The Rest Is Silence

Carla Guelfenbein
Portobello Books
May 2011

A claustrophobically, atmospheric and bleak novel that identifies each section's voice by means of a symbol. I was deeply intrigued at the start of the novel, particularly by the voice of Tommy, a boy with a weak heart, but as the book develops the reader becomes more involved with the character of Tommy's heart-surgeon father and with Alma, the woman now married to him, Tommy's mother having committed suicide at some point in the past.

The book floundered somewhat in its middle section, and I struggled to stay with it. I'm not sure the downbeat conclusion repaid the effort.

The Bunker Diary

Kevin Brooks
March 2013
Whole book read

I never want to read this book again. I don't need to. It will stay with me forever.
When I closed the last page of The Bunker Diary I sat motionless in my chair for a long long time. I haven't read a young adult novel as powerfully compelling and as certain to have longevity since Marcus Sedgwick's Revolver.

The day before I finished this book I looked for it in a local branch of Waterstones. I couldn't find it. Let's suppose it was on a display table somewhere and I missed it. More staggering was the absence of any other title from Brooks' impressive backlist on the Young Adult shelves. I would hope that this is a temporary aberration.

To begin with Linus is alone in the six-bedroomed bunker. We quickly learn how he came to be there. Fooled into giving assistance to an apparently blind man, he was bundled into a van, drugged, and deposited in the bunker.

One by one five others, similarly hijacked and kidnapped, are brought down into the bunker. Linus himself is the dropout, street-living, busking teenage son of a rich dad. It is his diary which tells the story, and his voice and mindset through which Brooks delivers a book that is - to use a word much-loved by Melville - provokingly ontological.

In a dictionary definition, ontology is the 'philosophical study of the nature of being, existence, or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations'.

This is what all great writing does, in a sense. But in The Bunker Diary we have it done very specifically, very intensely, very frighteningly, at times almost unbearably.

Linus's first companion is a young girl, Jenny. At every point in this admirable novel Brooks takes risks head-on then executes things, via Linus, in a way that avoids obvious novelistic dangers.

The four other occupants of the bunker are all adults. The inclusion of a young girl in their midst is an important counterbalance. The relationship between Linus and Jenny is a touching one.

The serial arrival of the other characters, and the daily coming and going of the lift, delivering provisions or other messages from above, cannot help but carry reminders of TV's Big Brother, but the seriousness of the victims' predicament is never in doubt, or at least becomes quickly apparent, so that any notions that games are being played or that this is some form of prefabricated entertainment are quashed early on in the book.

The Bunker Diary is already receiving 5-star reviews on Amazon. One reviewer says this: "For me, there were a couple of parts in particular that I really couldn't handle. I was reading this while on a train home and I had to shut it numerous times. If I had been at home, I would have put it in the freezer for a bit because some parts were just that scary for me."

Roof Toppers

Katherine Rundell
Faber and Faber
March 2013
Whole book read

Katherine Rundell's extraordinarily well-received debut novel, The Girl Savage, passed me by but my expectations of this, her second novel, could not help but be raised by all the enthusiastic comments about that first book filling the back page of the publicity sheet.

The writing is lucid and the chapters are short. Structurally I found the narrative a bit loose; somewhat languid. I wanted to hurry it along. I didn't feel enough was happening.

Sophie, as a young girl, survives the sinking of a passenger ship. She is, apparently, the only female survivor - found, as a baby, floating in a cello case in the middle of the English Channel. The man who lifts her into the rescue boat - a fellow traveller and scholar - becomes her guardian. The early part of the book concerns the difficulty Charles has in persuading the authorities that he is the right person to fulfil that role.

Sophie becomes convinced that her mother was a musician on the ship that sank; convinced also, against all the evidence, that she survived.

Once the action moves to Paris - by which time Sophie is considerably older - I expected the mother-searching to begin in earnest. Instead, the middle part of the novel is taken up with the relationship between Sophie and Matteo, a 'rooftopper'. Charles believes in freedom, so effectively gives Sophie his blessing to wander the rooftops of Paris all through the night with an unknown friend. Hmmm. Well, it is set in a different period of time, not the present, so I guess we can suspend disbelief.

But I did find myself becoming restless in this section of the book. Rundell seems to fall into the trap of becoming beguiled by her new character and the whole notion of roof-dwelling and too set on evoking the thrill of this lifestyle without actually moving the narrative along.

