November 2005 Archives

Snapshot

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Robert Swindells
Barrington Stoke
184299347X
Oct 2005
Click. Victor takes a photo of a crime. Next thing he�s being followed. Someone wants those pictures. Someone with a gun.

This combination of unambiguous plot and short snappy sentences makes for a particularly accessible read.

Set in a grey world of tower blocks, stinking lifts and rainy streets, and peopled by blokes in baseball caps and puffer jackets, it will appeal to teenage boys who get into a certain kind of hard, urban cool.

Swindells strikes a good balance in his hero Victor. He�s disaffected enough to be tough but caring enough to be likeable.

Victor narrates the story in his own words � colloquial language and slang designed to be easy to recognise and relate to. �Street language� can be hard to write, it changes rapidly and what was right one day sounds wrong the next. But for the most part Swindells succeeds.

Boys often enjoy non-fiction and relish discovering gruesome information. Victor�s accidental involvement in a world of petty crime and murder should prove exciting stuff for such readers. They will also appreciate the fact that that the story is based on a real-life drama.

Barrington Stoke books aim to entice �disenchanted and under-confident readers�. Snapshot will do just that.





Clay

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David Almond
Hodder
184509487X
Nov 2005
Since Counting Stars (a short story collection that can be viewed as a 'Dubliners' of the North-East), David Almond's fiction has been set in the time of his own childhood, growing directly out of experiences he had as a young boy. In some ways there is a marked difference between this latest novel and early books like Skellig and Kit's WIlderness. But the similarities are there too: the immaculate writing; the strange, mysterious individual, possessor of special powers, at the fulcrum of the story; the sense of menace; the intervening magic.

It did seem (I'm of the same generation as Almond) that there were a greater number of deranged, demented and scarifying individuals at large in the community in the late 1950s and early 1960s. More than one character in this book would, in a contemporary novel, have been counselled or (more likely) drugged into comparative quietude. This, coupled with the freedom that children had to wander around from dawn till dusk without parental paranoia (it really was like that then) makes it the perfect period to write about.

Almond's fiction is special because it has a religious or spiritual layer. The main characters in this book are altar boys who, with typical adolescent mundanity, view their duties (at weddings and funerals) in the same regard as waiters serving at table, with an eye on the best tip. The damaged character is one who has been rejected by the Roman Catholic seminary, and yet, moulding figures out of clay, seems to have the divine power of investing the inanimate with life.

Like all great books, Clay contains tragedy, hope and a sense of right (or down-to-earth goodness) being wronged. It's a reminder, if reminder is needed, that David Almond is the very best author at work in the field of YA fiction in the UK.

This is the first title on ACHUKAREVIEWS to be awarded five GOLD achukachiks.



Secret Scribbled Notebooks

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Joanne Horniman
Allen&Unwin
1904442714
Oct 2005
Another addition to the already vast array of �coming-of-age diary� novels written for teenagers, Secret Scribbled Notebooks tells of seventeen year-old Australian Kate O�Farrell, who is about to finish her exams, leave school and enter the world as a fully fledged proper grown-up. We follow her musings as she struggles to come to terms with her identity, (her parents abandoned her to be brought up by the owner of a guesthouse) falls in love with a �Russian Prince� who lives in a garage and works in a second-hand bookshop, and adapts to a new life as an aunt when her older sister becomes a single parent.

It is always a struggle for authors of diary style novels to steer clear of becoming too prosaic and overly concerned with the tedium of everyday life. Writers such as Jennifer Donnelly and Dodie Smith handle it masterfully by the beauty of their writing, the lyricism and unique voices of their characters. Louise Rennison injects a huge burst of energy into her novels with spectacular wit and comic timing.

Sadly, on these counts, Joanne Horniman fails. There is nothing unique or engaging about this book or its characters, and by the end of the novel, I felt like nothing had really been achieved, realised, or concluded.




In The Morning

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Michael Cronin
Oxford University Press
1904442714
Nov 2005

Adult books have often addressed the issue of how the history of the Second World War could have been very different. Robert Harris�s Fatherland is a classic of the genre while Philip Roth�s more recent The Plot Against America gives a US perspective.

