Sunday, 30 December 2012

Doppler, by Erlend Loe

Erlend Loe's Doppler is definitely the quirkiest book I’ve read all year, and I absolutely loved it.

This is the story of a man - Doppler - who decides he has had enough. He has had enough of playing the game, of toeing the line - enough of being ‘nice’. When we meet him, he has already shirked his responsibilities and is quite contentedly living in a tent in the forest above his home city, Oslo, in Norway. It’s not exactly remote, or cut off, but it’s peaceful and he’s able to mind his own business. The question is, though, how long will things remain this way?

Let’s not be shy about this, Doppler does what he needs to to survive without becoming a part of the capitalist machine. This involves a bit of minor breaking and entering, a bit of bartering and, on page one, the killing of an elk, the main consequence of which is that, following a hilarious game of chase and tag, the elk’s baby moves into Doppler’s tent with him. Now, I’m not too familiar with elk. I have never met one, but I generally imagine them to be pretty big creatures, so either Doppler has an unusually large tent, or baby elk are quite tiddly. Either way, though, Bongo - as Doppler names him - quickly becomes an integral part of Doppler’s life.

As for Doppler’s shirked responsibilities, these soon come calling, namely in the form of a pregnant wife, a teenage daughter and a young son. The miracle of this story is that despite the fact that Doppler has, to all intents and purposes, abandoned his family, I cannot look down upon him for it. I think at first they - and I - have a little trouble understanding it, but ultimately it’s impossible to not accept it: this is simply the way that Doppler is. He means no harm by it, but he just cannot live the way he used to any longer. His son, Gregus, joins Doppler in the forest, cold-sweating his way through kiddy-TV withdrawal, and his wife simply says, go, do what you need to do, and there is a beautiful simplicity to these words and actions, the trust and love inherent within them.

Of course, things are not quite that simple - otherwise Doppler wouldn’t have a tale to tell. First there is the brilliant scene where he is captured breaking into his regular ‘theft’ house, and the scene where on a rare night in his family home, he awakes to find someone breaking in there too. How does Doppler react to his intruder? Offers him coffee of course. And gradually, as Doppler spreads - intentionally or unintentionally? - word about the simplicity of forest life, he finds the very things he went there for being subtly removed from him. This is perfect irony: he wants everyone else to understand what he is doing and to acknowledge that its the better way to be, but if they’re going to follow suit, he’d really much rather they did so somewhere else, please.

And all the while in the background is a running theme of fatherhood. Doppler is grieving the death of his father and, whilst questioning his own fathering abilities, becomes a father-figure not only to Bongo but to the others who follow him into the forest. What conclusions is he ultimately going to come to? What does being a father mean? And what does being alone mean?

The tag line on the front of my copy says, “An elk is for life - not just for Christmas,” and I’d say the same for Doppler. A simple fable that works perfectly.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Skin Deep, by Laura Jarratt

It is eight months since the car crash that tore apart Jenna’s village, killed her best friend, and left her face with an angry burn scar. In her mind, she is ugly; she cannot bare to look in the mirror and when she leaves the house it feels like everyone is staring. She misses her friend and doesn’t know how to be herself anymore. And Stephen, the boy responsible, the boy who was driving, is walking around as if nothing happened.

A new town, new people. Again. Ryan is used to upping sticks and moving on: he and his mum are travellers, living on a boat and moving from place to place. When they moor near to Jenna’s house, he and Jenna strike up a friendship that is set to change them both. Used to being looked down upon and judged, Ryan finds in Jenna someone who can see him for the person he truly is. But as their relationship develops, circumstances out of their control seem set to tear them apart.

This was a surprising story that ran deeper than I was expecting. Instead of being a simple teen romance, the plot develops in all sorts of directions - including murder. After the accident, Jenna’s dad set up a campaign group for traffic safety - he wants to bring reckless drivers to justice, but Jenna hates the attention it brings on her, especially when the family becomes a target for harassment on top of everything else. Why won’t he just leave things alone? And Ryan has a knack for attracting trouble too: protecting Jenna’s honour gets him into a fight with Stephen. Can he protect both Jenna and his sick mum, or will he have to sacrifice one for the other?

Skin Deep is a good read and covers several different issues in a calm manner without making a big deal out of them - bullying, sexual harassment, low self esteem, bipolar disease, child carers. This sounds like a fairly grizzly list when written out like that, and could make it seem as if this is a misery-filled book, but it is not. Far from it. These are simply the everyday sort of things that the various different characters encounter during the story, and they deal with them as and when they need to in a positive and healthy manner. In this way, author Laura Jarratt writes in a very natural manner. Neither the writing nor the storyline come across as contrived or constructed; instead it feels very much as if these could be real people going through just these same things somewhere in a sleepy little English town. All credit to Jarratt.

Ultimately, Jenna and Ryan both manage to find a way through their problems - or, at least, begin to learn how to live with their circumstances - and there are a few real live truths tucked away in their story. Skin Deep is not likely to attract a cult following to the extent that authors such as Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins have, but it is a strong offering in a sometimes indifferent teen market that will sit well alongside authors such as Jenny Downham.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Lovely, Dark and Deep, by Amy McNamara

I was thinking about being a grown-up and reading an ‘adult novel’ this week, but instead found myself irresistibly drawn in by the beautiful cover and the poetic title of Amy McNamara’s debut teen novel Lovely, Dark and Deep.

This is the story of Wren, who has fled her New York home to hide away in her father’s house in the Maine woods. All she wants is to be alone, to not talk, to not have to answer to everyone’s expectations. She wants to be cold and hard, to block out the person she was before and the accident that changed everything. But the world has a way of slipping its way back in - will she let it, or how far is she willing to go to block it out?

McNamara’s portrayal of Wren’s grief is immense and realistic, a story that clearly comes from her heart, and there is some essence of beauty wrapped up within the book that struck deep within me. Some people expect Wren to just get up one day and be better, an attitude that simply drives her deeper, until she quietly, gradually, gathers people around her who inspire subtle changes - handsome Cal, who has his own difficulties to work through, her quiet father, and Zara, who has, perhaps, the best kind of words Wren could hope for.

I was pulled into Wren’s drowning world right from the beginning, but what I loved best about Lovely, Dark and Deep was the symbology interwoven between the cover, the title, and the story within. The image of a snow-covered tree speaks firstly of the cold desolation Wren is feeling, secondly of a particular event in the book where she becomes lost in the dark woods surrounding her father’s home and, thirdly, of the perfectly scripted title, a quote from Robert Frost’s poem, Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening. And then there are the papercut snowflakes scattered around the girl in the picture, referencing a second event in the storyline that is itself incredibly symbolic: after being pushed into reading a set of her friend’s letters, thereby being forced to retread a period she’s trying to move away from, Wren rebels by grabbing a pair of scissors, folding the letters up, and cutting them down into paper snowflakes, an act of turning something ugly into something beautiful and a transformation similar to that which Wren is seeking to perform on herself.

McNamara ties all these elements together with a seemingly effortless ease, subtly entreating Wren - and me - to consider the importance of being true to who you are and how you feel, an idea that is not always easy to adhere to, but one worthy of remembering. Wren must navigate the title, the deep dark woods of grief; the miles to go before she sleeps, but she’ll get there. Wonderful.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

My Best Friend and Other Enemies, by Catherine Wilkins

This book is brilliant; I absolutely loved it. The title alone is utter genius, and the story inside is perfectly balanced, completely living up to expectation.

My Best Friend and Other Enemies tells the story of Jess. She and Natalie have been best friends for ever, but since new girl Amelia came along, Jess finds herself increasingly pushed to the sidelines. This, understandably, is pretty hurtful, especially when she learns that Natalie and Amelia have started a secret club to which Jess is explicitly not invited to join. What do you do when your best friend suddenly stops being particularly friendly? And, worse, when she starts hanging out with someone who is only capable of being nasty?

