Sunday, 21 August 2016

The Book of Storms, by Ruth Hatfield: reviewed by Sue Purkiss

First, a warning: this is the first part of a trilogy, and the third part isn't out till November.

This is a highly original fantasy, about Danny, whose parents are obsessed by storms. One night they go out to track a particularly powerful one - and they don't return. When Danny ventures out into the garden looking for them the next morning, he finds that an old sycamore tree has been struck by lightening, and his eye is caught by a small stick which, though it's lying in the centre of the debris, is curiously unburnt. He picks it up - and finds he can hear the voice of the dying tree - and the voices of every other living thing, too...

The world the stick opens up to him, the strangeness of the events surrounding his parents' disappearance - and the fear that there might be trouble from social services if they find out that his parents left him alone - he is 11 - in the middle of the night: all these things convince him he must find his parents himself.  He finds clues in some notes made by his parents, and becomes convinced that he needs a certain Book of Storms, which is in the possession of an old man called Abel Korsakof who lives not too far away.

And so it begins. The reader finds out, quite a while before Danny, that the enemy of the piece is Sammael - who is a quite extraordinary creation. He's described as a demon - but he's not a typical demon; he doesn't breathe flames or have cloven hooves. He does do Faustian-type deals though - with, among others, Abel Kosakof - offering people what they most want in return for their souls, or 'sand'. He does, though, have a dry sense of humour, which I rather liked. And he's fond of his dog, though he doesn't treat her well. But there's no denying he has it in for the human race - and when Danny starts to get in his way, things turn very nasty, both for Danny and for those closest to him.

I found this a really powerful read. It's very well written: the fantasy world, and its relationship with the real world, become entirely convincing. The second book, The Colour of Darkness, is equally strong - though the new character, Cath, is so resilient and determined that she makes Danny look a bit of a wimp. When I'd finished the first two books, I immediately went to download the third - and teeth were gnashed when I found out that it doesn't come out till the autumn.

Just a word of caution - although Danny and Cath are 11, the trilogy is definitely not middle grade: this is not a happy-ever-after fantasy. There is death and violence, perpetrated by real-life characters as well as by fantasy ones. The covers are dark, and so are the stories. I'm hoping for a happy ending, but I'm not convinced I'm going to get one! But then, The Lord of the Rings also has a hefty share of darkness, and in that too, while good ultimately triumphs, it's at considerable cost.

Ruth Hatfield is a very talented new writer, and I look forward to seeing what she will produce next.


Wednesday, 17 August 2016

SEVEN MILES OF STEEL THISTLES by Katherine Langrish; reviewed by Gillian Philip

I wanted to take more time to read this lovely book, a collection (with amendments and additions) of Katherine Langrish’s posts in her blog of the same name. In fact, halfway through I paused to berate myself. If a book is as beautifully written and engrossing as this one, I told myself, you ought to relax, take your time, roll it around your brain for a while and make it last.

But by that time I was with the story of Briar Rose, the Sleeping Beauty, and Langrish was placing it in a context of stopped time, suspended animation, preserved moments. And I realised that it was fine to spend a hot and sunny afternoon doing nothing but immersing myself in this investigation of, and paean to, fairytales. So long as thorn bushes didn’t start growing up around the house, one gulp at one sitting was a perfectly good way to devour it.

Rescuing Sleeping Beauty from her reputation as the most passive heroine in storytelling is just one of the author’s feats. (I use the word deliberately; ‘Seven Miles of Steel Thistles’ is a description of an obstacle in a story of one of those rambling fairytale quests, but Langrish also likens it to the act of writing a book. I can totally relate.) She kills stone-dead the notion that fairytales are all about weak, passive princesses awaiting rescue; her retelling of the story of Mr Fox – a far more feminist folktale than Perrault’s Bluebeard –  is especially delightful, and I envy the schoolchildren who have heard her tell it live. 

Langrish begins, though, with an analysis of what fairytales are, and where they came from, and the often blurred distinctions between fairytales, myths and legends. As she puts it in the introduction:

“The field of fairy stories, legends, folk tales and myths is like a great, wild meadow. The flowers and grasses seed everywhere; boundaries are impossible to maintain. Wheat grows into the hedge from the cultivated fields nearby, and poppies spring up in the middle of the oats…”

But Katherine Languish has a forensic approach to classifying them and clarifying the distinctions. It’s not about the fairies: plenty of fairytales have none at all. They’re not about characterisation, or intricate description, or even sane and logical plotting. These are stories most of all about ordinary people, their lives, their hopes and fears – albeit through the filter of weird metamorphoses and talking foxes. Fairytales “don’t ask to be believed”; but in the splendid chapter Desiring Dragons, Langrish declares that it’s our ability to think symbolically that makes us human. Far from telling children (and adults) they should grow out of Harry Potter, Langrish believes that “Myths and stories deserve to be taken seriously - read and written seriously - because there are things humanity needs to say that can only be said in symbols.”