Michael Cronin has used this idea in Against The Day, Through The Night and now the final part of the trilogy In The Morning. His premise is that Britain was invaded in 1940 and the new book follows Frank and Leslie�s battle for survival in the dying days of the regime. Thanks to American and Soviet success on the continent, the occupiers are being forced to withdraw.

The pair are now experienced guerrilla fighters and the book recounts their attempts to hamper German efforts to depart quickly and efficiently. Along the way they meet a cracking cast of secondary characters including a double-crossing actor, collaborating policemen and British Nazis.

At the heart of the book is the story of the resistance�s attempt to stop the German commander Gauleiter M�ller escaping to Germany. The climax comes with Frank held captive by the Careys, a family of rich British Nazis, in Wiltshire and Leslie working with a local guerrilla group who are trying to foil the commander's plans.

Having not read the first two books in the trilogy some of what follows may be unfair. However, In The Morning is being promoted as a standalone novel as well as the concluding part of the story so it�s fair to point out that it feels to this reader as if there are too many loose ends being tied, marring an otherwise enjoyable plot.

The plus points are a succession of fast-paced events that start immediately on Page 1 when partisans blow up a train. If you�ve read the first two books you�ll probably race through it. If not, it might be best to start at the beginning.



Ingo

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Helen Dunmore
HarperCollins
0007204876
Oct 2005
Ours is a land steeped in stories. Books which unite magical secondary worlds with our real landscapes, which can be found on a map, have a special appeal. Like legends which promise �look carefully � Arthur lies there still� they make young readers feel initiated into secret layers of reality that grown ups are too blind and too boring to notice.

Ingo is such a book. It begins with the mermaid of Zennor, a real carving you can find in a real church in Cornwall. A Cornish legend tells how Mathew Trewhella was bewitched with love for the mermaid, and plunged into the sea with her, never to be seen again. Dunmore�s heroine, Sapphire, also lives in Cornwall, and also knows a Mathew Trewhella � her father. This is the tale of his disappearance, and Sapphy�s quest to find him, which leads her deep into the amazing underwater world of Ingo.

Following her brother Conor down to the cove near their cottage, she meets Faro � one of �the Mer� with the body of a boy and the tail of a seal. Faro gives Sapphy her first intoxicating taste of Ingo, and soon she is in danger of becoming hooked, and disappearing off the face of the earth just like her father.

The pull of the sea has always seduced women writers. The wave of recent mermaid books (Liz Kessler�s Emily Windsnap novels, Heather Dyer�s Fish in Room 11, not to mention the shoals of glitter-coated books for younger girls) testifies that female readers are still fascinated.

They will find this book a pleasingly easy read, thanks to its clear exposition and accessible language (Dunmore making a conscious effort to explain unfamiliar vocabulary). Yet there are also subtle depths here - when Faro stares at Sapphy�s legs and calls her �divided� he sums up her soul as much as her body.

This opposition between the sea and the earth is beautifully depicted. Dolphin rides versus a pet dog. Surfing the currents versus tea and cake. Sapphy�s wild imagination versus Conor�s dependable practicality.

Sapphy�s imaginings and emotions are convincingly portrayed, especially her feelings towards her family - how it feels to be the younger sibling, always following behind, the ever-present loss and longing for her father, the yearning for the company of her over-worked mother. Children will also identify with her thirst for thrills and freedom.

The story picks up great pace towards the end of the book, ensuring that readers will be left eager to pick up the next part of this engaging trilogy.




Charley Feather

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Kate Pennington
Hodder Children�s Books
1904442714
Oct 2005
Think Moll Flanders for the younger reader, but if that description puts you off, then consider this simply as an exciting story about thieves, highwaymen, gang warfare and disguise. It is 1739 and Charley Feather has just seen Dick Turpin hanged. This is a salutary experience as thirteen-year old Charley is a highwayman too, a member of a gang led by the notorious Jack Wild. When Wild is captured, Charley has to run and ends up heading for London with the suave �Frenchy�. He has a plan for survival which involves playing a dangerous game of trickery, and Charley is caught up in it.

This adventure story is an exciting and evocative tale of loyalty, betrayal and characters who are not what they seem. There is a real historic feel to the book, enhanced by chapter headings in the style of the mid-eighteenth century. Chapter Two for instance is subtitled: �In which I find a poor billet for the night, reflect on my murky past and ponder my uncertain future.� While details like this add to the atmosphere, they do not get in the way of a fast-paced story. The many twists and turns of Charley�s fortune draw the reader on and the setting is sketched with a light, sure touch. Very convincing and a thoroughly enjoyable read.




