January 2006 Archives

The Chronicles of Faerie: The Hunter's Moon

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O. R. Melling
Amulet Books
1904442714
Oct 2005
American Gwen and her Irish cousin Findabhair (pronounced �finn-ah-veer�) are sixteen, soul-mates, on the threshold of womanhood but still innocent enough to half-believe that they might achieve their childhood goal of finding a doorway into the Faraway Country. It is not the fairies at the bottom of the garden whom they seek, but an altogether wilder and more dangerous breed. Ostensibly on a bus tour of Ireland (parents have to be pacified in order to be put out of the picture) but in fact prepared to be more reckless in search of their goal, the two are quickly involved in a wild game of hide and seek where one of them inhabits a different realm from the other.

What awaits them is passion, fear, loyalty and friendship in unlooked-for places. In short, all the elements of a fantasy adventure but shaken up and given a new, female-friendly slant. I would have gobbled this up as a teenager (and have to confess that I gobbled it up as an adult). It is the first in a series, so watch out for more. Highly enjoyable, with a tinge of the uncanny and a large injection of teen-sized romance.



Let's Get Lost

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Sarra Manning
Hodder Children's Books
0340877014
Feb 2006
"The way I see it, school is like on of those documentaries about big cats on the Discover Channel. It's maul or be mauled. It's not fair. It's not right. It just is what it is. I spent two years of middle school having my lunch money stolen and my clothes, hair and teen, tiny, almost unnoticeable lisp mocked by a bunch of girls who were bigger and uglier than me. So when I got to senior school, it was beyond time to reinvent myself."

In Isabel Sarra Manning has created what surely must be one of the most caustic and insular characters in teenage literature. Her torrent of acerbic and intimidating remarks towards the beginning of the novel make it difficult to identify or empathise with her. What becomes apparent is that Isabel is not only highly intelligent, but that she is also sensitive, however, much her endeavours might attempt to shroud that. It is these facts that pull her apart from partners in crime, Nancy, Ella and Dot.

A case of mistaken identity forms the basis for a relationship between Isabel and Atticus � Smith to his friends! It is through being close with Smith, that Isabel finds herself able to confide more honestly elements of her feelings and eventually of her past, but this rests on the premise of a single lie � that Isabel is 18. Inevitably, in true soap-opera-style Smith learns of this lie (courtesy of Isabel�s ever �amiable� friends) the relationship unsurprisingly deteriorates with Smith unsure of which parts of Isabel�s character he can believe or find truth in

The plot of this novel does � at points � make one feel that one has fallen asleep in front of the television and awoken in front of an averagely scripted episode of Hollyoaks, but then this is the audience the novel is aimed towards. Where �Let�s get lost� excels is in the plausibility of her teenage protagonists, their fears, anxieties, loves and laughter are detailed with extraordinary perception, as too are the politics of the school-yard. Parts of the novel are quite �adult�, but given the content of teenage magazines again this is in context with the novel�s audience. Sarra Manning has crafted that rare thing, a novel that is insightful and observant, whilst remaining a truly compelling read. Bravo!



Blart

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Dominic Barker
Bloomsbury
074758074X
Feb 2006
Irresistibly irreverent, �Blart� is one of those all-too-rare, laugh-out-loud books. A hapless sort of a chap, Blart, our eponymous protagonist and unlikely hero is a pig farmer by trade and all things porcine certainly form the basis for his comfort-zone. Together with the cantankerous wizard, Capablanca, blowhard warrior, Beowulf and petulant Princess Lois, Blart unwillingly becomes a part of the motley crew who aim to do battle against evil over-lord Zoltab and the minions and Ministers who seek his return.

Wreaking havoc at every point of their voyage and leaving in their wake a trail of, for the most part accidental, death and destruction � quarterised pet dragons and a couple of very flat dwarves - one would be forgiven for imagining the future of the world not to beentirely within safe hands.

Despite the varied and various misfortunes that befall our heroes, through a series of coincidences things amazingly fall together towards the end of this misadventure in a way that has to be read to be believed. Whether in the Cavernous Library of Ping, or the Even More Cavernous Library of Zing, Blart is the most unlikely hero you�re likely to read about any time soon � essential reading for anyone with fantasy leanings and a sense of humour!




Castles

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Colin Thompson
Hutchinson Children's Books Ltd
0091884861
Jan 2006
Part rant, part review, part plea for revolution�

Rant

Whatever else, we are surrounded by stories. News stories - national and international, gossip from gathered groups on street corners, astrological predictions, scientific assertions � an essential constituent of our civilisation is concern with what happens next� We have unique capacities to communicate lives and surroundings, to make ourselves feel secure in the safety, or shocked and scared � possibly scarred � by stories� With ancient petroglyphs and paleoglyphs as ancestral heritage, picture books show wonderfully dynamic ways of capturing and recording tales through dialectics of text and illustration.

