Wednesday, 24 May 2017

THE LAURAS – by Sara Taylor

Reviewed by Jackie Marchant

Billed as a road-trip novel, I’d say this is so much more.  It’s a thirteen year old being woken by yet another row between parents, then being yanked out of bed and into Mum’s car.  So begins a road-trip that not only takes in several US states but introduces Alex to a past relived by a mother who has not said anything about until now.

It’s a very interesting past, involving an unconventional home life with parents who lapsed in and out of coping, foster homes both good and bad – and the Lauras, girls who’d influenced Alex’s mother’s life in some way.  In between the gradual opening up, there are those needing help, those needing revenge – and the sudden appearance of a gun.  All the while the two of them drift and Alex has to settle into new schools before being uprooted once again to go on the road. 

Then there is Alex.  The desire to go back home, against the need to be on the road.  This is where my review becomes tricky – because I can’t refer to Alex and ‘she’ or ‘he’ and I don’t want to write he/she, because Alex doesn’t know either.

Yet Alex’s indeterminate gender is not the focus of the story, although it does have consequences, particularly at school.  What stands out is Alex’s mother’s support, given unconditionally since the day Alex came home from school in tears because the children had been told to line up in a girls’ or a boys’ line and Alex was left not knowing which one to choose.
Throughout the book you never know whether Alex was born male or female.  But one thing for certain is that Alex is Alex, and it is this, not Alex's gender, that counts.

But please don’t think this is a book about gender – it is a about a mother and child road-trip, were discoveries are made, both self and each other.  It’s beautifully written and both Alex and the drifting mother come across as fully rounded characters, flaws, good points and all.

Supposedly for the adult market, I think this would sit perfectly alongside YA.  And although it’s not the main theme, it would be a welcome addition to the LGBT shelves.


Saturday, 20 May 2017

Unbecoming by Jenny Downham, reviewed by Pauline Francis

Saturday, 20 May, 2017


This novel comes with a weight warning if you are thinking of taking it to read on holiday as a book. It’s a massive read at 450 (gripping) pages.

Unbecoming is a complex story spanning three generations within the same family: three women with three secrets. Katie, the youngest, is studying for ‘A’ levels and feels that her sexual orientation is shameful and must be kept secret; her mother, Caroline, who has been deserted by her husband and is struggling to cope with Katie’s younger brother, Chris, who has special needs; and Mary, the grandmother, who has hardly been part of Caroline’s life and now needs to be looked after as she is in the early stages of dementia.

This story begins in the present with a telephone call from a hospital. Will they collect Mary?

Caroline agrees reluctantly to keep her mother with them until other arrangements can be made -  if Katie is willing to help.

She is – and she is slowly drawn into digging up the family secrets which both tear the family apart and pull them together. Katie’s need to know is the driving force of this novel. She threads together fragments of old stories and legal documents. Her question is always: Why is my mother so hostile towards her mother?

As for Mary, she says half-way through the novel: “This memory game was getting dangerous.”

There are two narrators in this novel and therefore two points of view: Katie and Mary. Some of Mary’s are set in the past, especially 1954, when she gives birth to an illegitimate baby (Caroline). This is cleverly pre-echoed in 1948 when Mary’s father berates her for kissing the boy next door. There is also a ‘good’ sister, Pat. What is her part in this story?

Unbecoming is a refreshing and original way of looking at secrets and lies. Katie is desperate to hide her own sexuality, yet she expects to hear the truth from everybody else around her. This is a steep learning curve for her. Caroline clearly resents her uncaring mother, yet she is jealous of Katie’s attempts to help her grandmother, and resents Katie for not helping her enough when their father left.

Everything, in time, floats to the surface.

Unbecoming is not a depressing novel. Mary has a great sense of humour and is more than a match for her grandchildren. I was annoyed by her harshness towards her daughter, the way she made fun of Caroline’s nervousness and lack of confidence; but this was Mary’s way of getting back at her sister, Pat. The relationship between the sisters is honest and moving, especially when we learn about Pat’s fate.

We do not know what will happen to our main characters. The reader is left with a strong feeling that they are still developing in their fictional world and that we’ll meet them again.

Katie, our full of secrets detective, has the last line:

“She was bound to stumble, but if she did – she’d pick herself up and try again. Just like Mary. Just like Mum and Chris and everybody else.

Works in progress, all of them.”

Unbecoming would appeal to older teenagers and I imagine it being handed on to other members of the family.