God, this is such familiar territory. I can remember pretty much exactly the same thing happening to me at school, as I am sure it has happened the world over to girls of the ‘tween’ and early teen age. Jess suddenly has to endure taunts in the classroom, being ousted from after-school activities, and even has dirty tricks played on her. While these events get Jess down she manages, somehow, to not actually let them get her down. Not only does she bite back, developing tentative friendships with some other girls and forming their own club, but she remains upbeat and positive about herself throughout the book. “I am brilliant,” is an Jess’s oft-repeated refrain, both in good times and bad times, and is really something I should learn to tell myself more often. It certainly seems to work for Jess.

“I knew this would be brilliant,” she tells herself. “I should listen to myself more often. I’m brilliant. I knew I was. What was all that worry about glasses being half full and half empty before? The rule is: I’m brilliant. That should just be a rule.” (pg. 68)

Jess is not big-headed, though, far from it. Surrounded by her quirky family - overactive little brother Ryan, anti-capitalist older sister Tammy, and parents on an economy drive - by being herself and sticking to her guns she makes friends with a whole variety of people, girls and boys alike, ultimately making a name for herself through amusing cartoons as well as sorting things out with Natalie and Amelia without too much of a massive and hideously unhealthy showdown. Everything works out in the end, though it is a bit of a struggle along the way.

It probably helped that I really, really related to Jess, but I do think this is one of the most awesome girls books I’ve read all year. I don’t imagine for a moment that either Jess or I are alone in feeling the things we do and having the friends trouble we’ve had; as such it’s a book that is likely to appeal to a huge number of readers. Let’s face it, girls can be really mean. It’s also incredibly funny, with a style strongly reminiscent of Louise Rennison, except aimed at younger readers and with more focus on friendships than on boys. It was so natural, with a beautiful flow, and it really made me snigger. Cartoons scattered through the pages are a nice touch, but the positive attitude that Jess maintains throughout - and the positive ending - are what really stands out. Catherine Wilkins is definitely an author to watch out for.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Geekhood: Close Encounters of the Girl Kind, by Andy Robb

(1) a circus freak or sideshow performer.
(2) a strange or eccentric person.
(3) a creep or misfit.

This is my dictionary’s definition of the word ‘Geek’. It seems a bit harsh, really. Creep? I think not. That 'geek' was originally used to describe the circus ‘freak’ is familiar, but today I think the term has a much, much wider remit; one that my dictionary clearly cannot put its finger on. What is a geek, after all?

In Archie’s world - the star of Andy Robb’s Geekhood: Close Encounters of the Girl Kind - being a geek means being a gawky teenager with a particular obsession in fantasy and fantasy realms such as Lord of the Rings, intricate role-playing games, and the painting of model figures to be used in the playing of said games. It represents that difficult period of trying to figure out who you are and where you fit in - and, of course, how to talk to girls.

At its heart, Geekhood is a story about figuring these things out. There’s a lot going on in Archie’s life, and he keeps most of it hidden underneath the surface. Coping mechanisms include delving into fantasy land and a slightly bitter but amusing interior monologue:

“I’ve developed a VERY LOUD interior monologue that works completely independently from from what my face and body are doing. For example, at the moment, while Tony is examining my prized goblin warrior, my face has crinkled into the approximation of a sleepy smile, while my hand scratches at my head in a pantomime of tiredness... However, at the same time that my exterior is sending all these signals of muzzy cheeriness, my Interior Monologue is saying something along the lines of: Put that bloody thing down, you Tosser! It’s not there for you to laugh at; it’s there as an expression of my need to escape this world and embrace a realm where anything is possible!” (pg. 11-12)

But then a gorgeous goth girl walks into his life - and, low and behold, talks to him. Sarah acts as a catalyst for change. In his slightly blundering but well-intentioned attempts to woo her, Archie introduces the reader to the scary and often hilarious workings of the teenage boy’s mind...

Exhibit A: The smallest glimpse of female flesh and any mention of the word ‘bra’ results in complete mental breakdown.

Exhibit B: The various meaning of the word ‘dude’, depending on its use within a sentence and the type of emphasis placed on it during pronunciation.

Exhibit C: The art of teenage conversation. “The Golden Rule of Non-Specific Conversation: You NEVER refer to the heart of the matter. I know he knows what all the clothes and aftershave are for and he knows I know that he knows what it’s for - but you NEVER refer to it.” (pg. 126)

But what is the deal with Archie’s nightmares? Will his mum’s boyfriend ever stop trying to ‘bond’ with him? And is his interior monologue getting out of hand?

Geekhood was a big hit with the teenage reading group in the Waterstones store where I work, and it fits in well with the John Green generation, steering away from the vampire/dystopia tendency of many of today’s teenage authors. Plus it’s British, and it’s original in the perspective that it doesn’t involve girls swooning over some boy with movie-star good looks. And another gold star goes to it’s bittersweet ending which, like most of the book actually, is reassuring in its basis in reality. Overall, an amusing and enjoyable read that both the male and female of the species will relate to equally well.

And the geek factor? Well, although Archie is perhaps a little more overtly geek than the average teenager, personally I think there’s a little geek in all of us, and we shouldn’t shy away from it. While some may argue that being a geek can make life more difficult, as Archie discovers, it’s much better to be true to yourself.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

The Enemy, by Charlie Higson

Zombie time.

Around a year has passed since a deadly disease decimated the population. Everyone aged fourteen and above has either died, or has become one of the diseased grown-ups wandering the streets looking for fresh meat. They may not be zombies per se, but they’re as good as. And the fresh meat they're looking for? Well, survivors, of course. Children.

In the year since the disease struck, a group of kids have banded together, taking refuge in an empty supermarket, older kids looking after the little kids, keeping watch, and scavenging for survival. But as the grown-ups become more threatening and the food starts to run out, a decision has to be made: to stay or to move on? And when Jester turns up on the doorstep promising a place of safety and abundance, the decision is as good as made. Now, they just have to make their way through the streets of London, avoiding rabid grown-ups and escaped zoo animals as they go.

The Enemy is the first in a series that currently stands at four books. It imagines a world turned to terror and destruction, where survival of the fittest is more than just a Darwinian theory. It’s action and fear and adrenaline.

A lot happens during the story, but what stood out most strongly for me was the power vacuum created by the loss of the adults. Somebody needs to take charge, but who will that person be and what kind of power will they choose to yield? One character, Ollie, says that there are two kinds of leaders, peacetime leaders and wartime leaders, but author Charlie Higson shows that there are also dictators and democracies. It made me think of the old adage, ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ There are the leaders who seek power, and those that don’t, and - generally speaking - the ones that don’t seek it are the ones who are better at wielding it. And so our group from Waitrose meet the power-hungry David, whose ‘best intentions’ are quite different to their own.

This is a new world, and so calls for a new world order, but this in itself raises a lot of questions. How do you avoid losing sight of right and wrong when simply surviving each day is a battle? If we lose our morality, who are we; are we just animals? A world without adults is a premise repeated by the equally popular ‘Gone’ series by Michael Grant, Gone being a book that I really disliked (boring and badly written), and remain shocked at the extent of its popularity. The Enemy was considerably better. What prevents The Enemy from being really good, though, is Higson’s style of telling the story from multiple character viewpoints. While there are three main lines to the story (Maxie, Callum and Sam), Higson jumps the viewpoint around between a bunch of different characters. There are five or six who we hear more from, but the constant jumping drew away from the flow of the story, and prevented the reader from getting to know any one person really, really well.

After battles against grown-ups and battles against each other, by the conclusion of The Enemy the kids are more-or-less in the same position as they were at the opening of the book, with one key exception: they have hope. They are moving on again, but things are changing, and they have garnered more strength. A number of questions hang in the air, and I suspect that Higson will drag these out as long as possible for they drive the bigger story and encourage the reader to read on. Where did the virus come from? Is it in the air or in the people? Why are those under fourteen immune? And when they turn fourteen - what will happen then?

Friday, 16 November 2012

The Feral Child, by Che Golden

The combination of the cover and the title of this new children’s book immediately grabbed my attention: “A stolen child. An ancient evil. The quest of a lifetime,” reads the tag line. What more does a girl need?