It is easy to see the present always as sequential within development, as the zenith of achievement. The �Golden Age� of children�s literature is symptomatic of such thinking. Children�s literature being located in a 'Golden Age' necessitates a culture whereby its contributions and worth are valued by all. Central to this, all exponents bringing literature � in its many modern guises and forms � to the masses must realise their respective positions working together to provide unilateral and unfragmented environs so supporting not only readers, but also the many producers who, through shared visions, bring us the range and diversity of literature now considered commonplace. When successfully achieved this is remarkably potent and powerful, when misaligned ramifications are far-reaching and arguably catastrophic. The decision of one major chain of bookshops to drastically restrict its selection of picture books sends ripples across the whole of the children�s literature world, impacting most dramatically upon children whose access to the range and diversity of styles and approaches to storytelling becomes restricted to that which is made visually available.

Review

From the symmetry of end-papers inwards, �Castles� is most carefully crafted. Delineation between that which is made visible and that constructed as out of view forces dynamism in the acts of reading, interpretation and imagination. A framed doorway invites us into the body of the book proper and readers are instantly propelled into the self-referential world of Colin Thompson with vignettes from previous work �The Violin Man� � a wonderful Honour Book in the Australian Children's Book Council Awards that remains despairingly unavailable in the United Kingdom � biographical photos from Thompson�s childhood (see www.colinthompson.com for details)and the ever-familiar Caf� Max.

Fairy tale allusions abound with references to Kings, Queens, Princes and Princesses and a quest is placed before adventurous readers as the voyage around the fantastic and fantastical castle begins proper!

Animal, vegetable, mineral� earth, fire, air, water� all are explored as potential sites for the structuring and later sightings of castle. There are mythical and magical feels to this epic picture book. Readers are provided with worlds whose inhabitants have crafted their surroundings from things that matter and hold meaning for them. There are puzzles, mazes, a myriad of minutiae for discerning readers to perceive.

Castles are seminal architectures in the history of the United Kingdom; Celtic strongholds, Roman Forts, Norman Castles these stalwart buildings mark many defining moments in forging the fundaments of nationhood. It is apt therefore that Thompson should explode these outwards into the realms of the possible, the potential and the perhaps impossible also� Like Italo Calvino in �Invisible Cities", Colin Thompson in �Castles� re-structures logocentric truths and fantasies to create impressive landscapes comprising a multiplicity of narrative strands.

�Castles� is a book that demands reading and re-reading rewarding this with its richly good-humoured verbal and visual play. Careful readers will spot sea-saws, gravyboats, references to almost all Thompson�s previous work and much, much more also... Here is a book that encourages exploration, that enriches and enlivens all imaginations. Colin Thompson has crafted his Magnum Opus.

Plea for Revolution

This is truly a book that deserves home on every book-shelf across the land, in every heart of every child and adult. I have a dream that �Castles� might start a quiet, bloodless and bookish revolution, people power for the picture book�





The Hand of the Devil

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Dean Vincent Carter
Bodley Head Children's Books
0370328833
Feb 2006
"It occurred to me long ago that what scares us most isn't death, disease or nuclear war. What's most terrifying isn't the world outside, but the world inside."

Receiving an intriguing letter from a Mr Reginald C. Mather, journalist Ashley Reeves sets off on an expedition to Tryst in the Lake District in pursuit of an exclusive story about the Ganges Red mosquito for magazine �Missing Link�. His arrival at Tryst is marked by an imminent rainstorm and on his journey across to Mr Mather�s island, Ashley looses control of his boat colliding it into rocks. Shattering on impact, Ashley is thrust into the cold waters of the lake and swims towards the island, arriving with a soaked, broken mobile phone and no immediate means for leaving the island�

The story moves on apace from this point forward and author Dean Vincent Carter proves himself a master of the genre displaying a true understanding of the terrors of one's internal world and gradual corrosions of control... Mr Mather seems the archetypal, if not eccentric, entomologist. He is learned in insects, theories of evolution and also the legends surrounding the exceptionally sized Ganges Red mosquito � an insect the size of a human hand and capable of secreting an agonising toxic saliva that aids the creatures blood ingestion. Paternal scenes where Mr Mather�s brings in cups of tea echo the extreme juxtaposition of psychosis with seeming geniality meaning character leanings of Mr Mather�s are as shocking and atypical as those of Hitchcock�s Norman Bates�

Central use of the mosquito is a touch of genius, the blood-sucking is reminiscent of the most traditional Vampiric horror stories, yet the more grounded use of an insect sets this story firm amidst the consciousness. �The Hand of the Devil� is a multi-dimensional story. On one level it can be read as a taut and particularly gruesome, gripping and, in points, graphic horror story. On a more figurative footing, the story of the Ganges Red mosquito charts the horrifying ways in which love that is lost can manifest itself when a failure to grieve and to arrive at some sort of solace in one�s thoughts arises whilst at once being, in parts, genuinely touching. A true gore-fest, read this book and you�ll never see mosquitoes in quite the same way again�!




Yakov and the Seven Thieves

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Madonna
Puffin Books
1904442714
Oct 2005
When is a children�s book not a children�s book? The question is neither as facetious nor as frivolous as it might first appear. With the publication of an increasing number of �celebrity� written stories purportedly for children, the alleged new �cross-over� market and the production of collectors� editions of children�s books with a pricetag way beyond the means of the average child, when is a children�s book no longer for children?