Matteo is eventually the agent who leads to a satisfactory conclusion to the quest, but it does not come about in any emotionally involving way. (There is a brief sequence of gang rivalry, with knives flashing, and the heroine kicking someone in the crotch, but this sequence is so out of character with the rest of the story that it appears merely gratuitous.) The finale is picturesque and seen from a distance, through Charles's eyes. It is over too quickly, and left me feeling frustrated. I could imagine the much better, more engrossing novel it could have been. It would have taken some reworking, some rewriting. But it would have been worth it.

I'm giving it four chicks, even though my review reads as if it deserves fewer, because it could so nearly have become a very fine five-chick read.

Bartoleme, The Infanta's Pet

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Rachel Van Kooij
Little Island
September 2012
Whole book read
Little Island Press is an Irish publisher of quality fiction by Irish and international authors for older children and teenagers. Rachel Van Kooij, as her name suggests, is Dutch-born, but lives in Austria and writes in German. The book being reviewed was first published in 2003 and has only recently become available in an English translation (by Siobhan Parkinson).

This is a wonderfully well-paced and realised story about a young deformed dwarf who, at the start of the book, is growing up in the Spanish countryside with a father absent for long periods working in the royal court in Madrid.

All changes when the father announces that the family is to up sticks and move to the city to be with him. But he does not want to take Bartoleme with them, fearing the boy will only be ridiculed and be nothing but a source of embarrassment for the family. Eventually he agrees that Bartoleme can come, but only if he remains hidden from view at all times.

The first half of the book concerns this hidden life, and Bartlome's determination to better himself and prove himself to others by learning to read and write. However, when an accident exposes him on the streets he is spotted by the young princess - the Infanta - who mistakes him at first for a dog, and insists on it becoming her pet plaything.

The back of the eye-catching book jacket shows a scene from Valasquez' painting Las Meninas, the significance of which becomes cleverly apparent towards the end of a novel which is thought-provoking, moving, entertaining, life-enhancing and powered by a dignified narrative momentum. This is a book that takes the reader beyond their present-day experience and presents them with the issues faced by those who have a handicap or are otherwise physically very different from most other people.

The father is insensitive and unfeeling and has a thuggish streak - there is one upsetting scene of domestic violence - but is never depicted as a pure brute.


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Brian Kimberling
Tinder Press
May 2013
Whole book read
There's a bittersweet feeling that comes when you turn the last page of a really good novel. Often it comes from the emotional power of the story, or an attachment that you have felt as an involved reader with one or more of the characters. Less frequently it comes from the knowledge that the voice of the writer has come to the end of their tale. The story is over. The voice has spoken.

And it is Brian Kimberling's voice, as much as the story he tells in SNAPPER, that makes this such a startlingly good debut. At just over 200 pages it is a short book (by today's standard). I read it slowly, savouring the elegantly humorous measure and fluency of its prose.

Nathan Lochmueller, the narrator, and the other characters in the book are vivid, despite there being no high drama or adventure involved in the plot. For much of the first half of the book Nathan has a job collecting bird observations on a reserve in southern Indiana, a landscape and a microclimate described with affectionate and ironic honesty. From this starting point the story unfurls backwards and forwards, involving college friends, inconsequential encounters and, not least, Lola, a free spirit with whom Nathan enjoys an on-off relationship.

Insofar as the book has plot-driven page-turning momentum, the desire to know whether or not Nathan and Lola eventually get together permanently keeps the reader wondering to the end.

I was reading a proof copy. The hardback is published in May and the paperback in August (2013). An eBook will be available in April.

At its conclusion and at its heart it is a coming of middle-age novel that leaves us realising how important it is to stay true to the spirit and energy of our youthful selves. Not all the characters in this book manage it, but it is clear that Kimberling (via his main character Nathan) is made despondent by what time does to some of us.

Blink & Caution

Tim Wynne-Jones
January 2012
Whole book read
A really great read! I wasn't a bit surprised to discover, on finishing it and checking the author's website, that Tim Wynne-Jones was this year's winner of Canada's Arthur Ellis Award for best juvenile/YA crime book. The award results were announced earlier in the summer and I would previously have been alerted to them by our Canadian correspondent Andrea Deakin, who is now retired. I particularly admire the way this book is narrated. The two main characters - both teens on the run - are clearly set to meet and team up but Wynne-Jones follows them in separate narratives for a substantial part of the novel, sometimes giving Blink in particular teasing stageproddings. Both characters, and what we discover about why they have left home to live by their wits, are entirely believable and convincing. Blink witnesses a staged kidnapping and the cellphone left behind sets in motion a fast-paced sequence of events that become steadily more dangerous and chilling. Highly recommended.