Faeries, elves, and especially the idea of the changeling - whereby a human child is stolen away by the faeries and replaced with one of their own - have long since fascinated me, and the recent success of Amanda Hocking’s ‘Switched’ series suggests I’m not the only one. In The Feral Child we have a version for younger readers that incorporates all the standard adventure elements of a good children’s book: unhappy orphan embarks on risk-taking quest to rescue the one friend she has, successfully thwarting various challenges along the way, and ultimately finding her way, or her place, in the world*. And then, thrown in for good measure, there is also the faerie land, dryads, an evil queen, an ice castle, and some turncoat talking wolves. Its a bit like a cross between Tolkien’s Middle Earth and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia. It also fills a similar niche to Cathryn Constable’s The Wolf Princess, which I recently reviewed on this same blog.

Meet Maddy. She lives with her grandparents in the Irish town of Blarney. Her grandfather spends much of his time telling her ‘absurd’ faerie tales about Tir na n'Og, the Land of Eternal Youth, where the faeries live; her grandmother just wants her to be happy, but her cousin is a bully, and so, apparently, is her aunt. But then she meets a strange boy, John, who tries to kidnap her; when she escapes, he follows, taunting her through her window at night, and ultimately stealing away Stephen, the little boy who lives next door. But John is not just any boy: he is Sean Rua, a faerie famous for luring mortal children into the Faerie realm, and Maddy, like her Grandad, has the Sight, meaning she can see him for what he really he is. When her Grandad refuses to go in search of the lost Stephen, Maddy decides the only way is to enter the Faerie realm and rescue him herself.

Che Golden, who hails from the very same town as Maddy, has presumably constructed her book around the stories and myths of Tir na nOg and its occupants that she herself was told as a child, myths that have been passed through time, written and published around the world. The idea that many of these tales originate around the town of Blarney brings to mind the saying, ‘a load of old Blarney,’ used to refer to ‘rubbish’ or lies, perhaps because of the faerie tales and the modern assumption that they’re untrue? But I can’t help wonder whether there is an element of truth in them somewhere - as there surely are in most mythologies - and so applaud Golden for trying to bring these stories a little more to life.

The Feral Child starts off exceedingly well. The beginning is incredibly creepy, to the point where I - thirty two years old - actually considered sleeping with the light on. Overall, its a good little book, with much that children (particularly girls) of this age (8-12) will enjoy, and be gripped by. I, however, didn’t feel it really lived up to its potential, or its auspiscous beginning, predominantly because parts of the background story were quite confused and difficult to follow, and because of what I felt was some slightly dodgy characterisation.

For instance, when Maddy first enters Faerie, she learns that the ruling race are the Tuatha de Dannan, spiteful and power-hungry faeries, immersed in some sort of civil war to determine who rules overall. Yet, a short while later we discover that the land is currently under the grip of the Winter Queen who is in fact not Tuatha de Dannan but an Elf named Liadan. Liadan, being an Elf, is not strong enough to bear the weight of the Winter crown; it has changed her, creating an ugly being both inside and out. To me, this made her a sympathetic character, somebody who is burdened and in need of help, and so I thought that - ultimately - Maddy’s role would be to save her from herself, and thus also save the kingdom. This idea was cemented by the Fionn, a dryad who, at the risk of her own life, offers to help Maddy in her quest because she wants the grip of the Winter Queen to be lessened, and believes Maddy is the one destined to do so. This, though, is not the ending that Golden chooses. Not only was this disappointing and not entirely satisfactory, but so was the fact that I didn’t really understand the ending Golden did choose.

In addition to this, not only are Maddy’s companions rather two-dimensional, Maddy herself is at times questionable. For starters, she often uses turns of phrase that I felt were too adult for her. Then there is the part where half way through her journey she is made out to be suicidal. This is not explicitly written, but it is implied. In terms of characterisation, though I understand that she was unhappy and troubled, I thought suicidal was a bit of a leap. And then there is Fionn. After helping Maddy to a certain destination, Fionn tries to leave, explaining that she needs to return home, but Maddy and her friends talk her around, convincing her to stay. This is clearly done for their own selfish reasons which fail to take into account Fionn’s situation. Ultimately, this results in Fionn being caught by Liadan’s second in command, and told to go home and await her punishment, which is implied as likely to be rather brutal. And this is the last we hear of her. Not only does Maddy never mention Fionn again, but she shows little sign of remorse in being responsible for this innocent’s sufferings, even after having talked her into helping them further. Really, shouldn’t Maddy have done more to save Fionn?

And the title? Well, at the end its revealed that the feral child is Maddy herself, though I’m not really sure why. I think it’s a poor choice of title compared to the engaging image on the cover (a faerie), and the fact that much of the story is centred around faerie mythology - something that captures the adventure and the sights and sounds of Tir na nOg would be more catching and tie in stronger with the storyline.

Despite of all these reservations, it should be remembered that I am an adult and that most children who read The Feral Child are not going to be entering the experience with a critical mind. They will enjoy the idea and the adventure, the ice queen and the drama - that is, as long as any parents out there don’t mind their child reading the morally out-of-tune episode with Fionn. Ultimately, while there is an essence of Narnia in the book’s construction, it lacks the rounded outcome.

* Actually, thinking about it from a writer’s perspective, Che Golden has surely read Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, which is a standard storywriting text, outlining all the key elements that classic myths and tales tend to follow.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Torn, by David Massey

Torn is a book that I am finding quite hard to quantify. It turned out to be much better than I had thought it was going to be. This was a very pleasant surprise, especially when several books I’ve read lately have started off really well and then lost momentum toward the end.

The story follows Private Elinor Nielson on her first tour in Afghanistan. She’s nineteen years old, has just qualified as a medic, and has been sent to an FOB - Forward Operating Base - in the Helmand Province. Not only does her first patrol go badly, but her immediate officer in charge, Heidi, quickly takes a dislike to her for no real, discernible reason.

I found the first couple of chapters difficult because I couldn't help questioning the authenticity both of Ellie’s behaviour and of the behaviour of others around her. Would a newly minted soldier on her first patrol really take the sort of actions that Ellie does? Would her superiors really put her in the position where she felt the need to behave in this manner? And would Heidi really talk to her captain the way she does? I had to wonder what research or experience the author, David Massey, had. Before picking up the book, I assumed that in order for him to write realistically about modern warfare he must have served in Afghanistan himself, but quickly found myself questioning this assumption.

Yet Torn develops in the most intriguing of ways. Who is the little girl in the blue dress Ellie keeps seeing? I she a displaced, lost child? A ghost? Or perhaps even an angel? Rather than just trying to represent the daily grind of life on the front, Massey develops this subtle and revealing plotline which takes the reader closer to the heart of the Afghan war and builds in a mystery that forced me to keep turning the pages. Ellie and her team are tasked with identifying a group of fighter children who call themselves the Young Martyrs - where they come from and why are they here? Aroush, the girl in the blue dress, is somehow tied up with them, as is a western journalist, and what looks set to be quite a conspiracy, likely to turn many heads and pose many ethical questions back home in Britain.

Through the medium of this story, and the search for the truth of what happened to the Young Martyrs and their village, Massey introduces a number of different aspects, complications and horrors of war, particularly the manner in which all the different factions are pitted against one another, with everyday civilians stuck in the middle, unable to escape and unable to determine their own destinies. There are scenes of death and warfare, but he treats them respectfully, drawing the reader in to feel the adrenaline of the moment and the sorrow of the loss without overdoing it or sensationalising it. It is a subtle and effective form of writing well refined for the teenage age-group. A love story is there too, but it is a quiet, tantalising love story that does not overshadow the main focus of the book, instead just adding that little extra contrast, helping to keep the reader in tune with the other events.