One answer might be when it is written by Madonna! Yakov and the Seven Thieves is the third of Madonna�s five picture-books and sports the adage �for children (even grown up ones)� - presumably because otherwise it might not be easy to discern. It is not difficult to criticise Yakov and the Seven Thieves. Even the title does not convincingly match the story, in which only five true thieves are depicted. It would be callous, however, to criticise too harshly as, whatever else, one suspects that the writing of these books was genuinely important to Madonna.

The stories, though overtly moralistic, are doubtless well-intentioned. Yakov and the Seven Thieves posits the thought-provoking idea that the ill-deeds of others are external manifestations of areas internal to us that we should seek to change, or that the text somewhat predictably tars as �bad'. The idea itself is intriguing and one that certainly warrants both consideration and debate. Whether a picture book in the United Kingdom (where, sadly, such books are seen on the whole only as an intermediary step towards learning to read) is the best milieu for such discussion is doubtful.

Has Madonna, the Queen of popular re-invention lived up to the reputation she has acquired for challenging her audiences? Both yes and no. Despite being resplendently illustrated, there is none of that good-humoured interplay between text and illustration that makes successful picture books at once stimulating and dynamic. Here. the relationship between both can only be described as sterile. The area in which Yakov and the Seven Thieves succeeds so laudably, alongside Madonna�s other children�s titles, is not only in drawing question to the nature, definition and indeed parameters of children�s literature � always a worthy cause, if discussion and development in the field is to remain meaningful and responsive � but also in bringing the marginalised picture book in the UK to a less strictly age-segregated audience. For both reasons Madonna should be praised.



Dinosaur Chase

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Benedict Blathwayt
Hutchinson Children's Books Ltd
0091892937
Feb 2006
Change allows us to meet our surrounding circumstances and thereby to survive� Dinosaur Chase! is the fantastic new picture book by Benedict Blathwayt that allows small children�s imaginations to both soar and roar!

Fin and his dinosaur friends are playing - learning about the ways they can use their bodies. A gang of pre-historic bullies spoil the friends� games and Fin leads them a chase across vistas and views of his prehistoric panorama. Gradually, through a process of elimination as members of the gang discover they can�t jump, swim and climb, the numbers diminish until there is a literal cliff-hanger for hero Fin!

What happens next is wonderfully liberating as Fin spreads out his arms to discover feathers and thereby to find that he can fly. Two beautifully detailed double page spreads celebrate his first ascent.

Blathwayt will be familiar to readers for his popular �Little Red Train� series. What makes his books so accomplished is the multilayering of the stories. Each page of illustrations features detail to the n-th degree meaning readers can visit the book again and again each time discovering more.



Firestarter

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Catherine Forde
Egmont Children's Books
1405210567
Feb 2006
Catherine Forde�s novels have the emotional impact of a clenched fist to the stomach. She writes powerful prose that deliver firm blows. Three-year-old Annie is the lynch-pin in Firestarter, not because she contributes directly to the plot, but rather because she epitomises the dependency and innocence of early childhood, thereby setting a direct contrast with unpredictable and dangerous Reece Anderson, the eponymous Firestarter�

Reece is the latest in what we understand to have been a long line of delinquents to dwell with well-meaning Mrs Duff. When at the beginning of the novel he pops his head over the fence to look into his neighbour�s garden, he traverses the safe boundaries and parochial outlooks of �not-in-my-backyard� mentalities�

The fuse for this fiction is lit and it sizzles swiftly! Keith, baby-sitting for younger sister Annie, becomes immediately concerned for her safety. Hee senses that Reece is not malicious but suspicions that he is dangerous are confirmed when he unwittingly sets fire to Annie�s beloved doll, Raggy.

Firestarter is an astutely observed novella whose dramatic conclusion forces readers to match their own attitudes against those of the characters in the book. The chilling and thought-provoking ending leaves a long-lasting soured aftertaste.



Whispers in the Woods

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Mark Bartholomew ill. by Jan Evans
Educational Printing Services Limited
1904904610
Jan 2006
It is exciting stumbling unexpectedly upon a book that catches one unaware, making one both think and feel in a different way than before. Whispers in the Woods is such a book. It is a traditional and at once quiet tale that looks back to medieval life and traditions, in so doing offering peace and solace from the hustle and bustle of modern life.

Taking the legendary green children of Woolpit as its inspiration, Whispers in the Woods deftly takes its child protagonists Fern and Hickory on a quest for ultimate self-knowledge and acceptance. What is so admirable in this is the way the tale captures the mood, music, movement and motions of medieval English life whilst covertly questioning issues of nurture and nature in the two children�s development.

The gentle narration and the endearing depiction of Fern and Hickory make this a likeable and comforting story. That is not to say the tale is not also resonant. The children�s persecution by witchfinder Silas of Wickham draws parallels with race issues of the present day. Similarly, the children�s relationship with nature stimulates thinking about our contemporary relationship with the environment. Interwoven into the tale are legends, folk-lore, a brief grounding in the origins of surnames and etymology, and an overview of mediaeval castle life.

On a purely practical level, production values on some of the illustrations are low, preventing them from properly complementing the text. The inclusion of a glossary is useful in providing an understanding of some of the more specialised language.

A welcome addition to the bookshelf.