I like the title very much. Unbecoming (behaviour) and un-becoming are skilfully woven throughout.

Pauline Francis


Tuesday, 16 May 2017

What’s cooking, Jamela? by Niki Daly reviewed by Chitra Soundar

It’s Christmas and even if it doesn’t snow in South Africa for Christmas, a chicken meal at the centre of the table is a must. Well that’s what everyone tells Jamela. But Jamela has named her chicken Christmas. And you  know what happens when you name farm animals – they become friends. And of course you can't eat them.

In this wonderfully authentic story that charts the hilarious adventure of Jamela and her chicken Christmas, we run through the township, meet wonderful characters, hear African dialects and words in context, and worry for the chicken.

The Jamela series by Niki Daly, published by Frances Lincoln are enduring stories that show us the life of people we are less familiar with – but not with a moral or a lesson about life in South Africa or showcasing the poverty like charity ads do – these celebrate life. These show characters in-situ and show us how these characters are just like us, even though they are far away, they speak a different language and wear colourful clothes (which I absolutely love).
These stories also remind me of the young graphic novel that Flying Eye Books translated from French – Akissi – of the little girl in an African township, running on barefeet, bringing trouble and solving problems.

Did or did they not eat chicken for Christmas? Did they eat Christmas the chicken? Maybe you will read and find out and also find other Jamela books out there.



Friday, 12 May 2017

KASPAR, PRINCE OF CATS by Michael Morpurgo: reviewed by Sue Purkiss

This isn't a new book; it came out in 2008. But I've only just read it, having acquired it in a book sale. I do remember reading at the time about Michael Morpurgo's stint as Writer in Residence at the Savoy Hotel - nice work if you can get it, I thought with just a hint of bright green envy.

The idea for the book came from a large sculpture of a black cat, which Morpurgo was intrigued to see in a glass showcase. When he made enquiries, he was told that almost a hundred years before, thirteen men had sat down to a dinner party at the Savoy. 'One of them scoffed loudly at the suggestion that thirteen might be an unlucky number, said it was so much tosh. Only a few weeks later, he was shot down in his office in Johannesburg, South Africa.' After that, the Savoy decided never to take such a risk again. If there are thirteen people for dinner, there is always a fourteenth chair - on which sits the Savoy cat.

Morpurgo tells his stories quite quietly and gently. Yet there are almost always moments of great drama - often tragedy - and this story is no exception.

Johnnie Trott is a bell boy, an orphan. He loves his job, and he is chosen to carry the Countess Kandinsky's luggage to her room when she arrives for a prolonged stay. he bonds with her cat, the elegant, aristocratic Kaspar, Prince of Cats, and the Countess, who is an opera singer, grows fond of him and he of her - in his heart, he thinks of her as a replacement mother. But she is killed in a tragic accident, and he is devastated.

It's up to him to take care of Kaspar, and he does his best; but Kaspar pines for his mistress and refuses to eat. At this point another significant character comes onto the scene - Lizziebeth, an American heiress.

Well, the story goes on. Lizziebeth and Johnnie become friends. Then, when she and her family are due to go back to America, she tells him in great excitement that they are to travel on a wonderful new ship. It's name? Well, it's called the Titanic...

It's an exciting story that gallops along and is peopled by colourful, interesting characters. It's illustrated by the wonderful Michael Foreman, who has illustrated so many of Morpurgo's books, and this adds greatly to its charm. His pictures of the shipwreck are stunning, but so is the detail of the scenes in the hotel and in London. A lovely book.


Monday, 8 May 2017

Vincent’s Starry Night & Other Stories – by Michael Bird illustrated by Kate Evans reviewed by Lynda Waterhouse