Overall this is a bittersweet book, with a dramatic ending. Ellie and her team cannot undo what happened to the Young Martyrs, but they can help to make amends. This, of course, is a truth of war. It’s not pretty, but if you can create hope, then perhaps there can be light at the end of the tunnel. Massey does not and cannot solve the greater problem, especially as we continue to have people out there fighting as I write, but he leaves us feeling hopeful that these are people trying to do the right thing and see their way through terrible circumstances.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

My Grandpa, by Marta Altes

My Grandpa is a very sweet and simple little story about a little bear and his grandpa bear. Grandpa bear is getting on a bit in years, and has trouble with one or two things, like feeling lonely or forgetting what an umbrella is for. Little bear takes all of this in his stride, simply accepting his grandpa for who he is and adapting his behaviour accordingly. And just because Grandpa bear isn’t as nimble on his feet as he used to be doesn’t mean that he and little bear can’t have fun together anymore.

One of the loveliest things about Marta Altes’s picture book is the give and take nature that Grandpa bear and the little bear have. In each part of the story, one thing is balanced out by another - for instance, sometimes Grandpa bear needs little bear to be his eyes, but sometimes Grandpa bear’s eyes see things that little bear doesn’t. Altes’s illustrations are as simple as her words - essentially using just three tones of colour that are muted without being washed out - and successfully add that little extra to the story by their presence.

Overall, My Grandpa is a nice way of introducing the concept of people growing old and that it's nothing to be afraid of. Gentle is the word that comes to mind. It also shows that just because at times they can be a little ditzy and may even get things mixed up, older people are still valid and to be valued; they still have love and enjoyment to give, just as it is important for us to give them love and appreciation in return. The book’s final words sum things up just nicely: “My Grandpa is getting old... But that’s how he is... and that’s why I love him.”

Archie, by Domenica More Gordon

When I was little my mum and I both loved a series of books that featured the two characters of Ernest and Celestine, a father bear and his adopted daughter mouse and their gentle little adventures together (which, incidentally, has just been made into a film). Written by Gabrielle Vincent, they featured gorgeous illustrations and lovely, peaceful stories. Domenica More Gordon’s first book, Archie, reminds me quite a bit of Ernest and Celestine. The story is quite different, as are the illustrations, and yet she has somehow managed to capture a similar essence with both.

Archie is a picture book in the absolute purest sense. The entire story is told just in pictures: other than a few sound effects, such as ‘ring ring’ for the phone, or ‘snip snip snip’ as a pair of scissors cuts into fabric, there is no dialogue and no ‘this happened and then that happened’. I love this. While there is a clear story/plotline running through the book, the lack of words simultaneously allows the reader - whether adult or child - to add their own, individual interpretation to the images on the page. You could read it aloud to your child using your own descriptions of what you see on the page, or read it together, discussing between you what you see; or you could simply leave your child alone with the book and let their imagination roam free, making their own story up to go along with the pictures.

The story that I saw in Archie is of a dog inspired by the gift of a sewing machine to make a cosy winter coat for his own pet dog. When he and the little ’un go out walking, the other dog owners see the new coat, and soon Archie is inundated with requests from his friends to make coats for their dogs. Both the coats and the dogs themselves come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, colours and patterns, and before he knows it, Archie is even making coats and dresses for the owners. These go down a treat; so much so that Archie even gets a request from a rather special Corgi... Is this the Great Aunt Betty who sent Archie the sewing machine in the first place?

The only slightly odd thing about Archie is the fact that the dogs have dogs for pets. But, looking at Gordon’s website, it is clear that this lady has a particular thing for dogs - her main income seems to come from creating little woollen or felted dogs, and her site is filled with doggy sketches. I like the book though. It’s simple and sweet and different.

The Diabolical Mr. Tiddles, by Tom McLaughlin

Mr. Tiddles is diabolical indeed. After wishing and wishing for a cat, on Harry’s birthday his wish comes true with the arrival of Mr. Tiddles. Mr. Tiddles, however, is no ordinary cat. Overnight, the strangest things start appearing in Harry’s room: triple chocolate cream-and-custard cake, train tracks, peculiar paintings and more. But when a horse arrives (a horse named Alan, no less), Harry decides it’s time to draw the line. The next night Harry follows Mr. Tiddles as he dips and dives across town and into... Buckingham Palace. What happens next? Well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it?

Clearly, the moral of this story is that it’s bad to steal. Anything moralistic like this is difficult to tackle and I know from my nursery nurse days how hard it is to strike that balance between explaining the rights and wrongs of a situation to a small child, and trying to absolve that situation in the right manner. In the case of Mr. Tiddles, his bad behaviour is excused if he promises to return everything he stole. While making a child do this can be quite upsetting - and thus a reasonable consequence - Mr. Tiddles, with his permanent grin, doesn’t really seem very regretful of his actions, which rather undermines the purpose of his punishment. Something in my gut tells me this is unlikely to be the last time Mr. Tiddles gets himself in a spot of trouble. On the flip side, I’m not sure how else author Tom McLaughlin could have ended his book, because it’s not like I would want it to be all tears and regret either. So maybe I am being overcritical.

Anyhow. The Diabolical Mr. Tiddles is an average sort of picture book. The pictures are fine, there’s plenty to look at and there are some quirky little asides such as Mr. Tiddles bouncing on a pogo stick, or showing up in a ‘Wanted’ ad on the TV. I enjoyed the first half of the book, wondering where the story was going to go, but was disappointed with where it actually went, and didn’t really like the palace scenes at all.

Would I want Mr. Tiddles to come and live with me? The answer? Oh no. That cat is trouble with a capital T.

My Friend Nigel, by Jo Hodgkinson

My Friend Nigel tells the story of Billy, his crazy, magic-potion obsessed parents, and a pet snail named Nigel. When Billy finds a snail and adopts him as his friend - the eponymous Nigel - Billy’s parents embark on a campaign to get rid of Nigel by conjuring a variety of other animals for Billy to play with instead: a whale, an elephant, a tiger. Between the animals and the potions, chaos inevitably ensues, but through it all Billy is adamant: Nigel, and only Nigel, is the friend for him.

Personally, I wasn’t much taken with the story. With my ‘adult eyes’ I found it to be a little empty and somewhat contrived, particularly the rhymes, which were quite forced and not always rhythmical. However, while it’s not one for me, I do think this is a book that lots of youngsters - little boys in particular - will surely enjoy immensely. They will enjoy the kiddy humour, the spells-gone-wrong, and the way in which, really, the parents are the irresponsible children. And the overall message is a good one too: its always worth sticking up for your friends.

While as a parent I would get bored of it very quickly - there are many much more sophisticated and clever picture books out there - the enjoyment factor for children is sometimes very different, and I can easily imagine this being a book that is requested time and time again at bedtime.

Oh No, George! by Chris Haughton

George is a dog with the best of intentions. He means to be good, he really does, but when his owner Harris goes out, George finds so many things in the empty house that are just so very tempting - a freshly baked cake, for instance, sitting on the kitchen table, just asking to be tasted. Before he knows it, instead of being good, George has been really quite bad. When Harris gets home, and George realises what he has done, he is extremely sorry for his behaviour. To make up for it, when they go out for a walk, George tries very, very hard to be good and not be drawn by temptation.

When I first started reading Oh No, George! I wasn’t sure what to make of it. But as I turned the pages and got deeper into the story, it simply got better and better. I think what put me off at first are the slightly unusual - ok, I thought they were a tad odd - illustrations. Although they are a different choice, they are bright and colourful and successfully convey George’s various different expressions and behaviours. The best part about Oh No, George! though is the brilliantly ambiguous ending. Although he has been trying really very hard to be good, George has just met his ultimate test. What will he do?

Chris Haughton’s latest picture book (he is perhaps best known currently for A Bit Lost), perfectly expresses typical dog behaviour whilst also managing to put across the idea of being good and bad, and trying really hard to do what he knows is, really, the right thing. It’s very amusing, and I feel is much more effective in getting this concept across than The Diabolical Mr. Tiddles, which I read shortly beforehand. George, for instance, shows true remorse for his bad behaviour and tries extremely hard to make up for it.

Haughton is definitely one to watch out for, and Oh No! George should be a big hit with parents and littlies alike. And the ending? What do you think George will do?

Chloe, Instead, by Micah Player

Molly wished for a little sister who was just like her, but she got Chloe instead. Chloe is the typical annoying toddler who wants to know everything and get into everything that her big sister is doing. Although she’s harmless, Molly still finds Chloe immensely irritating, especially when Chloe rips the pages out of her favourite books. But Molly does love Chloe really...

