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Little Leap Forward: a boy in Beijing

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Gue Yue, Clare Farrow, Ill. Helen Cann
Barefoot Books
1846861136
Jul 2008
"With music and your imagination you can travel anywhere; you will always be free."


Barefoot Books have drawn upon the self-same creative sensibility, attention to detail and high production values that have earned them the place as one of the most distinctive and stylish picture books lists, in this their first forray into fiction.

The construction of childhood presented here is a decidedly pastoral one with its kite flying competitions, trips to market and sibling cookery sessions. Behind the surface of this, however, are the shifting political tectonics that lead to Mao Zedung's Cultural Revolution of 1966.

Ramifications of this are both clearly and cleverly drawn through the capture and subsequent decline of a bird which Little Leap Forward keeps trapped in a bamboo cage. The bird's refusal to sing and its inability to fly are consequences of its being held captive away from the natural influences that allow its replenishment. The creeping oppression whose reach is felt towards the end of the novel is wholly juxtaposed by the real sense of hope and liberation that the bird's release and free flight signify.

Gue Yue and Clare Farrow's text is marked by its reflective lyricism. This is complemented beautifully by the sights of Beijing, captured so evocatively through Helen Cann's full-colour illustration plates that intersperse the novel. Combining freedom of thought, action and imagination, this is a welcome first fiction offering from Barefoot Books that leaves one eager in the hope that a subsequent, more regular publishing plan might follow in a similar vein.



Airman

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Eoin Colfer
Puffin
9780141383354
Jan 2008
"One of my childhood favorites was The Princess Bride [by William Goldman]. Read that to see how I was influenced by his pacing and the swashbuckling tone he set there while being quite humorous. That's one of the finest examples of a high adventure book," Eoin Colfer says in a recent interview with the magazine Newsweek.
Airman is a fabulous mix of adventure, high daring and romance. There are comic moments, but these are lowkey compared with the emphasis on high adventure. Colfer has already achieved fame and fortune with his Artemis Fowl novels. With Airman he will have achieved new stature and respect for his abilities as an author.
With each turn of the page the quality and pitch of the writing seems to ratchet up an extra notch until, in the last section of the book, it feels to me that Colfer is writing at the the very peak of his abilities, skillfully maintaining tension and excitement while repeating scenes from different points of view.
He has produced a work of literally marvellous escapism, and selected a real-life setting (The Saltees) perfect for his requirement.
Very highly recommended for confident readers aged 9+.

Cleopatra

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Adele Geras, ill. M. P. Robertson
Kingfisher
0753413590
Oct 2007
The reunion of �The Spice Girls� has brought back into common currency their maxim: �Girl Power�. Centuries prior to the historic plight of women�s rights being commodified to a snappy, two-word, slogan, Cleopatra was Queen of Egypt and � with considerable diplomatic powers and prowess � set about forging kinship between Egypt and Rome.

In bringing the story of Cleopatra to life through the eyes of Nefret, a young Egyptian girl who is conscripted to work for the royal household, Adele Geras paints a vivid portrait of this extraordinary, sparkling historical figure. The diary entries of Nefret provide a wealth of colour and detail about Ancient Egypt and � through choosing a first-person narrative told by a girl, Geras easily conveys just what an astoundingly inspirational figurehead Cleopatra must have presented.

Cleopatra�s story links Ancient Egyptian history with that of Ancient Rome, both focal areas in the key-stage two, National Curriculum history syllabus. Production values of the book are incredibly high with M. P. Robertson�s lavish spreads that perfectly capture the movement, tone and time of the period being interspersed with photographic imagery of key historical artefacts. Notes are appended at the end about Alexandria, the Roman army, the river Nile and more, providing valuable factual context to this fictionalised account of Cleopatra�s life.

An accomplished synergy of wonderful writing, illustrative innovation and pride in publishing production values make this a venture that is not to be missed. Whether reading for pleasure or for purpose, this is a tome to be treasured. Look out for Steve Augarde�s �Leonardo da Vinci� which Kingfisher have scheduled for publication in 2008.


The Mozart Question

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Michael Morpurgo
Walker Books
1406306487
Nov 2007
Following a colleagues misfortunes on the ski-slopes, journalist Lesley McInley is enlisted to interview the world famous concert violinist, Paulo Levi. Inexperienced and somewhat intimidated by the magnitude of the task facing her, Lesley feels inadequate, however, Paulo embarks upon explaining the extraordinary tale of how he discovered his love for the violin.

The strands of a story that spans three separate generations are woven together expertly by Michael Morpurgo and chart life prior to, during and following the Holocaust. Far from explicit, the atrocities of the period are concealed beneath the urgent attempts of Paulo Levi�s parents� to survive.

High culture and barbarism are played out against one another emphasising the tragedy and extent and magnitude of the history that underpins this fiction. Subtle reference to this is made as Morpurgo draws a wide geographic base around his characters that are thrown together, pulled apart and eventually drawn back to one another through the nature of all they have seen and heard.

The power of art to heal and foster understanding is explored and manifested in this quiet, contemplative work.



