fact that someone had decided I would be safer on Mars, where you could still only SORT OF breathe the air and mars evacueesSORT OF not get sunburned to death, was a sign that the war with the aliens was not going fantastically well. I’d been worried I was about to be told that my mother’s spacefighter had been shot down, so when I found out that I was being evacuated to Mars, I was pretty calm. And despite everything that happened to me and my friends afterwards, I’d do it all again. because until you’ve been shot at, pursued by terrifying aliens, taught maths by a laser-shooting robot goldfish and tried to save the galaxy, I don’t think you can say that you’ve really lived. If the same thing happens to you, this is my advice: ALWAYS CARRY DUCT TAPE.
Yes… I know it’s aimed at children – but this book enchanted me as well as my grandchildren and we are now all looking forward to reading the next slice of the adventure in 2016. See my full review here.

 

The Detective’s Daughter – Book 1 of The Detective’s Daughter series by Lesley Thomson
Kate Rokesmith’s decision to go to the river changed the lives of many. Her murder shocked the nation in the throes thedetectivesdaughterof celebrating the wedding of Charles and Diana. Her husband, never charged, moved abroad under a cloud of suspicion. Her son, just four years old, grew up in a loveless boarding school. And Detective Inspector Darnell, vowing to leave no stone unturned in the search for her killer, began to lose his only daughter, as young Stella Darnell grew to resent the dead Kate Rokesmith.
The theme of love and loss threads through this poignant, thoughtful book, which took me in so many different directions that I soon stopped trying to second-guess where Thomson would take me next and simply enjoyed the ride. It’s a happy feeling when I can sit back and revel in the story and the author’s skill in telling it. See my full review here.

 

The Future Falls – Book 3 of The Enchantment Emporium by Tanya Huff
When Charlotte Gale’s aunt warns their magical family of an approaching asteroid, they scramble to keep humanity thefuturefallsfrom going the way of the dinosaurs. Although between Charlie’s complicated relationship with sorcerer Jack, her cousin Allie’s hormones, the Courts having way too much fun at the end of days, and Jack’s sudden desire to sacrifice himself for the good of the many, Charlie’s fairly certain that the asteroid is the least of her problems. This could have so easily been an adrenaline junkie’s dream with constant action-packed pages of chases… scary magical confrontations ending in blood and gore – and it would have still been an engrossing read. But the cool, ironic tone of the blurb nicely echoes the emotional tenor of the books.

The aunts bake when they get together, and are often squabbling and eccentric. But as with any entity that is extremely powerful and knows it – they are also dangerous. Huff never lets us forget this. It’s a nifty trick to pull off. I love the fact that the Gale family never comes across as too cosy, or let the fact they are run by a matriarchy means they are kinder or softer… Understanding, maybe, but not kind. They can’t afford to be – they are running a family with sufficient power to level the world. And this is another trick Huff has pulled off – the Gales are something beyond human and the more we see about their adventures, the more alien they are. See my full review here.

 

Window Wall – Book 4 of The Glass Thorns series by Melanie Rawn
For nearly two years, Cade has been rejecting his Elsewhens, the Fae gift that grants him prescient glimpses of possible futures, by simply refusing to experience them. But the strain is driving a wedge between him and his windowwalltheatre troupe, Touchstone, and making him erratic on stage and off. It takes his best friend Mieka to force Cade into accepting the visions again, but when he does, he witnesses a terrible attack, though he cannot see who is responsible. Cade knows the future he sees can be changed, and when he finally discovers the truth behind the attack, he takes the knowledge to the only man in the Kingdom who can prevent it: his deadly enemy.
Meanwhile Touchstone is poised to become the best theatrical troupe in the country, though that isn’t the end of their problems. As Cade is wrestling with his own magical talents, Touchstone still have issues of their own to sort out – domestic life collides with the demands of touring; the pressure of constantly providing new, exciting plays; betrayal by someone they thought they could trust… So there is no trace of this series running out of steam – if anything it just goes on getting better. Though whatever you do, don’t pick up Window Wall first. You need to go back to the start to get a real flavour of this original, outstanding series and it would be a crime to do anything else. See my full review here.

 

Embassytown by China Miéville
EmbassytownEmbassytown, a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe. Avice is an immerse, a traveller on the immer, the sea of space and time below the everyday, now returned to her birth planet. Here on Arieka, Humans are not the only intelligent life, and Avice has a rare bond with the natives, the enigmatic Hosts – who cannot lie. Only a tiny cadre of unique human Ambassadors can speak Language, and connect the two communities. But an unimaginable new arrival has come to Embassytown. And when this Ambassador speaks, everything changes.