The Wind Tamer

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P. R. Morrison
Bloomsbury Children's Books
074757950
Feb 2006
The Wind Tamer is distinctively sensual. First time author P. R. Morrison has a wonderful knack for grounding her prose with strong imagery. The brilliant pure white Ice Gulls against the bleak darkness of Westervoe in coastal Scotland and the slam and screech, whistle and roar of the wind make for a hugely atmospheric and at times filmic backdrop to an unusual novel that sweeps readers into its richly imaginative world of suspense and intrigue.

Archie Stringweed is turning ten; there�s a suspicion amongst his family that life will never be the same again� Several generations ago a curse was put on the Stringweed family and early on in the novel a terrible transformation takes place. A web of curiosities and mysteries involving green balls of light, talking gusts and blusters of wind, clouds of white birds, a huge amount of snow, a couple of coins and the sudden appearance of eccentric and well-travelled Uncle Rufus all come together as part of the conflict with the tornado Huigor.

The main strength of this novel is its castlist of colourful and unconventional characters. They are painted with verve and good humour and each has their own particular anxiety to overcome. It is how they do this and the type of bravery they display that makes the novel both heartening and admirable. At times the onslaught of different and discursive story-elements leaves the reader feeling slightly wind-swept, but this is a book that will quench the thirst for action and adventure of even the most thrills-desperate child.




The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

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John Boyne
David Fickling Books
038560940X
Jan 2006
It�s important � crucially important � not to lose sight of the dual function of historical fiction. It is not its sole preserve to document historically accurate fact � that position is held, to lesser or greater degrees, by history books. Historical fiction aims to make an artistic statement brought into rapid relief alongside the backdrop of history. It�s indisputable value then is that it triggers within readers a shift in perspective.

The ambivalence that surrounds much of the criticism about John Boyne�s first novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, seems to arise from an inability to suspend one�s disbelief. As Kellaway asserts in the Observer, �(t)he Holocaust as a subject insists on respect, precludes criticism, prefers silence.� The danger here is respectful silence has an unnerving ability to marginalise the Holocaust from mainstream historical discourse. This can be evidenced by BBC research findings that less than 40% of young people had heard of Auschwitz. Research on the streets of Minsk resulted in similar findings: �I think Auschwitz is a type of hoofed animal�.

Clearly historical treatment of the Holocaust for young people in the main has not resulted in even basic comprehension. The question arises then as to whether fiction has a role to play here and it can easily be argued that it does� Successful fiction captures the imagination, it allows us to live lives that are extraordinary to us. The story of Bruno and Shmuel within �The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas� does exactly that, through it we gain a fresh and new perspective on the Holocaust allowing us to invest our emotional economies, should we divest our interaction with history of this then historiography becomes the realm of arbitrary facts and figures.

This novel is one whose success is grounded within the naivety of its voice. To criticise that and to dismiss Bruno as �thick and unobservant� as Saunders does within The Times is to radically misalign the premise upon which �The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas� operates. As publisher David Fickling comments, �This is a book about innocence walking into darkness�, the at-once emotional and artistic impact of the book occurs as the reader moves through from disbelief to an awareness of the true capacity for humanity to dispossess itself from all respect and compassion. This is not, as Saunders suggests, a novel of �absolutely blush-making vulgarity�, neither is it as Kellaway claims �the first novel ever written for children about the Holocaust�, it is a novel whose ending remains with readers long after the paper pages are finished, it is a novel that inspires thought and difference of opinion, it is a book that deserves to be read, to be discussed, to be held close to the heart�


Chance of a Lifetime

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Deborah Kent
Kingfisher
0753410885
Nov 2005
Set in the American Civil War, Chance of a Lifetime opens with protagonist Jacquetta May Logan staying with relatives Aunt Clem and her �unbearably lonely� cousin Mattie. Jacquetta�s genial life of deportment, sewing and riding is shattered by the advancement of the Union army and its seizure of her family�s plantation. Together with her trusty steed Chance, Jacquetta escapes by cover of darkness and embarks upon a series of adventures, daring and intrigue that lead to the eventual liberation of her family�s Morgan horses�

It is easy to see how this novel could have been both unique and superb. Throughout the narrative trots along at a steady pace and in places it picks up speed and truly begins to gallop. This works best when Chance and Jacquetta are together feeling the winds of freedom and liberation rush through their respective manes and hair, the power of the writing at such times sweeps the reader along and makes the book a genuine pleasure. The marrying of a fairly traditional equine-focused tale together with the American civil war is not wholly comfortable however. Despite a somewhat sentimental scene whereby Jacquetta learns of the death of her brother Marcus, for a large portion of the novel the impact of war�s emotional focus is directed most heavily upon horses. As such the reader is left with an after-taste that the story would perhaps have felt more satisfactory had it not have placed the mortality of human kind and horses together.