The Astonishing Life Of Octavian Nothing

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M. T. Anderson
Candlewick Books
0763624020
Jan 2007
An outstanding novel.

The first of two volumes, its full title is The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor To The Nation - Volume 1: The Pox Party. I already tell everyone I meet to read this author's fantastic satirical novel, Feed, and now I shall be telling them to read this.
I dare say young readers - especially those unfamiliar with Feed and Anderson's other novels - may struggle to get into it, fearful that the formal eighteenth century diction and grammar of Octavian's narrative might never develop into a compelling story. But they will soon be fascinated by the narrator's realtionship with his young teenage mother and by all the goings-on at the College of Lucidity, where Octavian is treated to a trial education of letters and manners.

Eventually both the boy and the mother fall victim to another trial involving smallpox. Dr Trefusis observes at one point during this harrowing section of the book, "When I peer into the reaches of the most distant futurity, I fear that even in some unseen epock when there are colonies even upon the moon itself, there shall still be gatherings like this, where the young, blinded by privilege, shall dance and giggle and compare their poxy legions." It is just that 'most distant futurity' which Andersen describes (in a far different prose) in Feed.

Octavian's own narrative comes to an abrupt halt three quarters of the way through the novel, at a moment of great heartbreak, and it is a tribute to Andersen's skill and confidence as a stylist that the miscellany of documents and correspondence that fills most of the remaining part of this first volume holds the reader riveted until Octavian's return.

I haven't mentioned yet that Octavian is a black child born to an African mother; that the book is about slavery and the events leading up to the War of Independence. Those are the themes. And Andersen's book will remain a classic treatment of slavery and the birth of the American nation for a very long time to come.





Dead Man's Close

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Catherine MacPhail
Barrington Stoke
1842993917
Feb 2006
�You know what I think? I think it�s stories that keep the whole world together. From Lewis looking for monsters in Edinburgh, to Shahrazad telling stories about magic lamps in Arabia. Everyone loves a good story.�

A school trip around Edinburgh centre careers into a desperate chase through time for siblings Spider and Lizzie. Resolved to play a trick on his sister, Spider slips into a doorway planning to leap out on his unsuspecting sister. Separated from the group as a consequence of this, Lizzie worries the pair might have taken a wrong turn�

A welcome addition to Barrington Stoke�s �FYI: fiction with stacks of facts� series, Catherine Macphail weaves a tight web of spills, thrills and plenty of chills seamlessly interspersing information, detail and local colour about the history of Edinburgh. Readers experience first-hand the sights, smells and sounds of the city as Lizzie and Spider aid Lewis in escaping the clutches of a broken-toothed felon and assist his endeavours to learn more about his mysterious neighbour�s nocturnal endeavours.

Appended to the adventure is a notebook, purportedly by Spider�s hand. Catherine MacPhail�s passion, understanding and lively delivery of details together with the personalised, over-arching epistolary form in which they are written makes for a reading adventure and story-arc that is in equal parts profound and impressive.



The Sirens of Surrentum

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The Sirens of Surrentum by Caroline Lawrence
Orion
1842552554
April 2005
Any long-running series of books, or TV for that matter, runs the risk of its formula becoming tired and its characters falling flat. Thankfully, with her admirable attention to detail and carefully planned story arc, Caroline Lawrence�s Roman Mysteries have so far avoided this trap. Now on book 11, Lawrence�s historical japes are still fresh, intriguing and entertaining.

The latest in the series, The Sirens of Surrentum, is possibly the most risqu� so far � tackling the tricky themes of sex, love and lust, as well as incorporating the usual �mystery� at the centre of the story. Flavia and friends find themselves surrounded by debauchery and decadence when they visit their friend Pulchra, whose father Flavia idolises, at the Villa Limona. The mystery is who is poisoning Pulchra�s mother � the possible culprits being the other house-guests, who include a selection of eligible young men and women. While the grown-ups wine, dine, flirt and frolic, the children attempt to expose the poisoner. But Flavia is preoccupied with matters of the heart, as her infatuation with Felix grows stronger and she longs for another year to pass so that she will be of marriageable age.

The customs and etiquette of Roman courting and marriage are explored throughout the book, as Lawrence once again manages to educate without patronising. The potentially controversial issue of tween love is gracefully handled, with a subtle appeal to the reader � don�t rush into romance, and when you do, choose the safe man, not the dangerous one. It is a timeless message with which anyone who has ever experienced the highs and lows of a teenage crush will identify.

I for one was relieved when, in the process of solving the mystery, Flavia finally sees through her idol�s glamorous fa�ade and is released from her infatuation. Boys shouldn�t be deterred by the romantic theme � there is still plenty of action and adventure to satisfy them, including a hilarious scene in which nearly all the characters (except the wise Nubia) are tricked into eating poison. Sirens of Surrentum is certainly a strong contender for my favourite Roman Mystery so far � roll on book 12!