It is a huge challenge, both imaginatively and technically to write convincingly about another species that has never been seen on our home planet. No problem for Miéville, though. He nails it. See my full review here.

 

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
When Rosemary Harper joins the crew of the Wayfarer, she isn’t expecting much. The Wayfarer, a patched-up ship the-long-way-666x1024that’s seen better days, offers her everything she could possibly want: a small, quiet spot to call home for a while, adventure in far-off corners of the galaxy, and distance from her troubled past. But Rosemary gets more than she bargained for with the Wayfarer. The crew is a mishmash of species and personalities, from Sissix, the friendly reptillian pilot, to Kizzy and Jenks, the constantly sparring engineers who keep the ship running. But Rosemary isn’t the only person on board with secrets to hide, and the crew will soon discover that space may be vast, but spaceships are very small indeed.

So is all the buzz about this book merited? Oh yes, without a doubt. If you enjoyed Firefly then give this book a go, as it manages to recreate the same vibe that had so many of us tuning in to see what would happen next to the crew. While Rosemary is the protagonist, this tale is as much about the varied crew and their fortunes as they serve aboard the Wayfarer. Chambers manages to deftly sidestep pages of description by focusing on the fascinating different alien lifeforms peopling the ship. See my full review here.

 

The Shepherd’s Crown – the final Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett
Deep in the Chalk, something is stirring. The owls and the foxes can sense it, and Tiffany Aching feels it in her boots. theshepherdscrownAn old enemy is gathering strength. This is a time of endings and beginnings, old friends and a new, a blurring of the edges and a shifting of power. Now Tiffany stands between the light and the dark, the good and the bad. As the fairy horde prepares for invasion, Tiffany must summon all the witches to stand with her. To protect the land. Her land. There will be a reckoning…

The story trips along at a good clip, providing all the unique Pratchett touches his fans know and love, including the whacky footnotes and the formerly obnoxious character that reveals a nicer side to her nature – a feat Pratchett regularly pulled off throughout this long-running series. And the ending provides plenty of action and excitement with a thoroughly enjoyable, wholly satisfying conclusion. Is this a detached, unbiased review? Probably not. I am discussing the last, the very last Discworld novel, ever. The series that has given me more pleasure over the years than any other. Wherever you are, Mr Pratchett, thank you for this last gem. The magic persists. See my full review here.

 

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Cary
Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite. But they don’t laugh.

The viewpoint is masterful, as is the pacing. I’m not going to mention any more about the story development, thegirlwithallthegiftsbecause Carey has deliberately constructed it so the reader goes on discovering more about the world as the story progresses. I personally love that particular style of storytelling above all others and devoured this book in three greedy gulps, reading when I should have been sleeping. Or editing. Or writing lesson plans. Or organising my trip to Bristolcon. In short, I broke one of my golden rules – I read for pure enjoyment during the day, rather to relax and unwind as a present to myself after a long day’s work. See my full review here.

 

Lock In by John Scalzi
Fifteen years from now, a new virus sweeps the globe. Most of those afflicted experience nothing worse than fever lockinand headaches. A few suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history. And 1 per cent find themselves ‘locked in’ – fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus. It may not seem like a lot. But in the US alone that’s 1.7 million people ‘locked in’… including the President’s wife and daughter. Spurred by grief and the sheer magnitude of the suffering. America undertakes a massive scientific initiative. Nothing can fully restore the locked in, but two new technologies emerge to help. One is a virtual-reality environment, ‘The Agora’, where the locked in can interact with other humans. The second is the discovery that a few rare individuals have minds that are receptive to being controlled by others, allowing the locked in to occasionally use their bodies as if they were their own. This skill is quickly regulated, licensed, bonded and controlled. Nothing can go wrong. Certainly nobody would be tempted to misuse it, for murder, for political power, or worse…

Yes, yes – I know – the blurb goes on forever. But you need to know this stuff to fully appreciate and understand the world, because Scalzi doesn’t hang about giving long-winded explanations. This book hits the ground running in first person viewpoint, as Chris Shane walks into the FBI building on his first day as a fully-fledged agent. He is coping with more than the usual first day nerves – Chris Shane is a Haden, whose helpless body is back in his parents’ home being cared for, while his consciousness is uploaded into a threep – a robotic body that allows him to talk, hear, see and move. See my full review here.

 

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
Run away, one drowsy summer’s afternoon, with Holly Sykes: wayward teenager, broken-hearted rebel and unwitting pawn in a titanic, hidden conflict. Over six decades, the consequences of a moment’s impulse unfold, theboneclocksdrawing an ordinary woman into a world far beyond her imagining.

