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.