Erased

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Nick Gifford
Puffin Books
0141317329
Jan 2006
Eugenics � the wilful manipulation of the human gene pool with the assumed aim of betterment� By whose will, however, is manipulation carried out, and from what motivations do these actions arise? In Erased Nick Gifford explores these ideas to their utmost in a story that genuinely chills and chafes at ethical and moral certainty�
�Home 4 the wkend? Surprise 4 mum. CU fri. Rsvp.�

Liam Connor receives exeat to go home and spend the weekend with his mother and father. On arriving at the family home, however, he finds it has been ransacked and his mother and father are missing. The situation descends still further when, returning for a second time the following day, neighbour Mr Mendes fails to recognise him or to acknowledge that the Connor family have ever resided there. Memories and the world that Liam has inhabited are fast being erased, leaving him to rely on wile and wit to survive and discover the truth both of his origins and his time at the sinister NATS school.

A �flesh� of fact must cover bones of horror if fear is to be instilled into readers and this is where Nick Gifford excels with his work. Though he writes of extreme situations there is plausibility� Search through the annals of history and the blight of eugenics and the power that megalomaniacs who wield it as their ideological club are inked upon the pages of history books in human blood. Erased is a real romp of a read. That it equips readers with an awareness of the mechanics of inhumanity must be a step towards ensuring history�s mistakes are not repeated.





Skin

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A. M. Vrettos
Egmont Children's Books
1904442714
Jan 2006
My stomach lurches when I think about how it must have felt, to think you�re invisible, and suddenly have all those eyes looking at you, instead of looking through you.

Skin is in essence a love story, a story about familial love gone horribly wrong and the resultant consequences. Focusing on Karen, �Skin� is really Donnie�s story of the slow comprehension of the traumatic death of his sister whose decline he has seen charted through her gradual wasting away and the series of notebooks she has kept.

It is a tribute to debut novelist Vrettos� skill that �Skin� is in no way a heavy book, yet neither is it frivolous. There is lightness of touch in the narrative voice which allows the story to be both life-affirming and uplifting despite its inevitable conclusion.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy in �Skin� is the Leplant parents' unending efforts to maintain some level of family balance and thereby to do the best by their children Karen and Donnie. Throughout they remain oblivious to the emotional effects they thrust upon their offspring. If dysfunction lives within this novel it does not arise through hatred or indifference but rather through love - and it is this which makes the book so painfully poignant and powerful.

Depiction of Karen�s anorexia is at once central and yet incidental to the novel. Interplay between the issue being central and incidental is what makes the book successful in making this story of at once visible and three-dimensional.

There can be no doubt that this is an �issue� led book, but the issue does not wholly subjugate its narrative.


The Lottery

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Beth Goobie
Faber Children's Books
1904442714
Oct 2005
The Lottery is a daring but difficult novel. In it the protagonist Sal somersaults fully-formed and exuberant into the mind of readers. It is her lively disposition that makes Sal�s selection for the school lottery so cruel and unwarranted. For Saskatoon Collegiate�s infamous lottery is just that, a lottery upon whose luck the fate of one student falls each year as they are subsequently isolated, ignored and degraded�

On opening her clarinet case Sal finds � to her disbelief � that she is the next one chosen by the lottery. Sal responds in phases, first denying the results, then feeling angered and despondent. These feelings, depicted against the backdrop of Sal�s history, the personal struggles she has contended with, isolate and bring into rapid relief the injustice she faces. As always with discrimination, this is both arbitrary and organised, coldly callous and manipulative.

Beth Goobie�s writing is incendiary. It flares and flames leaving a deep and indelible impact. It is impossible to come away unmarked�


The Intruders

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E. E. Richardson
Bodley Head Children's Books
1904442714
Oct 2005
If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take�

Debut novel The Devil�s Footsteps established E. E. Richardson as a horror writer with an uncanny grasp of the human psyche, an essential qualification in writing books that not only teeter on the edge of our fears and anxieties but lend us greater personal understanding. With The Intruders Richardson further asserts her considerable powers as writer and social commentator.

The drama of this novel unfolds powerfully as Joel Demetrius and his sister Cassie move in to live with the Wilder family in their new house at the culmination of the mother�s relationship with Gerald. The alliance between the two families, however, is an uneasy one, particularly for Cassie who feels ostracised within her own home and betrayed.

The success of this novel�s horror arises through the clever interplay of paranormal activities and familial discord. Richardson�s portrayal of the house and the family home as a malignant entity draws emphasis toward the stability and balance both Joel and Cassie crave on different levels. The novel explores the very real repercussions and family anxieties post-child relationships can cause. That these take place on paranormal planes allows the story to skilfully avoid explicit didacticism.


It Didn't Happen

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Sandra Glover
Andersen Press
1904442714
Oct 2005
Sandra Glover is a daring writer. Her prose pulls out subjects that desperately matter to young people. Her books are dynamic. Readers cannot sit on the sidelines allowing words to wash over them. The narrative must be engaged with. Readers make active decisions about what they believe and feel and thereby are responsible for crafting their own distinctive interpretation on what they have read. This makes the books perfect for discussion, for sharing and debating ideas and issues.

In It didn�t happen a complex understanding is shown for the way memory and truth underpin the way we grapple with our past, thereby forging a place for us in the present and allowing means for us to push into our every future� The story is told in snatched vignettes between Paul and a third person narrator that focuses on his sister Laura and ex-girlfriend Melissa. It is this duplicity of views that allows for a blurring and obfuscation of fact and truth. Just as it is impossible to speak too highly of this book, it is impossible to tell too much without influencing possible interpretations.