Forged in the Fire

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Ann Turnbull
Walker Books
1844289354
March 2006
Being young and in love but apart is the best of times and the worst of times. The anticipation of being together is wonderful, each letter brings a surge of optimism but the on-going trial of being separated by distance can seem impossible to overcome.

For Susanna and Will these challenges are doubly difficult to bear. She is in Shropshire and he is in London, it is 1665 and there is no National Express coach to bring them together.

To make matters worse just as they were about to be joined reunited and married the plague breaks out in London, trapping Will in the festering, sickening city.

And like all young couples, the affairs of love are never smooth, a misunderstanding when they finally meet threatens the whole relationship.

If these were the only challenges this young couple had to face then Ann Turnbull�s follow-up to the Whitbread-shortlisted No Shame, No Fear would still be a tale and a half.

However, there�s a further level of complexity. Susanna and Will are Quakers � dissenters from religious orthodoxy, a vulnerable position in the febrile climate of the mid-Seventeenth century.

Forged in the Fire is rich with details about the sufferings of the Quakers. Will spends time in Newgate prison, a group of Quakers face transportation to the West Indies while on-going persecution is an everyday fact of life.

The climax of the tale coincides with the Great Fire of London and the risk that everything Will and Susanna have worked for will be destroyed.

This is a compelling story of life in uncertain times and an excellent portrayal of life in a minority community for readers aged 12 and over.



Doodlebug Summer

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Alison Prince
A & C Black
0713675799
Mar 2006
�We know what the things are now. Doodlebugs, people call them. Flying bombs� They�re packed with explosive, and they work on a rocket motor that stops when it runs out of fuel. Sometimes they nose-dive and blow up at once, other times they glide for a long way, you never know.�

It is the paradoxical sense of knowledge and yet of malignant uncertainty that Alison Prince has captured so well in �Doodlebug Summer�. Set in Blitz-ravaged London environs in 1944, this deceptively complex, short novel pulls together narrative threads that provide an astute look at familial concern, the resultant impact of advancements in technological warfare upon civilians and a sensitive portrayal of the horrors imbued within themechanics of conflict rather than the villification of a set of people, or of an abject construct of �nationhood� wholesale.

�...the great, glossy concert grand pianos are made in Germany, the country we are fighting. There must be people there who like us, sick of the war.�

There�s a beautiful fullness in the symmetry between the opening and close of this novel as Katie and her friend Pauline climb their tree. The tree itself is grounded in the presents with far-reaching roots... from the boughs of the tree is a standpoint with an enviable panorama into the future.

�Flash Backs�, the series within which �Doodlebug Summer� sits is a collection of historical novels published by A & C Black with the aim of expounding key historical moments through strong short pacy reads. Useful historical notes are provided towards the rear of the novel, as too is a glossary of more speciailised areas of diction used in telling the story.




Heretic

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Sarah Singleton
Simon and Schuster
1416904034
Feb 2006

�Look at me, Elizabeth. Do you think I�m wicked? Do you think I�m a devil? In my time everyone was a Catholic, because there was only one Church, but even then I was different from the others because of the shadow land. Don�t let your mind be clouded by what other people have told you. Judge me with your heart.�

So speaks the strange green child that twelve-year-old Elizabeth finds in the forest as she secretly tends a ruined Catholic shrine. The year is 1586 and Protestant England is an unforgiving place for Catholics. But mindless blame, fear and persecution are nothing new, as the green child, Isabella, can testify. She herself was born more than three hundred years ago, the child of a wise woman and midwife. Her mother was executed as a witch, a scapegoat when a rich family�s baby was born with a faulty heart, and since then Isabella has hidden mostly in the land of faeries, leaving her bones hidden in a hollow tree awaiting her return.

Yes, this all sounds a little strange, but Sarah Singleton has a gift for blending the seen and the unseen, the matter-of-fact and the magical, into a convincing whole. After all, what is the magical other than something we are not used to or don�t understand? And that is what this book deals with; the problem of how the different (in this case the spiritually different) can be demonised by the unthinking mob. Set against the hounding of Ruth Leland (Isabella�s mother) and the sixteenth century persecution of Catholics is the simple and powerful friendship that develops between the two girls. For Isabella her tragedy is done, and yet she berates herself for not having stayed at her mother�s side until the bitter end. For Elizabeth the fear has just begun: the Queen has sent the brutal Christopher Merrivale to hunt for the priest that her family is sheltering. Perhaps here there is a chance for the two girls to help each other: for Isabella to gain �closure� and a second chance with a loving family, whilst Elizabeth gains safety and escape.

A powerful tale against a strong historical backdrop, this book introduces many themes but works most of all because of the focus on the girls� fears and hopes and needs. In comparison, the sinister Merrivale, the dogmatic and ecstatic priest, even the cold-hearted faeries, seem unimportant, no matter what their schemes and desires. The writing, too, is mostly first rate, with a great feel for visual detail:

�As the men whispered one to another, light and shadows slid over their faces, alternately revealing and hiding eyes, noses, mouths moist with wine and words. They looked like demons, leering and grimacing.�

A highly appealing, multi-dimensional historical adventure. Check it out.