Thursday, 23 March 2017

A STERKARM TRYST by Susan Price, reviewed by Penny Dolan

Susan Price’s long-awaited YA novel A STERKARM TRYST has now been published. 

So, because I loved the world of the 16th Century Border Reivers that was brilliantly evoked in the two earlier titles - THE STERKARM HANDSHAKE and A STERKARM KISS - I bought a copy of this third novel, and was not disappointed. 

Earlier events and confrontations are woven lightly into the plot, allowing new readers and re-readers slip easily into this particular storyline. This is science fiction with excellent time-travelling!

The trilogy has an interesting premise: James Windsor, a late 21st Century entrepreneur, intended to use his company’s Time Tube to colonise and exploit the unspoilt lands of the past. 

Windsor thought his men would easily secure such a backward territory - and then they met the Sterkarms. Of all the feuding families in the Debatable Lands, the Sterkarms are the most treacherous: everyone knows that a Sterkarm handshake might promise friendship with the right hand while the left hand carries a blade to slide between your ribs. 

At first, the Sterkarms treat the 21st century intruders with wary respect, deciding these strangers must be Elves. After all, they can appear and disappear, dress in unknown materials, and carry magic pills that take away pain. And from these "Elvenkind" springs the relationship that stands at the heart of the novels.

Andrea Mitchell, a 21st Century anthropologist, finds the love of her life in Per Sterkarm, the family heir, and at the start of THE STERKARM TRYST, she has come through time to her lover again, though uncertain of any welcome.

Known as his "Entraya", his Elf-May, she has a hard task. She has to warn Per and the Sterkarm family that a deadly new enemy has entered their lands. Windsor has time-travelled a group of Sterkarms from an almost parallel time dimension into this one. These are warriors who know this wild landscape as they do, and who fight with matching ferocity and who look just as they do. They will know all the Sterkarm tricks, and Windsor is behind them.

How can Andrea even explain this phenomenon? 

How can a Sterkarm attack another to whom - it seems - they owe loyalty? 

And how, I wondered, can a writer manage two almost-identical casts?

Susan Price does. Carefully, scene by scene, she moves the action forward, resolving what the reader wants resolved, and ending with treachery getting what it deserves. The headings keep the story straight and satisfying in its conclusions.

However, I must say that the plot was not the only thing that made A STERKARM TRYST a compelling experience for me. Within the storytelling, I heard rich echoes of the traditions, superstitions and legends of the Border Ballads, as well as the languages and voices of the region and its past. Humour is there too, within the pages, as well as moments when the differences between the present and the past are suddenly very evident.

Moreover, the dramatic landscape of the book is recognisably that of the Borders, an area of wild uplands and uncertain weather, a place where cattle-raids were then part of the culture, and where hunger was a constant threat.

I enjoyed being within that way of life, following the descriptions of an active community and culture, along with glimpses of cooking methods, housekeeping and textiles, herbal lore, fear and superstition. Captured in the writing too, was the importance of respectful behaviour and right words and acting according to your status: the sense of a time and place where any perceived insult might mean death.

A STERKARM TRYST feels a very physical story. It moves through camps and hovels and crowded stone towers, past the stink of unwashed clothes and the gutting of meat and the hard lives and gory deaths of men and women: this is not a benign or moral fairy-tale. Besides, survival depends on a reputation for cunning and treachery, especially when there are two lots of Sterkarms riding out, as well as Windsor’s thugs and their 21st Century weapons.

Yet, reading the book from the comfort of home - and despite all the violence - it is hard not to admire the warmth and energy and the bonds of family loyalty and protection within the Sterkarm clan. Like Andrea/Entraya, I found the Sterkarms beguiling, and welcomed the many characters that Susan Price has created – Toorkild, Lady Isobel, Sweet Milk, Gobby, Mistress Crosar, Joan Grannam, Davy, Cho and more - each one entirely convincing, for all their faults.