Chloe, Instead says it all about the love-hate relationships between siblings. The story is written in a lovely, straightforward manner. Molly’s house has been overtaken by this mini monster intent on destroying Molly’s things, and she doesn’t always want her little sister interfering. The pictures say it all, complimenting and adding to Micah Player’s short, simple sentences.

Although Molly not-so-secretly wanted a little sister who was just like her, she soon realises she’d much rather have Chloe instead. After the confrontation point, they play together and have fun doing things that they both enjoy. Just like any two small children, while they have their volatile moments, ultimately they are the best of friends.

While Chloe, Instead is clearly a good story to read with someone who is a big brother or sister, it sits well on its own merits too. While it is not a boo likely to set the world on fire Gruffalo style, it’s simple, clear, and purposeful, and I enjoyed reading it.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Things We Didn't See Coming, by Steven Amsterdam

Things We Didn’t See Coming follows a nameless narrator as he navigates his way through the 21st century. It begins on the eve of the millenium, the narrator a nine-year-old boy torn between his father, who is panicking and paranoid about the Y2K bug, and his mother, who is trying to maintain a semblance of normality. Chapter by chapter, the story moves through the following thirty or so years, jumping about five years at a time, as he encounters an increasingly devastated world.

The overall feeling I took away with me after finishing Steven Amsterdam’s debut was one of bleakness. The chapters are peopled with floods and drought, plagues and cancer, medical advancements and societal deterioration. Nevertheless, the blurb on my copy describes it as mesmerising, and this is a description I would have to agree with. I had to keep reading to find out what was going to happen next - would he find peace and contentment? Would he be able to stop moving,? Would the world sort itself out? Would I ever learn the bigger picture?

Ultimately the bigger picture is not revealed. This is one man’s story and, as thus, it is highly biased toward his lone perspective. Consequently, there is never a clear outline of the state of the country or its government, or an explanation of why the narrator is caught up in these devastating events. Only the ‘how’ as he sees it is covered: its the way of the world he is living in, its impossible to escape, and he is simply trying to find the best way to survive. I can only assume the ‘why’ is that this is a world racked by climate change.

Even the ending is ambiguous and left open to interpretation. It’s strange that sometimes, when reviewing books that I didn’t massively enjoy, thinking about how they are put together, I find myself awed by the author’s approach, their technique and story building. Although I certainly didn’t dislike Things We Didn’t See Coming, it was so overwhelmingly bleak that I couldn’t really categorise it as an enjoyable reading experience. But: it is well written and is interesting and has made me think. From a writer’s perspective I find it has a lot of value.

This is a book that has been likened to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (which is, incidentally, incredible), and I can see the link: a desolate world with little to hope for. Yet somehow The Road leaves you with a feeling of hope, and the love between the man and his child is heartbreakingly beautiful and pure. Because these positive emotions are stronger, so the feelings of tension and danger and anticipation are stronger. Things We Didn’t See Coming doesn’t quite manage to strike the same line - even though the world still functions (in The Road it does not), it is more depressing. Our narrator seems permanently lonely and struggling, even when he has a partner. The only hope I have is that the other citizens of the narrator’s world have a more hopeful and love-filled tale to tell.

Things We Didn’t See Coming is certainly one to add to anyone’s wish-list of apocalyptic fiction. As someone who is fairly obsessed with this particular genre, as well an interest in environmental catastrophe, I am left thinking of a small speech the narrator’s father makes in the opening chapter. Although he is referring to Y2K, its a speech that, to me, resonates very strongly when put in the context of climate change: “This whole thing is symbolic, symbolic of a system that’s hopelessly shortsighted, a system that twenty, thirty years ago couldn’t imagine a time when we might be starting a new century. That’s how limited an animal we are... We are arrogant, stupid, we lack humility in the face of centuries and centuries of time before us... What we know now is that we didn’t think enough. We know we aren’t careful enough and that’s about all we know.” (pg. 22-23) Should we be afraid?

Monday, 22 October 2012

What's Left of Me, by Kat Zhang

Eva is in hiding. Only her twin, Addie, knows that she is still alive. But Eva and Addie are not twins in the way you might expect: in their world, everyone is born a twin. Every body is born with two souls residing inside, sharing one body, taking turns to walk and talk. But in Eva and Addie’s world, it is also normal for one of these two souls to slip away, to pass on, leaving their body for their twin. This ‘settling’ is supposed to happen when they are five or six years old, but Eva and Addie never settled. Now fifteen, every day Addie pretends to her friends and family, to the world around her, that Eva doesn’t exist anymore. Because if they find out she’s lying, they will - at best - lock her up, and at worst, hunt her down and forcibly remove Eva from their body. Because hybrids - bodies where two souls remain - are the enemy. They are considered wrong, dangerous.

What’s Left of Me is Eva and Addie’s story. It’s another title to file under the heading of ‘teen dystopia’, yet it’s fresh and different. The basic concept reminded me of a mix of Stephenie Meyer’s The Host (where an alien soul takes over and shares a human body with a human soul), and Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (where an evil faction are experimenting on the separation of humans from their daemons), but the treatment reminded me strongly of Ally Condie’s fantastic dystopian love story, Matched. For this is where the strength of the story lies, and where the dystopian factor comes in: government conspiracy and manipulation; the discovery that everything you’ve been taught is a lie, the discovery that everything you trusted and believed in is wrong.

Kat Zhang has done a great job of putting her idea into words. Writing two different aspects of one person, or of two souls in one body, could have proven difficult, but her approach makes it easy for the reader to distinguish between Eva and Addie, and you can even see the different characters that not only these two girls have, but the different characters of the other hybrids they encounter as well. Referring to one body as ‘we’ must have kept Zhang on her toes, but how other people in the story use ‘I‘ or ‘we‘ or ‘they’ also gives the reader lots valuable clues about the people encountered and the events going on. Early on she raises the question over the potential problems of two people living in one body, making me wonder whether the government’s stance on hybrids is actually a wise and sensible one, but she also raises a lot of moral ideas too. Is it murder to remove a co-sharing soul? Just because the body still exists and still has a soul within it, doesn’t change the fact that an equally valuable soul has, essentially, died.

Eva and Addie are both fighting for their rights, for their freedom, but how far are each of them willing to go to get what they want? And how far are others willing to go for what they believe in? Zhang sets a good pace, with lots of tension and action as well as the moral aspect, though I did get a tad bored - or not bored so much as bogged down - around two thirds of the way through, where I started to lose track of where the story was going or how it was going to progress. Progress it did, although not at quite the same rate with which the story began. Things are tied up quite nicely at the end, whilst simultaneously leaving it open for the story to continue into part two of what is currently dubbed The Hybrid Trilogy. It’s not as good as The Hunger Games or Matched, but it’s definitely up there with the better dystopian stories, and bound to be a hit with the teenage audience.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Liar and Spy, by Rebecca Stead

This is a really lovely story about friendship and being brave. It is intelligent and heartwarming, and Rebecca Stead’s writing style, quality and approach reminded me strongly of the fabulous John Green. If you’re looking for ‘John Green for a younger generation’, Liar and Spy has everything and more.

Georges-with-a-silent-s and his parents are moving house - since Georges’ dad lost his job last year, they’ve had to sell their house and move down a few blocks to an apartment building. Georges, although quite sad, is taking all of this in his stride, and quickly makes friends with Safer, another boy in the building. Safer is an amateur spy, and tells Georges eagerly about the mysterious Mr. X who lives on the fourth floor. According to Safer - who, incidentally, has a brother called Pigeon, a sister called Candy, and is home schooled (‘smart bohemians’, Georges’s father dubs them) - Mr. X only ever wears black, never talks, and can be seen carrying suspiciously heavy suitcases in and out of the building. Thus Safer recruits Georges, determined to turn him into a super sleuth.