Badly disabled following an accident on a motorcycle, Melissa cannot see how her life, her aims and aspirations can be met. Feeling inexorably guilty at the fate Melissa has befallen, Paul craves to support and help his ex-girlfriend. Together they set off towards the sea one night and what follows could either be deeply tragic or life-affirming and magic � piece the puzzle together and decide for yourself!


Useful Idiots

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Jan Mark
Definitions: Random House
1904442714
Oct 2005
Set in 2255 Useful Idiots establishes a future world of desolation, a world where much of Europe has been flooded and where the separate member States have, on the whole, united. Against the bleakest of backdrops comes the storm of the opening and with it the very fabric of the present is torn away exposing in gashed revelation a skull, a spectre of a sordid history whose passing has seen legend and fact becoming intertwined.

As with several facets of the book, characters are divided into two main groupings. These are the aborigines or, to use the novel�s slang, the �oysters�. The second set of characters are from the new united state of Europe. Political assimilation and corruption run rife and key players in the novel whilst believing they are acting for the best are pawns in a far greater game� they are the eponymous �Useful Idiots�.

This book fair crackles with mystery and intrigue! Jan Mark�s narrative is amazingly confident and self assured. The story is thought-provoking and explores a large number of issues, including federalism, nationalism, various philosophies of history and of reading the texts of the present in such a way as to glean information regarding potential pasts. The academic and scientific is juxtaposed with the social and with tradition in a manner that is sensitive and which shows sense! Useful Idiots is a microcosm of life, a myriad of world views.

Jan Mark displays her usual fairly maverick (though highly adept) approach towards making young people think and towards exposing them to large, often uncertain ideas. Syntax and diction alike are fairly complex in this work and at times are highly specialised. This combined with the relative size of the novel will doubtless prohibit it from ever becoming the �most popular� novel in the world. That said it is a highly engaging read and deserves to find a loyal readership.


Fire Pony

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Rodman Philbrick
Usborne
1904442714
Oct 2005
Rodman Philbrick has a talent for painting a panoramic view of life without excess. His descriptions have a raw, organic feel that belie their crafting. Fire Pony sees Roy and his tempestuous brother Joe Dilly arrive at the Bar None on the run from a secret they share. This secret is central to the novel. Issues of trust and of the need to contend with one�s past are constantly the ground-base for the races Roy runs with pony Lady Luck, the battles against fierce cougars and the fiery drama of the novel�s eventual climax.

Trademark short, well-paced chapters and the trusting narratorial voice of its protagonist Roy make this an ideal novel for boys who have perhaps not yet been introduced to the type of book that might wholly capture their minds and imaginations. Usborne should be applauded for bringing into print within the UK a stable of quality American novels for young people under their Fabulous Fiction range. Here�s hoping another Philbrick book, �The Last Book in the Universe� will find itself featured shortly�




Silent to the Bone

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E.L. Konigsburg
Walker Books
1904442714
Oct 2005

It is easy to pinpoint the minute when my friend Branwell began his silence. It was Wednesday, November 25, 2.43 pm, Eastern Standard Time. It was there � or, I guess you could say not there � on the tape of the 911 call.

You couldn�t wish for a better start � a better �hook� - to get you into this mystery cum exploration of the nature of friendship. Concise, accessible and dramatic, Silent to the Bone gives us first that terrifying 911 call verbatim. A baby has been harmed, possibly dropped, and must be rushed to hospital. The baby is Branwell�s half sister. Branwell is blamed by the babysitter, and his total silence seems to confirm his guilt. From here on, from Branwell sitting like stone in his cell in the detention centre, just as baby Nikki lies silent in her coma, we are taken backwards and forwards in time by narrator Connor as he alone sticks by his friend and tries to piece together what happened on that fateful afternoon and (more importantly) why it happened. In this, Connor is helped, appropriately, by his own half sister, grown up Margaret, who is smart enough to help him interpret his clues and sensitive enough to nurse him through the corresponding emotional journey. In a smooth arc up towards light and understanding, the puzzle unfolds, Branwell edges towards speech and Nikki struggles to regain health and life.

This is a moving book, carefully written by a craftswoman of the game and there is little to fault. My first impulse was to give it a straight five chicks. Yet on reflection I was a little unsure. The issues of rejection and belonging in modern multi-strand families, of the way that sex can become a world-changing issue for a young, confused teen (does it ever stop?!) and the healing power of forgiveness, love and openness are all beautifully handled. Margaret in particular is a lovely character: anyone would want such a sister. But still, would the circumstances depicted really lead to Branwell�s helpless silence? And how realistic is Connor�s endless introspective attention to detail and his self-analysis? (Her voice trailed off as if she had ended that sentence with a comma and not a period)

No matter. Four chicks or five, this is an excellent book, well worth checking out.



The Navigator

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Eoin McNamee
HarperCollins
0007209762
February 2006

The hero of this fantasy for older children/early teens is water-fearing, bullied loner Owen. Living in the shadow of his father�s apparent suicide, Owen keeps himself to himself, skives off school, and spends much free time in his den. As our story starts, on a bitter chill day, he is, as usual, out and about doing his own thing, visiting his own private places, when he encounters a tired, uniformed stranger. Moments later a strange phenomenon occurs: a dark flash in the sky, a moment of blackness across the land, and a feeling of change. The uniformed man seems to be the only other witness. It has begun, he tells the boy, grimly.