Especially that blue-eyed, fair-haired hero, Per May Sterkarm. And Cuddy. I have to mention them. Read the book and you’ll discover why.

Penny Dolan.

All three titles, including THE STERKARM TRYST, are published by OpenPress in a handsomely-matching set of covers or as e-books. 



Sunday, 19 March 2017

BLUE JOHN by Berlie Doherty Reviewed by Adèle Geras

I very often  have to start my reviews with the disclosure that I know the writer.  In this case, it's even worse. Not only is Berlie Doherty a very old friend, I've also been published by Barrington Stoke, albeit a long time ago. 

They are a ground-breaking company, dedicated to making things easier for those with reading problems, such as dyslexia.  In the late 90s, their books with their characteristic off-white pages and clear type, together with stories that didn't lose in excitement from being simply written, were like a breath of fresh air. 

They've broadened their output in the last few years and this book is one of a series called LITTLE GEMS. I remember BLUE JOHN as a picture book, long ago, but I've forgotten the details of the text so can't say exactly how much it's been changed it for this edition.

What remains is the story, which is a wonderfully evocative and poetic text, about a kingdom of darkness where the Queen makes a son out of the blue of the glacier and the gold of the sun. She calls him Blue John. As he grows, he wants, as all sons want, more than just his mother's love and the darkness he's been accustomed to. When he sees children exploring the caves, and meets a girl with a moss green ribbon in her hair, he is entranced and they dance together before the Queen of Darkness discovers them and calls him home. 

She takes him back to the cave and rocks him in her arms: 
"...she hummed a song that was like the murmur of ice stretching in sunlight. She rocked him in her quiet arms. Soon the deep sleep of her enchantment washed over him. His eyes closed and the purple-blue of their colour seeped into the stones. The golden yellow of his hair poured like the light of the sun down the walls of the cavern."

The girl comes looking for her dance partner but cannot find him. She goes into the cave and finds instead a blue and yellow stone,  and takes it for herself. She can feel something like a heart beating in it and recognises her friend in what she's holding in her hand. 

There is, of course, a real mineral called Blue John and Doherty has given a simple and beautiful reason both for the way it looks and for its very existence. There's also a factual note about it printed on inside of the back cover. 

The illustrations are simple and striking and add to the beautifully-written story in an interesting way. 

I think this will be a very welcome addition to many bookshelves and I recommend it for anyone who likes folk tales and legends. 

Pub in pbk by Barrington Stoke Little Gems.
ISBN: 9781781125786


Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Step by Step Drawing Book by Fiona Watts / Candice Whatmore, reviewed by Chitra Soundar

When I stumbled on The Step by Step Drawing Book by Fiona Watts, illustrated by Candice Whatmore, published by Usborne Books in a new independent bookshop called Bookasaurus in Melksham, Wiltshire, I thought it would be perfect for my 4 ½ year old nephew who loves to draw.

As I flipped through the pages I realised, it would be perfect for completely novice doodlers like me too. I bought a second copy so I needn't share mine with my nephew.

As a child, I never learnt to draw. But I was always a visual learner and loved illustrated books. One of the reasons I love reading picture books is that a lot can be told in pictures. If there was one thing I’d like to go back and fix if I ever got a time machine would be to learn the skill to draw, doodle, express myself in pictures. For now, I’m learning how to draw a time machine.

Until a few years ago, I never thought I could even attempt drawing. My skills were undeveloped and I knew about 4-5 things I learnt as a child that I could still draw. When my nephew was born and he liked drawing, I decided it was time to learn but this time I had company. I could draw with him. 

My Doodles of Things that go vroom..

I'm proud of this one I learnt to draw from Youtube.

Long story short, I’m still learning to draw and this book is perfect for me. It gives clear and simple instructions that can be followed by an expert 4-year old or a novice 40-year old. It has a selection of animals, people, things that go vroom… and more.