As the story progresses we gradually learn more about both Georges and Safer, but things don’t seem to quite add up. Why is Safer so upset with his brother? Why does Georges’ mother only communicate via scrabble tiles? How suspicious is Mr. X really? And, can Georges really trust Safer or is it all just a game to him? Gradually, Georges solves the various puzzles, and discovers that both bravery and friends can come in all different shapes and sizes.

It's awesome. Safer and his family are quirky and intriguing, and despite Georges' initial reservations, they make apartment life sound quite appealing. Once Georges figures out what's really going on he is, understandably, quite upset, but by this point he's already figuring out how to stand up for himself and when, with a little encouragement from his dad, he takes a step back to assess, it becomes clear to both him (and to me, as the reader) that Safer's actions were simply misconstrued by Georges and not intended to be misleading. Ultimately, Georges discovers not only to stand up for himself, but to help others - including Safer - do the same. Perfect.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Next to Love, by Ellen Feldman

Ellen Feldman’s superb Next to Love follows three women through the 1940s and 50s as they embark upon adulthood, tracking their ups and downs, their tragedies and successes, and learning to live in the aftermath of war and in a society full of upheaval and change.

The story was initially inspired by that of the Bedford Boys, in which nineteen men from a single Virginia town died on D-Day: “No other town in America,” Feldman tells us in her acknowledgments, “suffered a greater one-day loss.” Thus, in Next to Love, on July 17 1944, Babe, working for Western Union, receives sixteen telegrams in one morning. Sixteen telegrams that must be delivered to houses and families around her town; sixteen telegrams that will change their lives irrevocably. And two of them are destined for her two closest friends, Grace and Millie.

Each of the three women copes with their loss in their own individual way. Grace fills a wall with photographs of her Charlie; he was her one true love and now he is gone; she is utterly lost, bereft, life without Charlie a grey fog. Millie takes all the parts of Pete that she has left - his photos, his letters - seals them in a box and stores it in the attic, locking away the hurt; then, much to the talk of the town, remarries barely a year later. Babe’s husband Claude survives and returns; he is a broken man, traumatised by combat, but she cannot complain, because at least her husband came back.

Feldman writes with grace and clarity, bringing the three women, each so different, alive - I have sympathy and sorrow for them, want to fight for them, find myself irritated by them and their willingness to lie down and be walked over by societal ideals; I envy them the love of their husbands, living and dead, and I want to shout at them to wake up, to fight, to see the world around them. As the years build up, their lives are touched by anti-Semitism, segregation, the construction of the modern consumer society and, perhaps most importantly (to them, at least), the role of women. Feldman reminds us, the readers, of the importance and significance of this post-war period in building the society we know today. She touches quietly on each of these issues, not making a massive deal of them, yet they form powerful themes running through the book. Rather than focussing heavily on a single issue, her ‘skipping’ sort of treatment of them reflects the real life experience these women are likely to have had, the way the issues skirt, for the most part, on the edge of their consciousness, touching them and affecting them, but in ways that they are barely aware - in ways that only now, with hindsight, can we see with true importance.

There is Millie, whose new husband Al is Jewish. Despite the atrocities uncovered at the end of the war, anti-Semitism is still rife, and we learn of the Jewish jokes that permeate American society, G.I.s particularly, and the way in which Millie’s son Jack is bullied for being a ‘Jewboy’. These are innocuous to the women, but affect Al and Jack deeply. There is Babe, frowned upon by the others when she chooses to go out and work despite having a husband to provide for her. And there is Naomi, Grace’s housekeeper. They sat next to each other in school, but now Grace is not Grace but Mrs. Gooding, and when Naomi’s son dares to visit the local swimming hole, all of the ‘good white folk’ get out of the water as fast as they can.

And as the years go by, the friendship that these three women share changes as well. In the opening chapters, the same day and events are repeated from each of three women’s perspectives, but as time goes by the events told by each the friends become more disparate, more individual, which seems to reflect the disparate elements that have entered their friendship. As they each chock up incidents and feelings and worries that they cannot share with one another, the things they cannot talk about become bigger and more significant.

Full of love and loss, hope and grief, Next to Love is a really superb read that I highly recommend. “War... next to love, has most captured the world’s imagination,” wrote lexicographer and author Eric Partridge in 1914. This book has them both: as well as WWII, the girls are at war with themselves, and with their husbands, and the various parts of society are at war with each other. And, next to love there is grief and there is loss. But then, there is always somewhere or something to love next.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Osbert the Avenger, by Christopher William Hill

“Gruesomely Funny” reads the cover of my copy of Osbert the Avenger. Gruesome it is, but in a bizarrely lighthearted fashion. This is book one of the new Tales from Schwartzgarten series from playwright Christopher William Hill.

Creepy and gothic, from the get-go this book reads like a cross between Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket. Osbert lives in the city of Schwartzgarten. He’s a fairly ordinary little boy, except for the fact that he is incredibly smart, shining at whatever task he puts his hand to. When he has learnt all that his parents are able to teach him, it seems that the only option is for Osbert to sit the entrance exam for the The Institute, a foreboding building that casts its shadow across the city and whose teachers are renowned for their cruelty. This, obviously, is where the trouble begins.

It’s very difficult to say more without going into extensive detail and giving away all the twists and turns, but what ensues is quite an extraordinary series of events, resulting in several murders, several turns of fortune, and a quite unpredictable ending. To start with, things happen rather by accident, or by fortunate (or unfortunate, depending upon your perspective) coincidence. Gradually, though, Osbert’s actions become more deliberate and more determined, quietly egged on by his friend Isabella, a young lady who is all innocence on the outside, but becomes increasingly creepier as the tale progresses. Where will it take them and how far are they each willing to go?

This is definitely a book to stand out from the crowd. Refreshing and quirky, it put chills down the back of my neck, and made me question the author’s moral ambitions. In fact, ‘morally ambiguous’ is the phrase that comes to mind. Great for any youngster looking for something to get their teeth into, and definitely something I’ll be recommending to my customers this autumn.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Atticus Claw Breaks the Law, by Jennifer Grey

Best name EVER for a cat: Atticus Grammaticus Cattypus Claw. Genius. And, with a name like that, Atticus is clearly not your normal cat. No siree. Atticus is the world’s greatest cat burglar. Pun intended.

Atticus Claw Breaks the Law is the first in a new series written for 5 - 8 year olds by Jennifer Grey. Atticus, a green-eyed tabby with a red neckerchief and a soft spot for sardines, has been recruited by a gang of vengeful magpies to steal as much jewellery as he can from the humans of Littleton-on-Sea. He’s never worked for birds before and isn’t too sure how trustworthy they are, but thievery is his forte, a job is a job, and besides, they’re paying him in sardines, so how can he refuse?

A lovely little adventure ensues, with the birds and the cats and the humans all getting themselves into and out of various twists. Atticus has always avoided ‘getting involved’, but suddenly finds himself growing quite attached to the family he’s chosen to stay with in Littleton-on-Sea and thus can’t help but start to question his not-so-lawful behaviour. And so, quietly, quietly, the ‘right thing to do’ becomes apparent. Roll on happy ending.

Atticus, even when in his bad boy persona, is very endearing, Grey writing in lots of perfect little cat-like behaviours for him, such as how gets the family to let him out at night: “Meowing pitifully, he poked Inspector Cheddar firmly in the eye with his paw” (pg. 63). There’s adventure, breaking and entering, a treasure hunt, and a big showdown at the end. Grey’s writing is clear and precise, without talking down to her audience, creating both humour and tension. And every other page is decorated with little sketches of a cat, a piece of stolen jewellery, a rooftop skyline, which is a nice little touch. Atticus, far from being a pussy, stands up and takes what’s coming to him yet still manages to come out on top. Purrfect.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

Find the bird. In the loop. On the other side of the old man’s grave. September third, 1940.”

These are Abe Portman’s last words.

Jacob has always been close to his grandfather, but as he has gotten older he’s learnt to interpret Abe’s strange tales as little more than embellished stories. The tales of strange children with strange abilities, of monsters with rotting skin, black eyes and twisting tentacles, of an enchanted children’s home watched over by a bird are just too absurd to be true. Aren’t they? But when his grandfather phones him in a panic one afternoon, saying the monsters are after him, Jacob’s life is changed forever. Not only is he left with a set of cryptic last words, but with the image of a monster seared into his brain, and nightmares and shakes he can barely begin to comprehend.