The �it�, we learn gradually, is a recurring battle between The Harsh, ghostly white creatures who wish to turn back time to total nothingness and the Resisters, a group of people who remain in suspended animation deep in the hillside until The Harsh make one of their attacks, and must then thwart them to save humanity. Already Owen�s familiar landscape, his house and neighbours, have disappeared, as time is sucked backwards. All that remains is the old building known as The Workhouse, which turns out to be the Resisters� HQ, and, across the river, the mini-empire belonging to Johnston, the scrap merchant, the chief ally of The Harsh it transpires. Yet evidently Owen himself has not disappeared. Is this because he happened to be in one of the �islands in time� when the Harsh started their time-sucking machine, or is it because he has some sort of role to play here, something connected with his dead father? As the first trenches are dug between the ancient enemies, the boy seems lost and helpless, just as he is in his own reality: but by the time (200 pages in) that the race to the icy north takes place, in order to turn off the offending machine (the �Puissance� � that�s �power� to you and me), Owen has discovered inner resources and an intuitive understanding of what must be done that are quite inevitable.

Can you tell? I struggled with this one. The basic concept�s okay and there�s no doubt that there are some fine chunks of imagination here - although these tend to be reserved for the various gadgets that Owen encounters in this new world of Resisters and Harsh rather than for the often quite stock characters - yet the overall effect is much too patchy. One has the feeling that a good sneeze would blow the fabric of this imagined world quite away, that there isn�t enough cohesion and weight in what the author would have us believe. Many of the gadgets and setpieces seem glued together without rhyme nor reason. Why the bits of French that crop up from time to time? Why are the bad guys, Johnston�s men, portrayed as Italian-type gangsters that seemed to belong to Inkheart rather than to the icy Harsh? Why is the Puissance in the north and where exactly is that north supposed to be? (Half the characters get there by boat, half by land in a car with huge bicycle-type wheels). I was never quite sure if this was meant to be a serious fantasy � la Garth Nix et al (to mix my languages) or more of a tongue-in-cheek romp.

It could be that this is a good book waiting to happen but released much too early, before the details and writing were properly worked out. Or it may be that it�s destined to be an absolute smash with a follow-up film and that I just can�t see it. It wouldn�t be the first time. Perhaps it will be right up there with Shadowmancer.

Every review, no matter where it appears, is just one person�s opinion.


Dawn Undercover

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Anna Dale
Bloomsbury
1904442714
Oct 2005
With a fondness for beige cardigans, Dawn Buckle is often ignored. Which makes her the perfect candidate to join the top-secret organisation S. H. H. (Strictly Hush-Hush) to work as a spy for their Pursuit of Scheming Spies and Traitors department (P.S.S.T.). Her mission takes her to the sleepy village of Cherry Bentley, in search of the notorious criminal Murdo Meek.

Off-beat gags and quirky characters set the tone; light and humourous. Dawn�s knitted donkey Clop, for example, is �made of stern stuff (as well as wool and snipped-up stockings)�.

Fans of James Bond will find this an altogether gentler kind of spy story. The gadgets are less hi-tech and the villains less threatening. A finger nibbling tortoise is about as violent as it gets. Plenty of friendly details (think tea from china cups, ginger nuts and jumbo crosswords) create a warmly welcoming world.

The story skips along at a carefree bumbling sort of pace, which may prove too scenic for some readers.

There are numerous clues to puzzle over, yet the ending is still unexpected enough to satisfy.




Spy Mice: The Black Paw

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Heather Vogel Frederick
Puffin
1904442714
Jan 2006
While trying to escape from the school bullies who habitually torment him, Oz stumbles upon the existence of the Spy Mice Agency, hidden from human eyes beneath the International Spy Museum in Washington. The Spy Mice are waging a dangerous war of intelligence against the villainous rat community. In their mutual desperation, an unlikely friendship is forged between Oz and Glory, a particularly brave and resourceful spy mouse.

The Black Paw is the first book in the Spy Mice series. This a very light read; the characters are affectionately drawn and the story is entertaining and well paced. It will appeal to younger fans of the �Spy Kids� movies and similar. However, it�s all a little bit too cute for my tastes. It reminded me of Michael Hoeye�s stylish Hermux Tantamoq series, where the fastidious portrayal of the mouse characters similarly veers between whimsicality and tweeness.




Confessions of a Hollywood Star

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Confessions of a Hollywood Star by Dyan Sheldon
Walker Books
1904442714
Oct 2005
This is the third in a series that began with Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen and My Perfect Life. Lola is about to finish college and embark on a glitzy film career in L.A. However, when a film crew set up camp in her town, her plans change and she decides to stay. She can�t resist a final taunt at her arch-enemy Carla Santini, and smugly informs her that she has a part in the production. The only problem is that she hasn�t�

A relatively enjoyable and easy read. Sheldon�s humour shines through with splendour in places, though don�t expect the same type of laugh-out-loud comedy as authors such as Louise Rennison. Recommended for teenagers who are struggling to enjoy reading, though definitely not for those who are looking to be pushed into the realms of adult literature.