Seven Miles of Steel Thistles is a wide-ranging journey through centuries – millennia – of these symbolic stories; as well as retelling and analysing fairytales from many cultures, Langrish gives us personal stories of her own love – begun in childhood – for these uniquely human creations. The chapters are punctuated by some of her own beautiful, sharp poems inspired by folk and fairytales. And she has done some fascinating detective work on the various versions of The Great Selkie of Sule Skerrie. It’s unsurprising that the original can’t be tracked down (though the journey is entertaining) – as she points out, there are no such thing as original folktales. We have no idea how they began – and one highly entertaining chapter (The King Who Had Twelve Sons) details how we sometimes don’t even know how they end.

I’m a huge fairytale nerd, so I guess it’s not surprising that I loved this book: one to make time stop on a hot, languid summer afternoon. I may have read it faster than I meant to, but I’ll be reading it again, very soon. It’s a story all of its own, and after all, that's what stories are for.

Seven Miles of Steel Thistles by Katherine Langrish; The Greystones Press; rrp £12.99

Seven Miles of Steel Thistles by Katherine Langrish; The Greystones Press; rrp £12.99


Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Black Powder by Ally Sherrick review by Lynda Waterhouse

This is Ally Sherrick’s first novel and it is a sparkling debut. Black Powder is set in the year of 1605. There is a new king on the throne, King James, and English Catholics hope that he will be more tolerant towards them but there are also fears about what Robert Cecil and his ring of spies are up to. These are dangerous times to live in especially if you are, like twelve year old Tom Garnett, a Catholic. The opening paragraphs illustrate the real danger and dilemmas that Tom faces as he goes to fetch water,
The hangman stood hunched at the top of the wooden scaffold like a hungry black crow. A mob of screaming gulls wheeled above him, but his eyes stayed fixed on the noose as it swayed to and fro in the cold sea breeze. Tom’s heart jolted. He didn’t want to watch a man die, but if he ran away now everyone would know he was a Catholic for sure.
Trouble comes closer to home as his father helps a priest escape and Tom is forced to betray his whereabouts in order to save his mother and younger brother. He sets out on a journey to free his mother and rescue his father. He visits Cowdrey House, his mother’s family home – the seat of the powerful Montague Family where he meets the feisty Cressida.
Along the way he also teams up with a mysterious stranger called The Falcon who promises to help him save his father in exchange for help with his plot to destroy Robert Cecil. But nothing is what it seems. There are truth, lies, spies and compromises everywhere. Tom, aided by Cressida and his pet mouse, Jago, face danger as the plot thickens and we get closer to the fifth of November. Will sparks fly?
This is both a fresh retelling of a difficult period in history and its themes are also relevant for young people today. Is it possible to see clearly when you are surrounded by hatred? 
A cracking thriller with heart.


Friday, 5 August 2016

LIBERTY'S FIRE by Lydia Syson. Reviewed by Ann Turnbull.

In this powerful and complex novel Lydia Syson brings to life the three months of the Paris Commune of 1871.

Four young people living in Paris come together in a story of war, revolution and comradeship: Anatole, a violinist, shares an apartment with Jules, an American photographer, and pays for his room by modelling for photographs; Marie, a colleague and friend of Anatole, is a beautiful young singer at the opera, hungry for success and anxious about the fate of her soldier brother. Into their lives comes Zephyrine, who used to work for a living but is now destitute.

When we first meet Zephyrine, she is on the brink of prostitution as she attempts to earn some money to pay for a proper funeral for her grandmother who, like many others, has died of starvation during the siege of Paris. She is rescued by Anatole, and their growing love for each other forms the core of the first half of the book as Zephyrine draws Anatole into the heart of the city's revolutionary fervour.

Although the rise and fall of the Commune is a dramatic setting, it's the characters in this story who make it so compelling that you become desperate to know what will happen to them. In particular, the subtle interplay of relationships and unspoken feelings between Jules, Anatole and Zephyrine are described with delicacy and care and without a false note. I love all Lydia Syson's novels but I think this one is my favourite because the characters are so interesting. Add to that the bohemian lifestyles and the excitement of the people's uprising and you have the perfect mixture.

This is historical fiction at its best: opening a window on the past and showing a moment that has echoes and resonances with our own troubled times.


Monday, 1 August 2016

The Star Tree, by Catherine Hyde. Reviewed by Saviour Pirotta

Title: The Star Tree
Written and illustrated by Catherine Hyde
Published by Frances Lincoln/Quarto Kids
Publication date: 4 August 2016

I have to confess that I'm a bit biased when it comes to Catherine Hyde's work. She illustrated my 2010 version of Firebird, which earned us some fantastic reviews and an Aesop Accolade in the US.

Catherine had already illustrated Carol Ann Duffy's The Princess' Blankets before she worked with me and she went on to team up with Jackie Morris for Evie in the Wild Wood. This, however, is the first book that she has written and illustrated herself.

Here is a dreamy, lyrical story of a girl who makes a wish on the moon. It is midnight on midsummer's eve, a time when all wishes come true. And so starts a magical picaresque journey that will take Miranda from her warm seaside home to the frozen North where the fabulous star tree grows.  She is helped on her way by magical creatures of the night: an owl, a hare, a bear, a stag and finally a silver-feathered goose. Will she find the magical star tree?

