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.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Lollipop and Grandpa Go Swimming, by Penelope Harper & Cate James

Lollipop and Grandpa Go Swimming starts off in a general sort of way. It’s real and normal: Lollipop has a new swimsuit, inflatable armbands, and “the biggest towel Mum could find,” but she’s a bit nervous about getting in the pool: its big and full of children splashing and whooping, and Lollipop doesn’t know how to swim. Grandpa, though, knows how to take care of things. He takes Lollipop into the little pool first so that she can get used to things.

Then. Then they graduate to the big pool. And this is where the book descends into fantasy. Boom. The first thing that happens when Lollipop and Grandpa get into the big pool is an encounter with a giant octopus. The octopus is swiftly followed by a big blue whale, and then the discovery of sunken treasure, from which they are chased off by a bunch of nasty pirates. While to an adult this is clearly part of a game that Lollipop and Grandpa are playing, it is basically never explained as such, and no normal swimming or getting used to the big pool takes place around the fantasy. If I was a little tot being read this story, I would not want to go anywhere near the big pool afterwards. Most small children, it must be remembered, do not distinguish between what I know as real and not-real, and because here it is not specified what is and isn’t real, who’s to say there aren’t really giant octopi, whales, and mean pirates hiding under the still waters of a swimming pool?

I like the sketch style of the drawings in Lollipop and Grandpa Go Swimming, and the layout is fairly standard; I even like the intentions behind the story, but overall it did not ring true for me, and I was disappointed with the assumptions the writer makes. The only redeeming factor is found in the final pages, when Lollipop asks to stay for a few more minutes, indicating that despite the traumas she was actually having fun.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Ruby Redfort: Look Into My Eyes, by Lauren Child

Ruby Redfort is a super sleuth and master code-breaker. She sees things the rest of us don’t and makes it her mission to watch and be aware. She has filled six hundred and twenty two yellow notebooks with her observations - because you never know what might be important - and lives by a set of self-created rules, such as ‘say nothing’ {rule 4}, ‘people often miss the downright obvious’ {rule 18}, and ‘panic will freeze your brain’ {rule 19}.

At the beginning of Look Into My Eyes, Ruby is entangled in a series of both mysterious and mundane events:

  • Returning from a holiday abroad, her parents’ baggage has gone missing,
  • The bank of Twinford, the town in which Ruby resides, is due to receive a large delivery of gold bullion,
  • Ruby’s mother is wildly excited about an upcoming exhibition at the Twinford Museum of a precious Jadeite Buddha,
  • The Redfort house is not only robbed but completely stripped, even the fridge and its contents,
  • The Redfort housekeeper Mrs. Digby disappears after an argument with Conseula, the tomato-obsessed nutritionist,
  • And Hitch, a strangely competent butler-come-house-manager with a dodgy shoulder arrives.

Which of these are going to turn out to be important, and which ones are mere happenstance? Is it all just coincidence, or are they somehow connected?

On top of all this, Ruby and her code breaking observationist skills are recruited by Spectrum, a secret government agency, who needs her to solve a mystery they believe will lead them to the Fool’s Gold Gang, who are planning to rob the bank on the eve of its gold deposit. Will Ruby be able to put all of the pieces together in time?

Look Into My Eyes is a truly quirky offering from Lauren Child, the famed author of Clarice Bean and Charlie and Lola, perhaps the quirkiest twist being that in the Clarice Bean series, the Ruby Redfort stories are Clarice’s favourite books. The language is brilliant and original, full of slightly outdated usage such as ‘bozo’, ‘pulling your leg’, ‘buster’, ‘geez’, and ‘darn it!’ This, along with various other little clues that I’m sure I read, but now can’t quite put my finger on, make me think of an early 1970s setting - for some reason, I can’t help but picture Ruby’s house as being decorated with loud 1970s decor.

The story is highly adventurous, not to mention chock-full of codes and secret messages for the wily reader to figure out, and Ruby is constantly kept on her toes trying to (a) outwit the adults with whom she is surrounded, and (b) convince said adults of the importance of her discoveries. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but wonder firstly whether there were codes embedded in the text that I should be weaseling out, and secondly, whether her parents truly are as oblivious as they seem. Is it all a ruse, or a part of the greater mystery?

With hidden underground buildings, communication by toast, following people and being followed, secret messages posted via the ‘wanted’ ads, Bond-worthy gadgets, kidnap, and criminals with names such as Nine Lives and Baby Face Marshall, this is a book that can’t fail to capture the imagination. Ruby herself is full of vitality, wit and cunning, and her sidekick Clancy Crew is a stalwart friend with a gut instinct that is not to be ignored. Pages of fun.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Paper Dolls, by Julia Donaldson and Rebecca Cobb

Paper Dolls stars a little girl with tiger slippers, stars on her ceiling, and a butterfly hairslide which she keeps losing. On the second page, her and her mum make a string of five paper dolls, and so the rest of the story follows their adventures. They get chased by a dinosaur,  stalked by a tiger, and pursued by a crocodile. “You can’t catch us. Oh no no no!” they sing. “We’re holding hands and we won’t let go,” and they escape off to the next stage in their adventure.