As he tries to piece together his grandfather’s life, to understand Abe’s last words, and to escape the horrors that confront him in his own dreams, Jacob journeys to the remote island off the Welsh coast where his grandfather grew up. Here he finds the bombed out ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and soon discovers that there is a lot more to this place than at first meets the eye.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a masterfully created work, combining adventure with time travel, words with images, and blending reality with the fantastical. It’s a book that just jumps off the shelf, asking to be flicked through: beautifully presented, with a slightly old-fashioned black and white cover - showing a photograph of a little girl wearing a twenties-like dress, Mary-Janes, and a crown pushed down on her brow - it is full of sepia toned photographs that, once you get reading, compliment the story. Each photograph, though, is a little odd. The little girl on the cover, for instance, is floating. Dig deeper and find strange children, a woman who appears to have no arms yet is smoking a pipe, contortionists, light-filled caves, a boy in a bunny suit. They all have a purpose, and a role to play in Ransom Riggs’ story.

Pulled into another world, Jacob meets many of these Peculiar children, and learns that his grandfather was one of them. It’s a seemingly idyllic existence that they lead, but time is running out for them. Jacob’s arrival brings the things they are hiding from closer to home and soon he will be called upon not to help them escape, to help himself too. And how is he going to reconcile this new world with his old one?

Ransom Riggs, it turns out, is a collector of odd photographs, sorting through antique markets, flea stalls, and the collections of friends, to find the strange, stand-out images that inspired Miss Peregrine’s Home. How they came to be - what is doctored and what is real - is a question that goes unanswered, though this particular interpretation is definitely a gripping and well-imagined one. The photos are not the only mysteries he has created an explanation for though: one part of the story refers to “a catastrophic explosion that rattled windows as far as the Azores” in early twentieth century Siberia. “Anyone within five hundred kilometres surely thought it was the end of the world,” Miss Peregrine informs us. This sounds awfully like the mysterious 1908 Tunguska fireball to me: a massive explosion in this area of Siberia for which many theories abound, but none have been outrightly proven.

Opening Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Given the strange images scattered throughout, I thought it would be creepy - I thought it might even be a horror story - but what I actually was I found an unusual coming-of-age story with a twist, an adventure, and a writer’s imagination that knows few boundaries. Not only does it look gorgeous on the bookshelf, it’s gripping, enjoyable and original, and I will certainly be looking out for the second instalment.

Monday, 24 September 2012

The Worst Princess, by Anna Kemp & Sara Ogilvie

“Once upon a time, in a tower near you,” begins The Worst Princess. “Lived a lonely princess - the Princess Sue. ‘One day,’ she sighed, ‘my prince will come, but I wish he’d move his royal bum.’ ”

How could anyone fail not to be moved such a plea? It’s brilliant.

Princess Sue knows exactly how she’s supposed to behave - she’s read all the books on how to be a princess, after all. And then, at last, a prince turns up and frees her from her tower. “Whopee!” she cries, thinking of all the fun she can finally start having. But this prince is not a modern man; he has other ideas. Instead of setting her free, he takes her to his own castle where she finds herself pretty much back in the same position: confined to a tower. Princess Sue, however, is having none of this; recruiting the local dragon to her cause, she escapes, running off to do all the things princes traditionally get to do and princesses don’t.

This is a beautifully straight forward story that combines the ideas of fulfilling your potential, being true to yourself, standing up for your rights, and - at it’s core - female emancipation. I find it amazing that all of these ideas are conveyed to me in a short story that basically tells of a princess breaking free of the chains of expectation and turning those expectations on their head. Its a very subtle yet powerful message for young children, wrapped up in the guise of a princess story. To be able to put this idea across so succinctly and enjoyably shows truly masterful storytelling by Anna Kemp. It’s genius because little girls who like princesses will enjoy the story simply because it has a princess in it - and yet, little girls who don’t like princess should enjoy it too, because she’s not very good at being a typical princess!

Princess Sue’s tale is told all in rhyme, and is very funny. She’s certainly a personality that any prince would have difficulty in taming, and the expressions that Sara Ogilvie gives her in the pictures are priceless. The pictures have lots of extra little things in them too - a preening peacock where the prince tells Sue “You wear dresses, are we clear?”, a crocodile hiding under the castle moat, and Princess Sue wears yellow converse boots instead of glittery sandals. The fact that the prince is a complete nitwit is made obvious from the beginning too, as he describes his journey to Sue’s tower. “I fought, I won,” is accompanied by a picture of him pointing his sword at a cowering frog; “I shocked, I awed,” is accompanied by a picture of him giving a cute little bunny a dirty look. So it’s not a massive surprise when the dragon vanquishes him so easily.

Princess Sue is a strong, confident girl set to take the world by storm. She isn't going to take no for an answer. A darn good role model if ever there was one. Not that there’s anything wrong with wearing dresses and sparkly shoes, but it’s good to have a choice.

Where Is Fred? by Edward Hardy & Ali Pye

This is pretty cool. I’ve read better picture books, but I’ve also read much worse ones. It's quite fun and it made me laugh. It’s a tad silly, but in an innocent and innocuous way.

Fred is a very white, very fluffy caterpillar. He’s very good at playing hide and seek, particularly if he hides on white fluffy things, like sheep and cotton wool. Unfortunately, when Fred is having a snack on a nice, green, shiney leaf he’s not so well disguised, and one day, whilst doing just this very thing, he is spotted by Gerald the crow, giving Fred quite a fright. In an attempt to evade Gerald and becoming Gerald’s lunch, Fred must draw on all his powers of hide and seek. He manages to hide quite successfully in lots of places that aren’t necessarily as white and fluffy as he is, causing Gerald to become really quite frustrated...

Where is Fred? is a very humourous little story, that elicited several sniggers from me during reading. The author, Edward Hardy, has come up with some fairly ingenious places for Fred to hide, and Ali Pye brings these to life with some lovely illustrations. I think my favourite hiding place was a little girl’s “lovely fluffy white headband,” though I imagine lots of children are likely to be most amused when Fred disguises himself as an elderly gentleman’s moustache. The book’s layout is well constructed too: Gerald speaks in a wiggly, squawky font, and whenever he spots a “lovely fluffy white” something, those three words are printed in a different font again, highlighting their reference to Fred. There is repetition, but each with ever so slight a change, simultaneously preventing each page from becoming annoyingly repetitive and introducing new words.

And Fred? Well, he does ultimately avoid capture, outwitting Gerald in the most preposterously ingenious manner. A lighthearted and enjoyable story.

Can You See Sassoon? by Sam Usher

Can You See Sassoon is like a Where’s Wally for little ones. I really enjoyed looking through it and trying to find Sassoon on each brightly coloured and incredibly busy page.

Sassoon is a funny-looking snake-like creature with red, yellow and blue stripes. But Sassoon likes to hide, and so what follows is a succession of different scenes from a picnic to a pile of presents, a washing line, a bookshelf, boats bobbing on the sea, and even outer space.

Although the pictures are very different from Martin Handford’s famous Where’s Wally - the items that fill the pages are larger and there is a significant lack of people - Sam Usher’s approach is similar to Handford’s in that each page is populated with a number items similar in colour and design to Sassoon that draw the eye, so that you have to eliminate Sassoon looky-likeys before you can be sure you’ve found the real one. What this also means is that there are tonnes of other things to look at in each illustration, so that every page becomes a veritable treasure trove for a child to stare at, and a parent to question them on. Can you find the robot? What do you think is wrapped up inside this box? Which animal is surfing?

I had particular trouble with the boating lake, which took several minutes of concentrated staring before I found Sassoon! The images are backed up with a little rhyming ditty, linking up the progress of Sassoon’s journey: “Where is he now? In outer space! He’s joined a whizzy rocket-race.” And there’s a surprise bonus on the final page, which finishes the book off really succinctly: a garden jungle in which all of Sassoon’s friends are hiding, complete with a pop-up page to pull out. Lovely. Lots of fun and great for building observational skills.

