Thursday, 18 January 2018

Expedition Diaries, by Simon Chapman

My most recent book, Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley, is about an expedition to the Himalayas to find new species of plants. There's lots of danger in it - precipices, rickety bridges dangling over turbulent rivers, ice bridges, journeys through leech and snake-infested jungles - all that. But I have to admit that I, personally, would run - well, stroll - a mile before taking on any of these things. Brave, moi? Certainly not, unlike young Jack.

Whereas Simon Chapman, the author of this series of Expedition Diaries, is absolutely the real thing, and ready to take on the most terrifying challenges. He's an explorer - and not only that, he's an illustrator and author as well, so he not only knows, for example, what it's like to cut a path through the jungle with machetes: he can also draw a picture of the jungle, and explain what it feels like when a machete accidentally slices into your finger. Each of the books is an account of an expedition to a remote area of the world, usually undertaken just by Simon and two or three others; so there's not a huge back-up operation to come and rescue them when things go wrong. 


And go wrong they do; on an expedition to the Amazon Basin, for instance, a canoe skin (by means of which they plan to negotiate the remote River Enatahua in Northern Bolivia) goes missing, so the team has to improvise. They buy several small inflatable dinghies and plan to make a raft of them by tying them to a framework of poles. This sort of works - till the rapids get rough, and the inflatables are punctured, and the whole thing falls apart... And then there's the time in the Himalayas, when he climbs on ahead of the rest of the team, and they don't appear when expected - so he sits there, staring down the slope, wondering what on earth he's going to do (they have his kit) if they don't turn up. This would be a minor worry on a walk in the Lake District - but in the eastern Himalayas, miles and several mountains away from any habitation? Not so funny.

The books are cleverly designed to appeal to young explorers. They're made up of short diary entries, with background information in the form of post-its, and lots of Simon's own sketches and photographs, so they're very easy on the eye and pack in a lot of information about the terrain in a very accessible way. I can see my eleven year-old grandson being engrossed by them - and they would go very nicely with adventure stories set in the correspnding areas: so my book, Jack Fortune, would go well with the Himalayan diaries: Katherine Rundell's book, The Explorer, would tie in with the Amazon diaries, and so on. Here's a page-spread to give you the idea.

Other books in the series are about expeditions to the Australian Outback, the African Savannah, the Indian Lowlands and the Borneo Rainforest.


Sunday, 14 January 2018

Grandad's Secret Giant by David Litchfield review by Lynda Waterhouse

Billy is in a bit of pickle; he cannot reach to finish the mural AND he does not believe Grandad’s tall tales about the secret giant with ‘hands the size of tables, legs as long as drainpipes and feet as big as rowing boats.’  This giant is gentle, helpful and good and he spends his time helping the people of Gableview, ‘quietly and without making a fuss.’ He has even helped out Billy and Grandad as well as rescuing Murphy the dog when he got stuck on a roof.
Billy cannot understand why the giant wants to stay such a BIG secret so Grandad explains, ‘Because people are scared of things that are different….When people see the giant, they scream and run away. It makes him sad.’
When Billy does meet the giant his first reaction is to run away as fast as he can. His second reaction is not to be scared of things that are different and so he turns back. The giant is gone. Billy is sad but Grandad tells him that we all make mistakes and encourages Billy to think for himself of a way to make the giant feel better. Billy hatches a plan based on what he thinks we all need when we are upset. (You’ll have to read the story to find out the answer!).
There is a wonderful luminosity to David’s illustrations. Each page plays with light and shadow to create a magical effect. The smoke beams from chimneys like searchlights which are echoed in the shape of the giant’s feet. A giant wave rises up from a page like Hokusai’s. The town moves from a cool blue to a warm orange.
A wonderful understated story with a strong message about accepting people for who they are as well as accepting yourself.  This story explains empathy in a simple yet powerful way.
ISBN 978-1-84780-848-6


Wednesday, 10 January 2018


   I was first drawn to this book by the beautiful cover. It's a dramatic adventure story based on the real-life loss of a Dutch merchant ship, the Zuytdorp, in a storm in 1712 off the west coast of Australia. From the known facts - that the ship had lost contact with her sister ship, that food supplies were low, and that some of the people aboard were known to have survived, Rosemary Hayes has created a strong, credible and moving narrative with a powerful heroine.