Right from the first page, I was drawn into this episodic narrative. Holly has run away after discovering her best friend in bed with her boyfriend. Though I was reading it on an autumn night, I was whisked away to the blistering heat as Holly has an emotional meltdown. And during this starting point, events unspool during that particular afternoon that go on having consequences for decades to come. The next five episodes that comprise the whole narrative all circle around that primary event, in one way or another as we also chart Holly’s life. It’s a difficult life. Being singled out doesn’t make for an easy time of it. But Mitchell does what he does best – provide a series of sharply written, beautifully crafted slices of action that allow us to join up the dots and provide the overarching narrative. See my full review here.

Review of AUDIO BOOK Frozen in Time by Ali Sparkes

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I’d read this children’s book with great enjoyment a few years ago, after Ali visited West Sussex Writers and gave a lively, informative talk on writing for children. But having recently bought my granddaughter a Kindle Fire so she can listen to books she enjoys, a very looong, boring drive in slow-moving holiday traffic was sweetened by hearing the adventures of Rachel and Ben, Polly and Freddy beautifully narrated by Glen McCready.

It is 1956. Freddy and Polly have never minded helping their genius father with his experiments. Even when that means being put into frozentimecryonic suspension having their hearts frozen…. It is 2009. Ben and Rachel have resigned themselves to a long, dull summer when they find the hidden underground vault in the garden and inside it two frozen figures, a boy and a girl…Can Polly and Freddy adapt to the 21st century?

This is an excellent book – the overarching story is exciting enough, but the joy of this book is the continual difficulties experienced by Polly and Freddy in acclimatising to life in 2009 after being in cryonic suspension for 53 years. Sparkes has clearly done her research and the result is at times poignant, at times surprising and often laugh-aloud funny. We spent our time in traffic jams giggling at the lovely humorous touches, rather than fuming at the slow pace of our journey to Ringwood. Polly and Freddy are fitter and tougher than Ben and Rachel – but their gender roles are far more rigid. Polly blithely assumes that Rachel will help with the domestic chores, and the boys don’t need to. Some of their other attitudes are jarring, too.

Back in the era of the Cold War, there were political tensions and rivalries that mean Polly and Freddy’s brilliant father could have drawn down unwelcome attention from plenty of people. And when his children are finally woken up from their frozen sleep, all they want to do is discover what happened to him, and why he didn’t wake them up in a few days as had always happened before.

Sparkes’ sharp observations on the differences between children of the 1950’s and now has stayed with me since we finished listening to the adventure. I have promised myself that when I have the time, I shall sit down and play it again. This superbly told and well written story deserves my undivided attention.
10/10

Review of How to be a Pirate – Book 2 of the How To Train Your Dragon Series by Cressida Cowell

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So as the summer holidays started, I got hold of the second book in this entertaining series to read to the grandchildren – hot on the heels of watching the second film in the franchise. Would this book fall flat in comparison?

how to be a pirateCan Hiccup find Grimbeard the Ghastly’s treasure before Alvin the Treacherous gets his sneaky hands on it? And if Hiccup opens a box that says DO NOT OPEN, will he live to tell the tale?

Actually, it’s the other way around. Having seen both films before getting to the books, I was surprised at just how much didn’t cross into the films from the books. There are a number of the characters in both versions, and some of the story arcs, of course. But the sheer exuberant anarchy that reverberates throughout the books, as well as the humour, both the punning, cheesy kind and the sharp, observant kind, simply isn’t effectively represented in the films. The relationship between Toothless and Hiccup, in particular – like Toothless – has lost its bite in the film. In the books Toothless is disobedient, selfish and highly manipulative – and regularly embarrasses Hiccup by refusing to obey him at key times. Until Hiccup is suddenly pitched into the middle of a life-threatening situation.

And that’s the other major difference between the film and the books – the sheer thrill factor… The plot in this second book swept us along and I ended up reading to the children disgracefully late – chiefly because I also wanted to know what was going to happen next…

In short, How to Be a Pirate delivered everything I could ask for in an adventure book written for children. No wonder it is such a runaway success. As for my grandchildren – they loved it, too. And Frankie is now clamouring for the third book in the series. Fortunately. Because I was going to get it anyway, even if they hadn’t wanted to read it.
9/10

Review of Four Children and It by Jacqueline Wilson

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This modern makeover of E. Nesbitt’s classic story Five Children and It, could have been a wincingly purile dumbing down of a much-loved gem in children’s literature. But, of course it is in the hands of the very capable and experienced Jacqueline Wilson…