Century

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Sarah Singleton
Simon and Schuster
1904442714
Oct 2005

I did say to Michael that, for obvious reasons, I wouldn�t review fellow Simon and Schuster authors (with the exception of my test review using the excellent Sea of Trolls), but having just finished Century I feel compelled to break the rule.

Except for the single page of (unnecessary) prologue there is a beautiful lack of scene-setting or explanation in this book. We have a bitter, frozen winter�s night in a dusty and decaying mansion. We have an odd shadowy family living out the night as if it was their day. We have ghosts and shades of other lives woven into the twilight world. We have a seamless passage of time, a well-practised routine � boiled egg for evening �breakfast�, studies with the governess Galatea, moonlit walks out across the frosted lawns, pre-dawn bedtime stories in the nursery parlour � that makes the succession of nights hard to tell apart. And at the centre we have Mercy and her sister Charity, creeping through this existence like ancient mechanical toys.

Yet Mercy has seen a different ghost for once, something new in this world of the totally familiar and unchanging. A woman caught under the ice in the distillery pond.

Like the slightest feathery kiss on Sleeping Beauty�s lips, the ghost�s appearance (and then a snowdrop hidden under her pillow when nothing grows outside) nudges Mercy just enough for her to yawn and stretch and wonder at the curiousness of her existence. Where are her memories? Where is the sunlight? Where is her mother?

The quality of the writing is such that the reader has been drawn easily into the drowsy, whispering nights, fascinated and a little spooked perhaps. But don�t assume that this is a simple ghost story. Mercy�s slight rebellion, which grows and grows in momentum, sucking all her family into a new course, reveals an explanation that is complex and challenging enough to belong to Douglas Adams or Red Dwarf, with a pinch of Doctor Faustus or Mrs. Coulter thrown in. It is a further tribute to the author that even this explanation comes to us utterly believably and with almost some sort of inevitability.

A deserving prize-winner, there is little to fault in this debut novel. I did look for a final twist at the end, but perhaps I was simply being greedy.




Deborah Hallford & Edgardo Zaghini
Milet
184509487X
Nov 2005
What a tremendous resource this is. It opens, after a short introduction by the editors and foreword by Philip Pullman, with a series of articles by a reviewer (Nick Tucker), a translator (Sarah Adams), an author (Lene Kaaberbol), an academic (Gillian Lathey), a publisher (Kalus Flugge) and others. Then there are the book recommendations themselves, organised in five age categories plus graphic novels, non-fiction, and dual language books. The last quarter of the book is given over to author and illustrator biographies and helpful resource and organisation details. Finally, there is a very good index.

Most guides of this type have to be produced on a shoestring of a budget and often appear in dowdy pamphlet format. This one has been designed and produced to an extremely high standard (it has benefitted from Arts Council sponsorship), with cover and inside illustrations by Pablo Bernasconi. An essential resource for anyone seriously interested in giving children the widest access to all that's best in children's books from around the world. More than being a handy signpost to what's available today, this bright user-friendly production ought to serve as an incentive for publishers to produce an increasing number of books in translation in the future.



Simon Bartram
Templar Publishing
1840113685
Oct 2005
Children who have met Bartram's The Man on the Moon, or Dougal, The Deep Sea Diver, will already know that they are in for a treat with this concoction from the same author. Any parents who haven't yet introduced their offspring to Bartram's vivid colours and writing - well, what are you waiting for?

This collection of musings and poetry has all the trademark Bartram exaggeration, not to mention his equally trademark cornish-ware cups of tea. From the opener, "What Happened to the Pirate's Eye?" we are immediately in Bartram-land, where the reader is always encouraged to look beneath the surface, and wonder why, for example, pirates always choose to keep one eye covered. In "Puddle Trouble" he explores just what kind of big trouble parents are referring to, when they say, "you are now in BIG trouble". This is immediately engaging poetry, and full of ideas that children will recognise and feed off, as well. As inviting as burgers and chips, and nourishing as bright green vegetables.