   Fifteen-year-old Annie is the daughter of Andries Jansz, an employee of the Dutch East India Company, and his pregnant wife Susan. Andries is going out to a new job, overseeing the company's warehouses in Java. On the long voyage Annie meets Francois, a young midshipman, and their developing youthful romance runs alongside Annie's involvement in helping the ship's doctor with his work and in teaching a downtrodden ship's boy to read and write.

   The voyage is beset by problems - bad weather, fever and delays - and many people die, including the doctor. Andries becomes ill with fever, and Susan is forced to give birth to her child - the longed-for son - on board ship.

   From this point on, the story becomes unputdownable as the ship is pounded by violent storms and eventually wrecked on the coast of Australia. Half of those on board are drowned; others die later as they struggle to survive and set up a camp.

   How the survivors make a place to live, encounter local tribes and hunt for food, makes for a dramatic story. Susan feeds the baby, but she has lost the will to live, and it's Annie who must take care of him, while Francois protects her from the attentions of some of the rougher men. She is able to rely on Francois until the moment when he has to leave with a group of crewmen seeking a better site for a permanent settlement.

   This is a well-constructed story in which every element is made to count. It grows and develops and delivers a powerful ending that took me by surprise.  Easy to read, with strong emotions and plenty of action, it's suitable for anyone aged about eleven or over.

Published by Troika Books, 2017.


Sunday, 7 January 2018

STAR BY STAR by Sheena Wilkinson. Reviewed by Adèle Geras

I hope it's not too late to wish all readers of this blog a very happy 2018. The year is significant. It's the centenary of the first ever election in which women (over thirty years old, and householders, but still) were allowed to vote. Today's young people, for all that  more and more of them are involved in politics, do not, I think, fully appreciate the work of past generations of women in the struggle  to win the right to have a say in the way that they're governed. I feel that  people of all ages and both sexes take the vote for granted and the figures of the turnout always astonish me.  I often think voting should be made compulsory, as in Australia, and I certainly think that you lose many of your moaning-about-the-government rights if you didn't even bother to turn up at the polling station.

All congratulations, then, to Sheena Wilkinson for being very fast off the mark this year with an informative, interesting and engaging novel for young people. Teachers all over the British Isles, as well as in Ireland, will be grateful to Wilkinson for providing a human and touching account of how things were in December a hundred years ago.

A disclaimer follows. This writer is a friend of mine and we each had a story in the anthology called THE GREAT WAR, which was published in 2014 by Walker Books. That book marked the beginning of the War and this novel (published in paperback by Irish publisher, Little Island) marks its end. Wilkinson has much to say about this period and this novel, even while it's very enjoyable as a story to entertain and move its readers, is also a good introduction to the history of the period in  Ireland. There's a very useful note before the story begins which explains the historical background for young readers clearly and once a reader embarks on the actual story, she already knows all the necessary facts.

And there is much to take in. The Great War, the pandemic of Spanish flu that followed it, the situation of women in Ireland, the various factions seeking the vote in the December election and above all, the fight, over decades, for women to be allowed to have a say in who governs them: all these matters are discussed here in one way or another. 

We follow Stella, whose suffragette mother has died of the flu in England, back to Ireland and we meet a whole cast of fascinating characters who over the course of the book, both teach Stella many things and also learn many things themselves. She goes to live with her aunt Nancy, who runs a guesthouse called Cliffside House, one of whose residents doesn't eat with the others. This is Captain Reid, who has served in the Great War and who ends up being important to the narrative. The other residents and the life of the small town are beautifully described. Every character springs to life and Stella herself is an engaging and amusing narrator of her own story and that of the fight for suffrage. 

Cars are just beginning to be used for getting about and poor Stella is very car sick throughout the book. This can sometimes be funny but mostly it's a metaphor for 'feeling the fear and doing it anyway.'

There are revelations and surprises throughout the novel and I'm not going to give any of those away, but I urge you to read this excellent and important book, and to give it to any teenager who's studying The Great War. This part of that conflict is not often written about. The attention of most people writing about the period is often on the men fighting the war, so all credit to Wilkinson for highlighting the struggle of women for their rights. 


Tuesday, 2 January 2018


Greetings and all good wishes for 2018!

Today's the day when Awfully Big Book Reviews re-opens for the year. I'm really looking forward to seeing everyone's chosen titles as the weeks go by. I really love the interests and enthusiasms among the team of Reviewers and that they will bring a greater diversity of titles than one person's reading list might offer.