Catherine Hyde's pictures are always mesmerising and here she employs a pontillist style to great effect, giving the book a very organic feel. It feels almost like some of the pictures formed naturally on the page, like lichen patterns on old stone or cherry blossom petals on a late-spring lawn. The text, almost a poem, is carefully crafted, inviting you to turn the page and accompany Miranda on her enchanted journey.

All in all this is a wonderful bedtime treat you would want to revisit again and again, both for the story and the enticing pictures.

Saviour Pirotta's next book Ballet Stories for Young Children will be published by Orchard in October 2016. 
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Thursday, 28 July 2016

Dara Palmer’s Major Drama by Emma Shevah

Reviewed by Jackie Marchant

This is a book about how nuns and noodles can change your life.  And don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler, it’s there in the first line.  As you can imagine from that, this is a light-hearted read, full of laughs and a lot of Major Dramas.  That’s not a spoiler either – it’s in the title.

But there is a serious side to this book.  Dara, convinced that she’s destined to become a major Hollywood star, knows she’ll land the main role in the school play without the need to audition.  So, when she’s not even given a walk-on part, she can only think of one reason why – the main part is Maria Von Trapp, blonde and Austrian, not dark and Cambodian like Dara.

At first I was perturbed that this could be the reason for not casting her in a white role – surely schools and teachers aren’t allowed to do that?  But then the truth creeps in – it could be that Dara might be better at over-acting than acting.  Her thinking she needs no drama lessons and refusal to even think about them could be part of the problem.  The fact she hero-worships two white, blonde Hollywood stars who couldn’t act their way out of a paper bag doesn’t help either.  Besides, as her friend Lacey points out, there are children from all backgrounds in the cast.  Huge sigh of relief, the school is not guilty of discrimination here.

The rest of the world is, however, different.  Dara, desperate for Hollywood, does not know a single well known Cambodian actor.  There are no posters of gorgeous Cambodian Hollywood stars and she can’t see how she can be cast in these roles looking the way she does.  Her ever helpful brother can count on the fingers on one hand how many there are in real life.  Makes you think. 

The other issue is that of her background.  Dara has been adopted into a white, blonde family.  Her brother is the natural child, her sister is adopted, but, being blonde and from Russia, there are no raised eyebrows when she’s introduced as a member of the Palmer family.  But her family are utterly supportive in her need to find out who she is.  Despite the major dramas in her life, Dara knows how lucky she is.

This is a book about identity and dreams.  It’s about accepting who you are and accepting others for who they are.  Most of all it’s a fun, heart-warming read.


Sunday, 24 July 2016

THE BOY AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN by JOHN BOYNE, reviewed by Pauline Francis


In this novel, Boyne re-visits World War 2 almost ten years after the success of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, so there’s the question: ‘Will this be as successful? 

Boyne uses a familiar technique: he sets up the world of Pierrot, a seven year old boy, very carefully. Did he decide to make this boy younger, I wonder, following the criticism of Bruno in his first novel - that he was too old not to understand that he was living next to a concentration camp? Or is that just me, thinking as an author, not as goes with the job. 

Pierrot has a German father, a French mother and a Jewish friend, a deaf boy called Anschel. After being orphaned, Pierrot is sent from Paris to Austria, where his Aunt Beatrix works as a housekeeper to a mysterious master who visits the Berghof, a house on top of a mountain in the Bavarian Alps. Travelling there alone, Pierrot’s fear is increased when he is bullied by young German soldiers on the train.

The reader is quickly drawn in to Pierrot’s new and strange world: the master of the Berghof is Adolph Hitler; the year is 1935 and the world is already moving towards war. Pierrot recognises Hitler as soon as he sees him. His aunt has already taught him what to say if they meet: Heil Hitler. They do meet, and Hitler take s a liking to Pierrot (re-named Pieter), and slowly sucks him into the Hitler Youth. That’s when I became too aware of the research that went into this book. I didn’t like the cameo appearances of real people into real history, such as the visit from the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson. 

But then fictional events take a turn for the worse and rack up a terrible tension. This is where I began to hold my breath. I want to sympathise with the traumatised, orphaned Pierrot/Pieter. I want his innocence to survive the brutality of war. But I know, deep down, that he has to conform to survive. 

And survive he does, at the cost of a terrible decision. Traitors must be punished, Pieter told himself.
That’s the great sadness and tragedy for me, an innocent child corrupted by his environment. Will Pieter suffer regret and guilt forever? Will Pieter be able to see just what he’s become? He has to, hasn’t he, otherwise he will have been corrupted forever. There has to be a way back for him, for all those who have been corrupted by war.

I once listened to a talk given by a boy soldier, ordered to kill to order in Sierra Leone. He said that afterwards, he was taught by a therapist to repeat, ‘It wasn’t me who killed. It was somebody else.’
How will Boyne deal with this dilemma?

I thought it wasn’t going to be solved, even as I began to read the last chapter, A Boy without a Home. At first, it read again too much like a history book, too close to research. And then came the ending I wanted, a wonderful ending of hope, which has stayed with me – and I won’t spoil by telling you, except to say that Pieter offers his only friend – and his reader – the chance to decide.

Pauline Francis