Fly By Night

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Frances Hardinge
Macmillan
1904442714
Oct 2005
Fly By Night is set in an imagined world (both similar to and different from eighteenth century England) and turns upon the fate of twelve-year old Mosca, the incorrigible goose Saracen and unscrupulous, highfaluting Eponymous Clent. For various reasons they are each reviled and so, seeking to escape their straitened circumstances, they become mired in the dangerous political plotting that afflicts the Fractured Realm.

On some levels, it�s very tempting to compare this book to Philip Pullman�s �His Dark Materials� trilogy and to view headstrong, courageous Mosca as a literary �daughter of Lyra�. However, far from being an imitator, Frances Hardinge has the confidence and skill to tell her story in a voice that is delightfully idiosyncratic, witty and humane. You cannot fail to appreciate the sheer relish with which Hardinge uses language, conveying how dangerous, seductive and wonderful words (and books) can be. There is also a strong sense of genuine affection in her depiction of humankind in all its weirdness and whimsicality. Characters that are variously terrifying, ridiculous, magnificent and pitiable are all described with equal care and conviction.

A very impressive debut!





Wenceslas

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ill. Christian Birmingham text by Geraldine McCaughrean
Doubleday
0385605358
Nov 2005
I stupidly over-wrote this review when adding a new one. If someone has my original words saved in any format I'd be grateful if they could send them to me so that they can be reinstated. What I remember saying is roughly this: McCaughrean's text (taking its cues from J. M. Neale's well-known carol) is pitch perfect from the start: "So great fires were burning in every palace grate, and twelve days of Christmas feasting lay ahead, silly with song and dance!" Don't you just love that 'silly'?

But it's Christian Birmingham's illustrations that really drive this retelling of the King and the pageboy's charitable visit to a peasant's home. The only other illustrator I can imagine coming near to Birmingham's rich evocation of that peasant-King gathering is P J Lynch. In the following pageturn, revealing such a contrasting scene - a cold aerial view of the snow-smothered cottage and surrounding forest, we see an illustrator at work who really knows how to drive a narrative forward pictorially.

The best new Christmas title of 2005.



Ithaka

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Adele Geras
David Fickling Books
1904442714
Oct 2005
Anything from the David Fickling YA stable is likely to be substantial, well-written and worth a lot more than a glance. The 400-page Ithaka lives up to these expectations: and yet, for all the brain fodder it offers, all the drama, the big human questions and the beautifully-crafted language, one can�t help wondering how many teenagers will really go for this.

The story is one of waiting. Long years of waiting for Odysseus, who left to fight the war against Troy, to find his way back home, via Cyclops, sirens and the rest. (I hadn�t read Troy, the first of these two volumes, and it�s many years since any scanty contact with The Odyssey, but that didn�t prove significant). Penelope, Odysseus� wife and queen of Ithaka, is struggling to remain true to her husband, to believe in his survival, and to keep all ready - herself most of all - for his eventual return. To a greater or lesser extent, the royal servants and the whole of the island do likewise. Clearly the memory of Odysseus, the tales of his heroism and the need for a king have left a long shadow over the island, even affecting those who were no more than babies when their lord left. The goddess Pallas Athene adds to Penelope�s straitjacket of duty and faith by telling her that 'as long as you are here, unchanged and unchanging, he will come to no harm'. To this end, the queen spends endless hours at her loom, weaving the images of her husband�s adventures and of his ship always heading for home. Meanwhile the hero�s ancient dog, Argos, pads around the place and dreams also of his master returning, whilst Telemachus, Odysseus� son returns again and again to the armoury to take down his father�s massive hunting bow and marvel at it.

Yet the nature of life is change, and as time goes on, the strain of the waiting becomes a curse to the islanders. Soon, many are arguing that Penelope should declare her husband dead and marry again. The queen herself is emotionally and physically unfulfilled and restless, and the palace starts to fill up with a rabble of violent and unsavoury suitors, bringing chaos and disorder. As with a Shakespearean comedy, the idyll of Ithaka becomes tainted and corrupted by misunderstanding, deception, doubt: the reader can only wonder whether order is ever to be restored.

Much of the tale is told through the eyes and the growing pains of Klymene, the queen�s maidservant, and this is its strength, for the loves and losses of the younger characters around the palace are often the most touching and immediate. As a whole, however, there is a distance, a lack of either an emotional hook or a compelling, urgent story, that mars the narrative. Add that to the air of gloom that prevails � 'How much wickedness there was in the world. It was a wonder people found even a small amount of happiness in the midst of all the anguish' - and we are firmly in the realm of Greek tragedy, where the gods have their sport of poor mortals. For those who desire such a read, you couldn�t do better.