Apologies, however, for the repeat of a review below,although I'm not saying sorry for the choice at all as a) the author is the other editor of the ABBA blog and b) the story is a bold, brave adventure mostly set somewhere warmer than here. 

Besides, the review, having been written a while back, will not be bringing you any of the coughs, sneezes, wheezes and bugs currently bothering me and my writing brain. The year, as they say, can only get better. (Achooooo!) Right, here we go . . .

Sometimes, as you start reading a new book, you forget that you know the writer personally, finding yourself instead in the grip of a wonderfully well-written story. Who is it by? you vaguely think. Who? . . . Oh! . . .Of course!  It’s So-and-so’s book! How nice! I’d forgotten that . . . What a pleasure!

Which is what happened as I read JACK FORTUNE AND THE SEARCH FOR THE HIDDEN VALLEY, a novel for 8-12 year olds, written by Sue Purkiss, co-editor of the Awfully Big Blog Adventure.

Inspired by the lives of 18th century plant-hunters, Sue has written a fast-moving historical adventure story.  Jack Fortune, the young hero, is energetic and interestingly naughty. Bored and with no school to attend, he can’t resist devising tricks - ones that made me laugh - mostly on his stern widowed Aunt Constance and her guests. He is immediately likeable and trouble!

Jack accidentally causes real damage, so Constance summons her scholarly bachelor brother, Uncle Edmund, as it is his turn to take responsibility for his nephew. Uncle Edmund refuses.

 Not only is he unused to children, but he is about to set off on his first plant-hunting trip to India. Jack, hearing this exciting news, wants to go along with Uncle Edmund and Aunt Constance, unable to take any more, agrees.

 Jack and his uncle  and the reader – experience a new life full of challenge and interesting people and places. They sail to Calcutta, cross the great plain and travel through the jungle before reaching a high mountain kingdom with a hidden valley. All the way, Jack and his uncle face setbacks and dangers: vagabonds, wild animals,  “mountain sickness” and, at last, reports of a huge, legendary being who attacks intruders to the Hidden Valley. Moreover, an unknown traitor is spoiling the expedition party’s food supplies and causing problems with local villagers.  Who wishes them ill? Is it Sonam, their guide or Thondup, the heir to the throne, whom Jack has begun to admire?

Sue Purkiss’s plot moves along with plenty of pace and action and just enough description to fix the story in its historical time and place, and without overloading her young reader’s enjoyment. She also touches lightly and skilfully on darker issues such as servants and colonisation, but lets the bold adventure end as happily as it should.

However, I felt the book was about more than the plant-hunting quest: Jack and Uncle Edmund make a wonderfully odd and warm partnership, and the hardships met on the expedition teach them more about the other. Bookish Uncle Edmund slowly reveals his bravely determined nature and his passion for plant-hunting - especially for the blue flower that will restore the family fame and fortune. Meanwhile, faced with real demands and responsibilities rather than tea-parties and polite manners, Jack becomes the boy hero he was meant to be and is even able to accept his own inherited artistic gifts.

I liked JACK FORTUNE AND THE SEARCH FOR THE HIDDEN VALLEY very much because, despite the difficulties Jack and his Uncle face, the adventure is a positive and hopeful experience and one that might encourage children to look beyond everyday life and issues in school and out into a wider world.

Alma Books have also created some downloadable activities to support of this title:

as well as an interview with the author Sue Purkiss:                                                                          

Penny Dolan


Thursday, 21 December 2017


HELLO . . .and MERRY CHRISTMAS, almost!
I’m popping in here to the Awfully Big Reviews room to collect the remaining mince pies and hang up a glittery "ON HOLIDAY" notice. 
Yes, we’re closing until 1st January 2018.

However, I can’t shut the door before calling a special greeting to all the Authors who’ve posted here over the last year, generously sharing their knowledge and interests - as well as their reading & writing time - with everyone to spread the word about good and interesting books & more.

to all our ABR Reviewers -
the Old Friends, the New and the Currently Resting.

Hope you all have a very Happy Holiday with time for plenty of quiet time for your books and yourselves.

Meanwhile, looking forward to meeting you all –
Reviewers and Readers –
in the bold and brave New Year.

Happy Reading Everyone!

Penny Dolan