Gregor and the Rats of Underland

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Suzanne Collins
The Chicken House
1904442714
Jan 2006
Eleven-year-old Gregor has had to grow up fast since the inexplicable disappearance of his father. He develops a strong and protective relationship with his baby sister Boots, so when she crawls into the laundry chute of their apartment building, he doesn�t think twice about following her. They fall into the Underland, a world hidden below New York City. It is populated by descendents of the Pilgrim Fathers, co-existing with intelligent (and gigantic) bats, cockroaches, spiders and rats (with wildly varying degrees of cordiality). A series of remarkable and dangerous encounters with the Underlanders forces Gregor to reluctantly accept his role in the fulfilment of �The Prophecy of Grey�, which tells of a quest that will help determine the future of the Underland. Gregor witnesses acts of supreme self-sacrifice and utter betrayal, while some surprising alliances are formed.

Despite being the first book in a five-part series, Gregor and the Rats of Underland is sufficiently well written and structured to make a satisfying stand-alone read. Suzanne Collins uses classic elements of the �quest� narrative (e.g. the prophecy, the drawing of lines of allegiance, temptation and betrayal) with enough originality and complexity to satisfy most readers. The relationship between Gregor and Boots is sweetly portrayed but manages to avoid being overly sentimental. I particularly enjoyed the archaic speech patterns of the Underlanders and was quite charmed by the noble and self-effacing characters of the cockroaches Tick and Temp!




Love Lesson

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Jacqueline Wilson ill. by Nick Sharratt
Doubleday
1904442714
Oct 2005
Prudence and Grace are home-educated, by a fierce disciplinarian Dad. They are dressed by their wittering Mum, in clothes she runs up on a sewing machine using market remnants. Mum only knows one pattern, �demure little-girly dresses with short sleeves and swirly skirts�.

One of the vivid moments in this book comes when Wilson describes Prudence trying to wriggle out of one of her mum�s too-fitted creations in the midst of a girls� changing room, having to pull the dress up and over her head to get it off, leaving her inappropriate underwear exposed to all eyes.

Wilson does the minutiae of embarrassment so well you relive the incident with Prudence. It�s the bigger picture that is her weakness. You can�t quite believe the story because the overall scheme rings false.

Wilson has a template against which her fiction is drawn: awful adults, suffering out-of-kilter children. Every story is accommodated to this basic dress-making pattern. So, here, the two girls suffer in silence at home, until a heart-attack intervenes, which means they are sent to school and on to new sufferings. At school, Prudence becomes entangled with the young, hip art teacher, Rax.

Rax, worn-down at home by a wife struggling with two small children, is only too happy to be empathetic and endlessly patient with the kids getting the rough end of the stick at school.

The problem with the story is that to fit the template, all the other teachers have to be particularly stupid and unkind. To me, this didn�t sound like today�s teachers, but like the gorgons of an earlier age. Also, so much of the father-daughter stuff sounds wrong: why would such an unpleasant, child-hating man opt to spend the extra time with children that home-educating involves? How is it Prudence doesn�t have access to TV or computer, or even magazines other than the odd smuggled one, but she can summon up images like a vision of Rax against �an urban warehouse flat, large and airy and white, with huge canvases on the wall�?

But, with all that, this is of course, the usual, romping Wilson read, with a nice fairy tale ending, not too sugar-coated.


Cyrano

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Geraldine McCaughrean
Oxford University Press
019272603X
January 2006
Cyrano de Bergerac and his cousin Roxane are a couple of literature�s most frustrated lovers. Fifteen years after the death of Roxane�s late husband, Christian de Neuvillette, their relationship remains constrained by his memory.

Cyrano explains how the pair ended up in this situation. It�s the story of how Roxane was seduced by Christian�s words both written and spoken and how de Bergerac wrote those enticing entreaties to win the heart of the woman he loved for another.

Add in Cyrano�s embarrassment about his rather prominent protuberance, dashing heroism and a sneaky rival in the shape of the Comte de Guiche and all the elements are in place for a classic historical romance.

This is not a tale that has hidden its light under a bushel. Movies in the shape of Cyrano, staring G�rard Depardieu, and Roxanne, Steve Martin, have brought this story to life in traditional and updated environments.

Geraldine McCaughrean�s version is based on the original play by Edmond Rostand and opts for the traditional setting of seventeenth France. It has all the lyrical richness that the tale demands, Cyrano�s swagger is admirably conveyed, Christian is suitably eager and dumb.

The machinations of the Comte provide a darker background for some of the more pantomime moments and everything floats along effortlessly.

It is also book that opens up the debate about the merits of retelling a classic tale: is such a work more valuable than the more �full-on� challenge of inventing your own characters, setting and plot? Is it merely a buswoman�s holiday for McCaughrean?

The marketing team at Oxford University Press won�t care about such writerly concerns, however. They will simply be delighted with the January publication date.

After all, any young beau who wants to convince the object of his affections that he is in touch with his sensitive side on Valentine�s day will find this volume far more effective than a box of chocolates.