Tamar

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Mal Peet
Walker
0744565707
Oct 2005
I've just done that thing you do when you turn the last page on an exceptionally good book. Close the back cover, stare gormlessly at the jacket illustration and make a cross between a sniff and a sigh. The sniff for appreciation of great work done, the sigh of regret that a story you've savoured has finished.

Mal Peet's first novel, Keeper, was a miracle. A novel that finally revealed to me - a cricket lover - the poetry and magic in the game of soccer. Second novels are often disappointments, and when the author himself told me (at a summer party) that he was working on a novel set in Holland during the war, I confess I felt disappointment was on the cards.

How wrong. This is an outstanding novel. Outstanding in every regard. It establishes Peet as a novelist of immense gift and versatility, for no two novels could be more different than Keeper and Tamar and yet be so equally brilliant.

The two principal characters in Tamar are undercover operators working in Nazi-occupied Holland in support of the resistance. There is many an episode of nailbiting excitement in the book, but for much of the time the undercover agents have to cope with the boredom of waiting and watching, and with the interpersonal tension of loving the same woman.

Parallel to this is a more contemporary narrative, set in 1995, which is properly subservient to the war story, and yet utterly convincing.

Throughout the book the writing is of the highest order, crisply figurative description falling from Peet's pen with apparent ease: "the mud had solidified into frost-capped peaks and ripples that looked like mountain ranges seen from the cockpit of an aircraft" or "the sky was the colour on old knife" to give just two examples.

Published by Walker Books as a Young Adult novel, Tamar is a novel worthy of standing with the very best of contemporary British fiction.





Seeker

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William Nicholson
Egmont
1904442714
Oct 2005
Nicholson�s latest offering, the first instalment of a new trilogy, took a while to get under my skin. The sleek prose at least made for an easy read, but I didn�t start to really care about the characters, or their respective quests, until quite a way into the action. The three young protagonists from different backgrounds are introduced separately to the reader, before their paths cross and they discover a mutual ambition. Motivated by different circumstances, they all long to become a Noma - a type of revered, mystical warrior - but must first prove they are worthy. The ensuing adventure sees the brave but na�ve young adults have their individual beliefs and ideals challenged and sometimes crushed as they come up against the harsh realities of the outside world.

The setting is fantasy, but the modern day metaphors are somewhat transparent � themes of suicide bombers, public execution, religious intolerance, blind faith and unjust social hierarchies are all explored. The balance of good and evil is more ambiguous however � the separate communities are each convinced of the supremacy their own beliefs, and the reader is invited to judge for themselves. If you can get past a slowish start and avoid getting bogged down by these potential moral dilemmas, you will find yourself immersed in a cracking fantasy adventure with well-painted and ultimately likeable characters.




Ithaka

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Adele Geras
David Fickling Books
0385603916
Oct 2005
There is already a plethora of retellings of Homer�s The Odyssey for young people, though thankfully Ithaka doesn�t claim to add to these. The story is told from the point of view of Odysseus� wife Penelope, left alone for over ten years, stubbornly resisting rumours that her husband is dead, and pressure from others to find Ithaka another king. Interwoven with her story are the lives of those who surround her in her palace, most importantly Klymene, Penelope�s maid, and her twin brother Ikarios.

As in Geras� Troy, the romantic lives of her characters are bound up in complex love triangles, and the themes of unrequited love and jealousy run rife. Also similarly to Troy, the Gods walk amongst the mortals freely, either wreaking havoc or protecting the humans respectively.

Geras writes beautifully, and as ever, engagingly. The plot is fast-moving and dramatic and the characters are well-drawn and easy to sympathise with. The only problem I had with this novel is a strong sense of d�j� vu. Echoes of Troy resonate through the narrative, the characters, and the plot, to the extent that you start to wonder if you are in fact reading the same book, simply told from a different perspective, and in a different setting.

Setting this aside, the novel stands alone as a highly accomplished and thought-provoking work, and an incentive for more dedicated readers to proceed on to Homer�s Odyssey.