Rebecca Cobb’s illustrations are simple and endearing, quite nostalgic, the little girl wearing a green stripey dress, green tights and a cosy red cardigan. What I like best, though, is the way the illustrations are organised. First, the dinosaur is introduced, accompanied by a picture of the girl sitting on her bed, paper dolls in one hand, dinosaur in the other. Turn the page, though, and suddenly the dinosaur is real, chasing the string of dolls, who have come alive and are running and jumping. Turn the page again, and they’re back to toys, until... boom, the tiger is chasing the dolls across a farmyard. I like this blending of reality and imagination as the story progresses.

The story is sweet, though it didn’t blow me away. I wasn’t too keen on the names given to the paper dolls, and the ending is rather unusual. It exudes happiness and contentment though, and when the paper dolls come to a sticky ending, Julia Donaldson gives it a slightly over-sentimental, happy twist. Again, the illustrations are the best part of this, the page filled with lots of different things to look for and pick out: can you find the mice, the bus, the stars, the goldfish? It’s a nice sentiment, though one that adults are more likely to 'get' than children, I think. Firstly: you can overcome anything if you hold hands like the paper dolls do, and stick together. Secondly: your memory is a treasure trove that can help keep hold of things that have been lost.

The little girl’s tiger slippers are the coolest thing ever, and I quite fancy a butterfly hairclip too - which can be followed through the pages like a mini treasure hunt.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers

John Bartle is at war: at war with himself and with the apathy of his fellow human beings, and he is at war - both physically and mentally - with Iraq. Told in alternating chapters, one in Iraq, one after Iraq, The Yellow Birds is Bartle’s story of being a soldier, of being in the middle of a small number of events, a handful of days in the desert city of Al Tafar, and then of coming home, of being haunted by his experiences and his actions, of never really being able to come home at all.

The opening quote of this book, before the first chapter begins, is a U.S. Marching Cadence:
                                   A yellow bird
                                With a yellow bill
Was perched upon
My windowsill

I lured him in 
With a piece of bread
And then I smashed
His fucking head...

I don’t think Kevin Powers could have chosen anything more apt, summing up as it does both his book and warfare in general in a few simply chosen words. Not that a single word of The Yellow Birds could be described as simply chosen; not one single word or syllable is out of place this book, each one having a point and a meaning and a beauty behind it. It is incredibly powerful and incredibly moving. It is sad and it made me cry, and it made me think and wonder, and yet, somehow, it did not make me feel lost at the end, as some books of this ilk are like to do. It is Powers' attempt to answer the question I suspect he himself, as an Iraq veteran, has been asked many times: what was it like over there?

I could try to tell the bones of the story, of Bartle’s promise to Murphy’s mother to keep him safe and all that ensues, but the real story is that of a lost man and the undoing of war. According to his bio, Powers joined the army when he was just 17, serving in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, then gaining a university degree and poetry fellowship after leaving. Although a work of fiction, while reading The Yellow Birds I had to wonder how much of Powers is in Bartle, and how much of Powers’ own experiences are in the things Bartle sees and feels.

The tension is mixed with passages of descriptive writing that offset each other all in one small instance. It is both calm and horrifying all at the same time. When he is in Iraq, Bartle sees things that bring memories of home, and when he is home, everything he sees brings memories of Iraq. There is a blurring of real and unreal, of memories and experiences and emotions that are vivid in their detail and their telling. Powers writes of war as a living thing that consumes and rages without boundaries, eating away everything in its path, and left me asking the question, not what was it like over there?, but how do you find yourself again?

And, as Bartle struggles with both the war and its aftermath, I found myself thinking about the people that are abroad now, fighting. I see their images on TV, their bravado and their bravery, their interactions with the locals and their comrades, and I take it at face value. Reading his book, Powers made me ask, what goes on underneath the picture on TV or the story in the newspaper? This is part of the power and the importance of The Yellow Birds - it brings to the forefront not questions so much, but the concept that there is more out there than what we may chose to see on any given day, more than a soldier may chose to reveal. The Yellow Birds is, undoubtedly, the war book of the year.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

The Lorien Legacies series, by Pittacus Lore

The Lorien Legacies series by Pittacus Lore is an example of good teenage adventure. The series begins with I Am Number Four, continues with The Power of Six, and now with the latest instalment The Power of Nine.

The premise is fairly straight forward: The planet Lorien was destroyed by their great enemies the Mogadores. As disaster struck, in order to preserve their race, the Lorien leaders managed to send nine children, each with a guardian, to hide on Earth. Loriens are essentially human in form but about half of their race are born with innate powers - special abilities such as telekinesis and extreme speed that develop in their teenage years. The Mogadores followed these children to Earth, to hunt them down, but the Lorien leaders predicted this and so they placed a binding on the children to protect them until they grow into their powers, or ‘legacies’: each child has a number, one to nine, and they can only be killed in that order. So, number nine cannot be killed until all those that proceed him or her have been taken down. Each child, accompanied by their guardian, went a different way when they landed, splitting up the group in order to protect them and to help them hide from the Mogadores. But can they hide forever?