Blink & Caution by Tim Wynne-Jones - trailer from achuka on Vimeo.

My Pop-Up World Atlas

Anita Ganeri and Stephen Waterhouse
July 2012
16 pp
Whole book read
Young Olympic watching children wanting to know more about competing countries and where they exist geographically will find this new pop-up atlas packed with information. Anita Ganeri is very experienced in creating information books for children and Stephen Waterhouse has illustrated in a lively and colourful picture atlas style. They make a good team. Adults may find some of the information snippets a trifle trite and simplistic, but let a curious 7-9 year old pour over this for a few hours and they'll emerge with a substantial body of general knowledge.

The Weight Of Water

Sarah Crossan
January 2012
240 pp
Whole book read
Read On? n/a
I come to a verse novel with a hope that it will live up to some of the best writing that has been done in this genre. One of the most powerful Young Adult novels ever written, and an enduring favourite of mine, is Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff. Love That Dog and Heartbeat both by Sharon Creech are two other verse novels that I would recommend without reservation.
I read The Weight of Water on my Kindle, while sittting on the beach in bright sunshine. As with the verse novels just mentioned, I was immediately driven along by the pulse of the short lines. I had downloaded it several months previously and it had been sitting there in my 'Items' list for just this moment.
It is a short book and a quick read, but manages to cover a number of 'issues' without ever becoming the issue novel it might have been had it been written in a conventionally padded prose. The Sunday Times/Nicolette Jones picked it as its Children's Book of the Week. "Succinct, with a gentle lyricism, the poems are telling about immigration, prejudice, self-delusion, families and first love, on the way to a life-changing conclusion."
The main character is Polish. Although not Polish herself (she is Irish) Crossan captures Kasienka's misery well, as she is picked on and made to feel isolated at school, and at home comes into conflict with her mother. Kasienka's courage and developing self-reliance in the face of the bullying for one so young (she is in Year 8) is counterbalanced by an awkwardness and naivety when it comes to having her first kiss.
I would rather have allowed the final verse section, 'Butterfly', to provide closure to the story by itself without the heavy-handedness of putting it into an Epilogue.
And I do very much regret the need to include two paragraphs of Acknowledgements, mentioning amongst others "the Edward Albee Foundation (its founders and fellows) which gave me the space and time to complete this novel." This had the effect on me of somewhat undermining the authenticity of the novel, and rapidly dissipating the satisfaction that you get on finishing a really good read. Perhaps if I had read the book in print format I might simply have closed it after the final verse section and not bothered to read these bothersome Acknowledgements.

The Flute

Rachna Gilmore ill,. Pulak Biswas
June 2011
32 pp
Whole book read
Read On? n/a
Movingly told, simply but effectively illustrated by one of India's best-known illustrators, this is a lovely short story by Governor General Award-winning author, Rachna Gilmore. Set in a countryside prone to flooding, it tells the story of Chandra who is left an orphan after her parents are swept away by floodwater. All she has to remember them by is the wooden flute that her mother used to play so beautifully. Taken in by a cruel and merciless aunt and uncle, Chandra is treated as a slave. The flute is the only object of comforrt in her world. Even after she loses it (swept away by swollen river waters) the flute is able to perform its magic, filling her spirit with hope, and even feeding her body. Finally, after another flood, Chandra is taken in by a kind couple, who treat her not as a slave but as their own daughter. Pleasingly designed and printed, this is a picture book to keep in a home library for many a year. Warmly recommended.


Emily Gravett
October 2011
24 pp
Whole book read
Read On? n/a
Emily Gravett is already a two-times winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal. Her new picture book is another class act. The book-within-a-book tells the tale - in splendidly executed, easy to read aloud rhyme - of Cedric the Dragon, whose end of day refrain is "Tomorrow I'll do it all over again." The young dragon who is being read to by parent dragon also shouts "Again" on every alternate double spread. But in his case it is the storybook he wants to hear again.

In a clever twist at the end, dragon fire burns a big hole in the final page and right through the back cover of the book. The fly-leaf carries the message DO NOT BLOCK FIRE EXIT.

I like the way the jacket designers have continued to play the game and aid suspension of disbelief by making this "fire exit" obscure a big chunk of the back page blurb. One thing is for sure, young children will want to share this book Again and Again even if it's just to poke their fingers through that hole.