It’s a great book to share as a family and children can definitely get a sense of achievement drawing one thing at a time. And they have a lot of space on each page to practice until they get it right. Once they have learnt something, they can then go ahead and use that knowledge in a wider canvas - use it creatively to tell a story. That for me is a great reason for young people to use this book.

Although this book is part of a series where you can choose to draw lots of dinosaurs or lots of animals or different people, I like this one, which is an assortment of everything.

For an author like me who can’t draw, I’m hoping to practice some nice doodles so I can do them when signing books. So if you're like me and somehow grew into an adult who didn't learn drawing, there is no more any excuse not to learn.


Saturday, 11 March 2017

Help! I'm An Alien by Jo Franklin, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

Ten year old Daniel, 'Oddbod' to his family, gets told by his mean big sister that he is an alien, who was adopted into the family as a baby ... and that revelation makes absolute sense.  The evidence is there! So starts this first person account of Daniel trying to get 'back' to planet Keppler 22b, helped by a geeky friend and a gross friend who themselves are also oddbods.

This is a wonderful, fast-paced, romp of slapstick humour, ideal in its short chapters and text breaks for lists and illustrations for less patient Junior School age readers.  But there's more to the story than the laughs.  Under that surface story is a truly moving one about what it is like to feel the odd one out.  I suspect that most children at some point flirt with the idea that they don't belong in their family, and maybe have been adopted.  And of course some truly are.  Those questions are explored within the safety of daftness, but are developed and resolved very pleasingly all the same.

Every KS 2 classroom or library should have this book on offer to its child book choosers.  (And there are two more stories about Daniel to come ...!)


Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Completely Cassidy by Tamsyn Murray, reviewed by Tamsin Cooke

Completely Cassidy is a fabulous book filled with such humour, warmth and heart.  Straight away you’re drawn into Cassidy’s world, sharing her hopes and fears as she starts secondary school.  And you can’t help but feel sorry for her. On her first day she has to turn up wearing her ‘stinky’ brother’s hand-me-down blazer and an old pair of shoes since her dog ate her new ones.

Cassidy is desperate to shine at school. At first she thinks she’ll have a go at the talent show. Her talents consist of being able to lick her elbow (which is actually harder than it sounds – and yes, I have tried!), annoying her older brother and being a snake charmer - although she’s scared of snakes so she might have to be a hamster charmer instead.

But then she takes a test that is so hard she has to guess the answers randomly, and suddenly the whole school seems to know who she is. Her results make her one of the cleverest students St Jude’s has ever seen. Her pregnant mother and Elvis impersonator dad are over the moon.  And now she gets to join a quiz team alongside the boy she fancies. But as you can imagine, life doesn’t run quite as smoothly as she’d like…

All the characters are so well thought out, often surprising you. And there are so many funny touches in this story. There’s a toe-curling incident with a dog and a pair of knickers. And Cassidy actually writes to the prime minister hoping for a return to the Victorian school leaving age so she can go down a coal mine rather than have double maths.

Tamsyn Murray has created a fabulously fun heroine with a really strong voice. You root for Cassidy as she navigates friendships, family, school and haircuts. It's the perfect book for children about to start secondary school as I bet many will see a little bit of themselves in Cassidy.


Tuesday, 28 February 2017

TILT by Mary Hoffman and UNTIL WE WIN by Linda Newbery. Reviewed by Penny Dolan

History seems to me to be even more important these days, so I was pleased to receive two “history” titles from the publisher Barrington Stoke. Although each book is set in different period and place, each focuses on a character likely to inspire teen and pre-teen readers: a girl longing to escape the role their society has given them, and driven by a consuming passion, rather than a romance. Although - following Adele Geras' practice, I admit I know both writers, it was the books and the subject matter that intrigued me.

TILT by Mary Hoffman
Mary Hoffman’s Stravaganza historical fantasies for teenagers are evidence of her love and long knowledge of Italy. Now, in TILT, she takes her readers straight to the Pisa of 1298: the famous leaning church tower must be completed. The prestige and honour of the city, the church, the architect and of the long-respected Pisano family are all at stake, but how can another layer be added without toppling the entire structure to the ground? 