Goose Goes to the Zoo, by Laura Wall

Goose Goes to the Zoo features classic Miffy-like illustrations that are simple, bold and bright. And its a cute little story about friendship to boot.

Goose is Sophie’s best friend, they like to do everything together. But Sophie is very aware that Goose is different to her, that there are things Goose likes which she doesn’t like, and things Goose can do which she cannot. Similarly, there are things she can do that Goose can’t - like go to school - and Sophie worries that when she’s at school Goose gets lonely. Generously, she decides maybe Goose could do with another friend, so off they trip to the zoo to see who they can find. They meet several different animals, but none of them are quite right. And then... they find some geese! Who are just like Goose and can do all the same things he can! Sophie is so happy that Goose has found some more friends, but she is sad too because now Goose has other friends to play with. Maybe he won’t want to play with her anymore? But Goose is just the right type of friend - just because he has new friends doesn’t mean he has forgotten Sophie.

Laura Wall’s plain illustrations and short sentences, despite being very basic, somehow manage to convey a whole depth of meaning. Even though they're essentially 'just' line drawings, both Goose and Sophie are wonderfully expressive and amusing. I particularly love the page where the geese appear: its so simple, but it really makes me smile - a page full of different geese saying “honk! honk honk!” In addition, the story is pure and true; it doesn’t try to do too much, instead getting the balance just right, and reminds me of the divine Gossie and Friends series by Olivier Dunrea, which I just love.

So, thumbs up to Goose Goes to the Zoo.

The Journey Home, by Frann Preston-Gannon

I really loved Frann Preston-Gannon's big, bold illustrations in The Journey Home, but I really, really disliked the story, and thought it was completely inappropriate for a picture book.

“This beautifully illustrated story has a powerful message of conservation,” it says on the back. In actuality, the idea of conservation is not mentioned or conveyed at all, as the storyline is more one of destruction and devastation than one of mending things.

Polar Bear’s ice is melting. He cannot stay and so he decides to swim off in search of a new home. Luckily, he soon finds a little boat. The little boat takes him to a big city belching out fumes, where he rescues a panda; a deforested jungle, where he rescues an orangutan; and a plain, where he rescues an elephant being hunted for ivory. A big storm hits and they are tossed around in the waves and carried away. Eventually the little boat wash up on a little island, and they are greeted by a dodo, who tells the stranded animals that they’ll be able to go home - but only “when the trees grow back and when the ice returns and when the cities stop getting bigger and when the hunting stops.”

My immediate reaction is that - aside from being really depressing - these are ideas that are too large for toddlers to comprehend. I think children of this age are too young to have such significant issues discussed with them. Toddlerdom is a period of early learning and play and investigation, not a period where they should be told about the woes of world. Of course children should be introduced to environmental issues, just as they should be introduced to science and history and politics, but to do so in a picture book is completely inappropriate. Picture books such as The Journey Home can barely begin to properly convey the real problems of the environment. Simply skirting the edge of the issue, as this book does, is not going to educate anyone. This is not a conservation message; it merely highlights a couple of issues whilst failing to mention any human responsibilities, or the human options to prevent or reduce the issues.

And sending the animals to live with a dodo? Are the animals supposed to be dead? Extinct? Will such young readers understand the concept of an extinct creature and what the dodo represents? While I suppose the book could be used to introduce environmental concepts to older children, for those children it will still be too vague and essentially meaningless because it fails to cover the topics in a serious and realistic manner.

Rabbityness, by Jo Empson

The use of colour in Jo Empson’s Rabbityness is really interesting. It is a book that, after my first reading, left me thinking that is was full of colour - colour and prancing rabbits. With a second reading, though, I see that the pages of colour are cleverly tempered with a series of very washed out images, designed to reflect sadness and emptiness. The contrast between these two elements of the book are quite key to the story.

Rabbityness starts off by introducing me to Rabbit, a little black rabbit who likes doing all the normal sort of rabbity things. The images are plain and simple: a black rabbit and green grass on a white background. But Rabbit also likes to do unrabbity things, and here the page explodes into colour: bright splodges of blue and pink, orange and green on one page as Rabbit paints; musical notes and little birds dance across the next page as Rabbit blows a multicoloured didgeridoo; a forest of little black rabbits dancing among brightly coloured trees as Rabbit fills the wood with infectious colour and music.

And then... Rabbit is gone. Boom. After all the colour, there is just a white page with a handful of leaves drifting across it. Rabbit’s disappearance leaves the woods devoid of colour, grey and washed out. “All that Rabbit had left was a hole... a deep dark hole.” Clearly this all represents sadness at the loss of Rabbit and the idea that the world may never be bright again. The other rabbits venture into Rabbit’s hole, presumably to look for him. And inside they find all the things that Rabbit had used to make colour and music. Soon they start experimenting with the paints and instruments themselves and quickly discover that they rather like doing unrabbity things just as much as Rabbit did. And doing unrabbity things reminds them of Rabbit, which makes them happy again. The end.

I can see where Empson has tried to go with this book, but it all happens very quickly and slightly surreally. Rabbit’s disappearance is incredibly sudden, with no warning at all; the first time I read this it was quite a shock. I understand that, in reality, the death of a loved one can be very sudden like this, especially from a child’s perspective. But I’m not sure that suddenly throwing it out like that in a book is going to be particularly helpful to an already grieving child: some warning would be nice, and is more likely to help a grieving child. I also understand that the second part of the story is trying to say that things can be ok again after someone has gone, but in Rabbityness they get ok again very very quickly, without any period of mourning, and I don’t think this is particularly realistic. It’s almost like saying to the reader, ok, they’ve gone, but they left some good stuff behind, and you can think about them, and that should be enough to make to you happy. But we all know that that is not quite how things really work.

Empson has produced an interesting book that is bright and cheerful and full of joy to begin with, but takes a sinister turn part way through, and it doesn’t quite get back on track again afterwards. While her intentions are true, I’m not convinced they are successful.

Churchill's Tale of Tails, by Anca Sandu

In Churchill's Tale of Tails, Churchill is quite a cute little piggy with a typical curly pig’s tail. But one day, when he gets up in the morning, his tail has gone missing. After searching high and low in his own little house, he starts calling his friends to see if they have any ideas about where it might be. This is when Zebra steps in: he has a spare tail that Churchill can try. The zebra tail is fun but doesn’t feel quite right. It does, however, give Churchill an idea: perhaps he should try some other, different tails to see how they feel?

“He tried little tails, spotty tails, snappy tails, and tails that made him feel big.”

What with all this important tail-trying-on, and the different ways they make him feel, Churchill is so wrapped up in his own thoughts that he starts to ignore his friends. But then, after a bit of a nighttime scare, he finally finds his own tail again.

“Finding his old tail made Churchill feel like his old self again.” And feeling like his old self again helps him to remember all of his friends.

Anca Sandu’s pictures did make me smile, especially when Churchill tries on the peacock’s tail. The animals are sweet and the things they’re shown doing are quite quirky and fun. But the story didn’t really convince me.

Firstly, I’m not too sure about the idea that animals can take off their tails; I wouldn’t want my child to get the impression that this is what happens in real life; it’s a tad misleading. Secondly, the way that Churchill tries on all sorts of different animals’ tails is almost like he is trying on lots of different personalities to see which one fits him best. Granted, in the end he does realise that his own tail is best (well, most of the time), but rather than focussing on this aspect of the story, Sandu turns it around and makes it about Churchill ignoring his friends. This is a bit of an about-turn: three quarters of the book is spent talking about different tails, showing the different animals they come from and the different they make Churchill feel, and then suddenly Churchill is talking about being a bad pig and ignoring his friends. I’m not saying that this secondary idea isn’t important, but I do think it would have been better if Sandu had written two separate stories: one that is more concisely about the importance of your friends, and one that is more concisely about being true to oneself. Instead, she has tried to blend the two together, meaning that neither aspect truly succeeds.