4childrenWe have been reading Wilson in our household since my granddaughter, reeling from her parents’ separation, seemed to need stories that reflected her own devastating experience. Her books were an immediate hit – and when I saw this book on the shelves, I couldn’t resist it…

Rosalind and Robbie don’t want to spend the summer stuck in their dad’s new house with irritating Smash and her glamorous mum. Dad’s biggest wish is for everyone to get along. So when he suggests a picnic in nearby Oxshott Woods the children grudgingly agree. That afternoon, in a golden sandpit, Rosalind makes a wish of her own and something extraordinary happens. It just might change their summer from weeks of rows and bickering into the best holiday these four children have ever had…

Rosalind and Robbie are part of a modern blended family – their step-sister, Smash, takes delight in tormenting them. In fact, the only thing they can all agree on, is that little Maudie, Dad and Alice’s daughter, is an absolute poppet – but that leads to squabbles over which of her half-siblings she prefers. Wilson’s unflinching depiction of what marital breakdown means to the children caught in the middle should be required reading for all divorced and separated parents.

Wilson’s storytelling doesn’t dodge the sadness – we both found the story quite emotional in places. But there are also places where we were laughing aloud. Smash’s comments were often astutely amusing – especially about the adults. As for the adventures that involve the four children – they are suitably madcap and Wilson’s sharp, pacey style made them compelling – I read aloud one afternoon for nearly two hours, because neither of us wanted to stop until we knew what happened next… But there is a big bonus for Wilson’s readers – she doesn’t only provide an engrossing, enjoyable story. Each of the main characters in the story is depicted with compassion, some humour and a large dollop of understanding – it’s a very neat trick to pull off. So many children’s books have the adults behaving like absolute idiots or tyrants – and while Wilson’s grown-ups often get it wrong, there is generally a sense that they are trying hard to do their best in difficult circumstances. It also means that while Wilson portrays the children as getting the raw end of the deal, she resists making them into total victims – and while she doesn’t have their parents magically getting back together, which is generally what most children would like to see, she does provide a shaft of hope that everything is going to get better.

Having recently re-read the original story, Five Children and It, I was struck by how much each magical adventure seemed to conclude with some moral lesson for Edwardian children. I can’t help thinking that Wilson’s trick of offering real comfort for children confronted with major family upheaval a far more valuable gift.
10/10

Review of The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart

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This classic Fantasy tale – knocking around long before Harry Potter was a twinkle in Rowling’s eye – was always a firm favourite with all my classes when I taught. I dug out my copy and read it to my granddaughter this week. Despite the unfashionably long descriptive passages, the narrative was sufficiently engrossing that it held her rapt right through to the end.

littlebroomstickQuite right, too. I’d forgotten what a little gem it is, with beautifully flowing and evocative prose the whips the story along at a fair clip. Mary Smith is ten years old and due to an unfortunate illness and bad timing, finds herself parked with Great-Aunt Charlotte in her large house, Red Manor, in the heart of Shropshire right at the end of the summer holidays. There is nothing much to do. Until she encounters a beautiful black cat called Tib with glowing green eyes, who leads her to a rare flower in the middle of the woods…
And from that beginning, the adventure whisks up its young readers and doesn’t let up until the final page. Plain Mary Smith is an enjoyable, appealing protagonist who is just the right mix of innocence and quick wittedness. But there are also a strong cast of supporting characters – particularly the wonderfully creepy Madam Mumblechook and her sidekick, Doctor Dee.

Endor College, educational establishment of witches and black magic, is vividly described and until I read this again to Frankie, I’d forgotten just how disturbing it is. Under the cosy touches – ‘Badness me’ as an exclamation, for instance – there is real menace. Stewart’s wonderful description of Tib does more than mark her out as a cat lover – it also highlights the contrast between the lithe, independent creature who befriends Mary and the twisted toadlike thing he becomes thanks to Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee. And the reason why they expend all this magical energy and effort to transform Tib and a host of other creatures? Because they can…

Stewart gives youngsters a powerful insight into the nature of evil – all too often it isn’t about world domination with overblown, pantomime-type characters that slide into the ridiculous. It is about people in everyday situations who abuse the power they have to twist and torment those powerless to prevent them.

I’d also forgotten the poignant and fitting ending – which is (perhaps intentionally) diffused by the description of the top range of broomsticks available from Harrods… All in all, this slim volume is – like the best of children’s literature – a really good read for fantasy fans of all ages and I particularly recommend it to those who enjoyed Harry Potter or anything written by Diana Wynne Jones. The bad news is that it is currently out of print. So keep your eyes peeled – and anytime you come across a copy on a secondhand book stall, get it. Even if the children in your life are long gone, I guarantee that you’ll thank me…
10/10