I discovered this book in Dulwich Art Gallery bookshop. As soon as I picked it up and held this large book in my hands I was hooked. I had to own a copy. Here were two of my favourite things, art and storytelling woven together by Kate Evans’ beautiful illustrations.
Michael Bird explains in the preface which is entitled ‘part of the magic.’
‘I wanted to tell the history of art through a series of stories. A story, even if you’ve heard it before, takes place in the here-and–now of the imagination.’
The book covers the history of art from 40,000 BC to 2014. It tells the story chronologically and is clearly laid out under headings with intriguing titles such as ‘great ambitions’ (1425-1550), ‘seeing it differently’ (1860-1900) and ‘Where It’s At’ (1950 -2014).
The range of artists covered is diverse ranging from African artists to Ai Weiwei, Monet to Muybridge to Varvara Stepanova to Ibn al-Bawwab. The book is clearly laid out and easy to navigate making it perfect to dip into. There is a glossary, a list of artworks and where to find them. There are double page maps to give you a sense of place such as New York in the 1950’s or Amsterdam in the 1600’s.
The stories have beguiling titles such as ‘The Night is Young’ (Titian), ‘Pebbles and Bombs’ (Henty Moore) and ‘Bottletop Magic’ (El Anatsui). The stories are told with warmth, humour and they reveal Michael’s vast knowledge of art history with a light but powerful touch.
Kate Evans’ watercolour illustrations have a softness and warmth that unifies the book. The subtle palette of colours that she uses throughout complement both the stories and the vast range of art works.
This book is a keeper. It is perfect for a school library or classroom or presented as a gift to treasure. The stories would also make good bedtime reading.
As Michael says, ‘I never want art to lose its strangeness. It is part of the magic.’
ISBN 978-1-78067-614-2
Laurence King Publishing


Thursday, 4 May 2017

A Berlin Love Song by Sarah Matthias, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

I do like a novel that as well as being a good story teaches me something.  Berlin Love Song does just that, putting life into what must have been a huge research task in order to show what happened in what’s been called ‘the forgotten Holocaust’ of Germany’s Romani people. 
But this story does more than show the experience of one Gypsy family, and one teenage trapeze artist, Lily, in particular.  It counterpoints Lily's experience of life and death in Second World War Germany with that of her lover Max, a teenage boy from a rich Berlin family whose members all react differently to the demands that Hitler’s government puts on them.  Max isn’t much interested in politics, but finds himself having to become a member of the Hitler Youth movement, and then a member of the SS in the dying days of the war.  Both Lily's and Max's points of view give us a fresh alternative to the usual British point of view we experience when reading about World War Two, and that in itself gives great food for thought.
This all sounds grim, and of course much of what we experience in the story is, but the story starts with the aged Max looking back to his teenage romance to tell the story of both those characters and their families, so we know from the start that at least he survived.  We also have the wonderfully colourful life of the circus performer Romanies pre-internment, we have the romance of the love story to carry us through, and a positive and hopeful ending is achieved (but I’m not going to give it away!). 
In order to keep the story moving, Sarah Matthias has resisted stopping to explain things as we go, so the story assumes a certain knowledge of what concentration camps are and how these Nazi ones worked, what Doctor Mengele really did, as well as the experience to understand from the clues given that Lily and Max have made love. 

For most of the story, Max and Lily are in different locations, and so the story is told first person by each of them in short chapters that jump from one to the other.  We never lose sight of either character for long, so the story flows well once the contrivance of the old man at the beginning is passed.  So many characters and such a lot of complex history, this is a great achievement!


Sunday, 30 April 2017

My Naughty Little Puppy: A Home for Rascal by Holly Webb. Reviewed by Tamsin Cooke

A Home For Rascal was a favourite in our house when my daughter was younger – so much so – it is one of her treasured possessions.

When Ellie names her puppy Rascal, she doesn't realize how right she is…
The Thomas family are finally getting a puppy – and no one is more excited than dog-mad Ellie! She dreams of a cuddly little pup who will sleep on her bed. But her bossy brother and sister have other ideas. Will Ellie get her perfect puppy?

Ellie often feels side-lined because she’s the youngest. She has to sit in the middle seat in the car and often her squabbling older siblings get their way in arguments. And so Ellie worries when her family decided to get a dog. Will her older brother and sister take over looking after their new pet? Max plans to play with it all the time, and Lila wants to groom and make it beautiful, almost as if it’s an accessory. Yet it soon becomes clear that Ellie is the one who truly understand dogs and wants to take care of their new little puppy. 

There are so many funny episodes in this story and readers will take great delight in Rascal’s adventures. He chews trainers, sneaks up the stairs, chases ducks, and pees where he shouldn’t! Holly Webb captures the nature of puppies perfectly and brings them too life in such a vivid way. She writes with such warmth as she describes Rascal’s mischievous exploits.

Ellie is a fabulous character. She's funny, observant and full of unconditional love for her dog.  Throughout the book, it’s wonderful to see how she learns to stick up for herself amongst her family. There are touching moments where Ellie teaches her siblings how to treat Rascal. Also it's great to see how Ellie is learning responsibility.  As much as she wants to spoil Rascal, she knows deep down she has to teach him to behave.  

I recommend this book for children aged 6+ especially if they are dog-mad!