As book one opens the reader is introduced to the background of the story and to Number Four. The Mogadores have hunted down and killed numbers One, Two and Three, each death burning a scar into the other Loriens’ legs; Four knows he is next on the list. This book is the story of his fight to survive and to evade capture, but, as he nears his sixteenth birthday, it’s also the story of the discovery of his legacies, both the powers that he has inherited and the story of the world he left behind, the story of who he is. These ideas all bleed into the following books where they are consolidated and built upon, creating a bigger picture: the fight of a dying race to survive and the fight to protect their adopted home.

I Am Number Four was made into a film shortly after its release a couple of years. It sums up the book quite well: a series of small, daily battles that builds up into one big adventure, packed with adrenaline, coming-of-age issues and, of course, a girl. The book is good, it does what I expected it to, though it does do more than the film, as most books do. The Power of Six carries on where I Am Number Four left off, taking the adventure to another height, and The Rise of Nine mirrors this. I read book one when it first came out, but until this week hadn’t gotten around to book two - while book one is good, and is a great recommend, particularly for younger teenagers, it didn’t blow my mind. So I was pleasantly surprised on picking up The Power of Six as to how much I enjoyed it - more, I think, than I enjoyed I Am Number Four. In fact, I read it in a day, and then moved straight on to The Rise of Nine. And if I had book four in my possession (alas, it is yet to be written), I would have moved straight on to the one too.

I will reveal one secret to the story (though its not exactly a secret these days), and one small spoiler: the author, Pittacus Lore, is the Lorien’s greatest leader. From the reader’s point of view, this is a fun twist to the story especially given one item that is revealed in one of the later books (because I read them together, I can’t remember which one!): one of the nine will be stronger than all the others; they will inherit all of Pittacus Lore’s powers. But which one will it be? And, if it was One, Two, or Three, will those remaining still be able to defeat the Mogadorians? Although, I wonder, if the books are written by Pittacus Lore, then perhaps the one who inherits his legacies then takes the name Pittacus, and is thus writing his/her and his/her companions’ story of survival after the fact. With any luck, all will be revealed in the end.

All in all, The Lorien Legacies is a particularly good series for younger teenagers because its more about adrenaline, unwinding the mystery of the characters’ heritage and escaping the bad guys than it is about love or ‘issues’, but ultimately its perfect escapism for anyone looking for that movie-style reading experience. Each book has something different to add to the story, and book three reveals a lovely government-orientated twist; it’ll be great to find out where the story goes next.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Gods and Warriors, by Michelle Paver

Hylas is twelve years old, an Outsider, and on the run from the Crows. They destroyed his camp and killed his dog and he doesn’t know why. Worst of all, his little sister Issi is missing. Can he find her while evading the warriors who are hunting him?

Pirra is the daughter of a high priestess, rich and privileged, but her life feels like a prison. Kept inside the House of the Goddess all of her life and now being transported across the ocean to be married into a different kind of prison. Can she escape this pre-destined fate?

Telamon, the Chieftan’s son, befriended Hylas against his father’s wishes. Stuck between honoring friendship and dishonoring his house, can he help Hylas escape and will he reveal all he knows?

Gods and Warriors is the first in an awesome new series by Michelle Paver, who is famed for Wolf Brother and the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series. She’s moved a tad further into present, leaving behind the stone age setting of Wolf Brother to delve into the Greek Bronze Age. This is similar and yet different to the stone age; its people still worship the gods of nature - The Lady of the Wild, The Earthshaker, The Angry Ones - and live, for the most part, in enclosed villages, but they are overseen by Chieftans who rule great swathes of land and who have grudges and feuds to bear upon neighbouring chieftans. They have bronze weapons, wear more sophisticated jewellery, and tame horses with carriages. In Gods and Warriors I see the beginnings of the beliefs and values that invade classical Greek literature, the ideas of honour and fate (and hubris) that fill Homer’s stories (for more on this, see my review of The Song of Achilles).

The tale kicks off with Hylas’s first, adrenaline-pumping escape from the mysterious foreign warriors who have destroyed his camp, and it rarely lets up on the tension from this point on. Why are the Crows after him? Will he escape and find his missing sister? The rest of the story builds upon this basic beginning, sweeping across mountains and sea, squirreling into caves and shipwrecks. He and Pirra are thrown together as tenuous allies, trying to extricate themselves from both the hunters and a prophecy regarding a powerful dagger that they have stumbled upon. Did Hylas ‘stumble upon’ the dagger or did the prophecy choose him? And what is Telamon not telling him?

Gods and Warriors really flows well, all the different parts fitting together quite beautifully, coming together at the end and yet leaving me with a series of unanswered questions, to keep me on tenterhooks for book two. And I wonder: will book two tell Hylas’s sister, Issi’s, side of the story? That would be really interesting. This is a great story to set young minds alight and I’ve no doubt it will become a bestseller.