The story is told through the eyes of sixteen-year-old Simonetta, know as Netta. She is the only daughter of the widower Giovanni Pisano, stone-mason, sculptor, and Head Mason of Santa Maria Maggiore church. It is Measuring Day but Netta knows her father is worried by more than the tower. Without living sons, how will the family business continue? She longs to be free of women’s tasks and kitchen chores and be a help to him.
Netta wants to know how her father “could take these shapeless lumps of stone and transform them into leaves without even thinking about it.
An acanthus leaf was one thing. But a tower that rose straight and true to the sky quite another. And what I wanted to know was how you got from the leaf to the tower.”
When her father realises how interested Netta is, he lets her into his confidence and even employs another servant to help in the kitchen so Netta has time to observe the work in the stone yard and study the drawings in his office. Her world has opened up, and when she is suddenly offered marriage by a young stonemason from Siena, she rejects him, unwilling to risk dying in childbirth before she has learned all she wants to know.
Written in an appealing, straightforward style, Netta’s “voice” reminded me at times of the directness of Karen Cushman’s influential book I, Birdy.
Mary Hoffman creates a vivid picture of Netta’s world and its dependency on wealthy, important patrons. She also makes the reader aware of the many minds and hands and centuries involved in the making of such famous buildings. Now they may be familiar, much-photographed landmarks but once they were only a dream.
I must add that, subtly, throughout the story, she draws the attention to the practical application of subjects such as physics, engineering, sculpture, architecture, geometry, mathematics and more. Perhaps TILT will stir up such  interests and passions in a modern Netta’s heart?

UNTIL WE WIN by Linda Newbery 

The attractive “stitched” cover of this book, with its purple, green and white colour scheme, honours the embroidery typical of Suffragette movement, the subject of this book.
Set in the summer of 1914, Linda Newbery offers the reader a picture of life just before the Great War: a time when society is straining under change.
Seventeen-year-old Lizzie Frost can’t help being angered by how her mother’s life is dominated by the needs of her blacksmith father and her overbearing stablehand of a brother Ted, and the over-riding priority given to men’s work.
Determined to have a life beyond the gossipy village, Lizzie works as a filing clerk for an Insurance Company in the nearby town, saving enough to buy herself a second-hand bicycle, her proud symbol of independence.
Nevertheless, Lizzie still smarts under the constant reminders to know her place, whether from Mr Palmer her boss, her father at home or Ted’s boorish friend Frank who expects her to marry him when he enlists.
However, on the way to start secretarial classes at the local Workers Institute, Lizzie meets two young women who invite her to come along to a local suffragette meeting. Lizzie has already heard of the Women’s Social and Political Union – the WSPU – and the death of Emily Wilding Davison, so she decides to go along to hear the speaker’s lecture on the Cat and Mouse Act. What she hears changes Lizzie’s life.
At work the next day “I had to force myself to concentrate. My mind was sparking with excitement and a new determination. Last night I had found something bigger than myself, bigger than the samey dullness of life in the village and the office. I’d found something to be passionate about.”
        Lizzie becomes involved in more activism. Her deception about attending “weekly classes” is discovered and worse follows: police violence, arrest, job loss, false promises and prison. Eventually, Lizzie has to decide where her own future is leading.
UNTIL WE WIN is a useful and essential piece of well-researched, easy to read fiction. Linda Newbery’s short book weaves together the important historical threads of 1914 and, through the character of Lizzie, makes the story of the Suffragette movement  relevant for young readers in our current, overtly-feminist times.

TILT by Mary Hoffman and UNTIL WE WIN by Linda Newbery are two interesting books for teen readers, well worth a place on the school library shelf.  

However, as I read these two titles, I could not help considering the books as artefacts in themselves, especially as the publisher BARRINGTON STOKE aims to make reading as easy and enjoyable as possible, especially for dyslexic pupils or reluctant readers.
 At about ninety pages, these two books are short - especially for historical fiction - yet the level of content felt satisfying enough to hold each story together and to inform the reader.
At the same time, I could not help wondering whether some readers now might also be “reluctant” because they have so little time to read for recreation & pleasure, or both. It is easy forget just how much text and information - whether on page or screen - pupils face these days, and how tiring that quantity might be.
Surely, one of the pleasures of these brief volumes is that the story is accessible? The content is not little and light but the book can be read quite quickly, fitted into a little space in a busy schedule. They are books that many young people, especially girls, would enjoy reading.
Furthermore, the writing is direct and accessible, the stories not overburdened with description, yet each exists in its own believable historical world. The books don’t gush, but the plots have an emotional drive and the subject matter is never “childish”. Besides, poor reading skills do not, of themselves, preclude ability or interest in subjects such as art or geometry or mathematics.
And – sssh! - I’d also like to admit to some writer envy here, too. Barrington Stoke are known for how carefully they design their books. Looking through the pages, I see they allow  “breathing” space around the words, use a clear serif font, have short, titled chapters and use a good quality of creamy-coloured paper: all of which subtly signify that the book contains a story someone believes is worth reading – which is a good message to send.
I suspect that many writers, discovering their own title has been set out in a tight, tiny font on thin paper, would welcome such visible respect for their printed work, and be glad that their work would be easily readable, by readers of all levels. Well done, Barrington Stoke!

Penny Dolan


Sunday, 26 February 2017

The Girl Who Drank The Moon, by Kelly Barnhill, reviewed by Sarah Hammond

I intended to review another book for my post today, but once I read the first pages of The Girl Who Drank The Moon, I was side-tracked. Perhaps entranced. 

This fast paced, middle grade fantasy deftly weaves together multiple storylines as a girl brimful of moonlight and magic, an ailing witch, a scar-faced carpenter, a swamp monster poet, a madwoman and a tiny dragon are pit against a magician who cultivates and feeds on sorrow. By the time I finished reading, I felt as if I, too, had swallowed a little starlight. 

Each year, in order to appease the Witch, the youngest baby in the Protectorate is left for her in the forest by the Elders. ‘Sacrifice one or sacrifice all’ say the sorrowful people. Or so they have been led to believe. In fact, the Elders encourage this practice to keep their people frightened, sad and compliant. Yet, this, we learn, is not the full story either. For there is a Witch in the woods, but she is perplexed by the annual baby-leaving rituals. Xan is kind and chooses not to judge. Rather, she takes the abandoned babies and gives them to caring families on the other side of the forest, sustaining them en route with starlight. 

One day, however, Xan makes a mistake. Instead of feeding the latest baby starlight, she feeds her moonlight. “There is magic in starlight, of course. This is well known. Moonlight, however. That is a different story. Moonlight is magic. Ask anyone you know.” 

Xan calls the 'enmagicked' baby Luna, decides to keep her and become her grandmother. Yet as Luna approaches her thirteenth birthday, when her magic will flow fully, other forces are at work. A carpenter enters the forest to hunt the Witch and stop the sacrifices. Luna’s mother, driven mad with grief, escapes to find her daughter. Xan goes to rescue the latest abandoned child. Her friends, the swamp monster and tiny dragon, follow Xan, worried about her deteriorating health. Fast-moving to the end, sorrow is defeated and love triumphs.

At one level, this is a gripping story with well-developed, memorable characters. Traditional fairytale motifs are woven inventively into the plot. Yet at another level, the poetic language, the hopeful and wise themes threading through the story hint at something deeper. Madness unlocks a way of discovering nuggets of magic in the world. One generation fills the next with magic as their own gently dwindles. Beyond death, there is nothing to fear. Beyond magic, there exists a oneness from the beginning of the world.

The Girl Who Drank The Moon won the Newbery Medal, 2017.