December 2005 Archives

Nickolai Of The North

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Nickolai Of The North by Lucy Daniel Raby
Hodder Children�s Books
Oct 2005
A refreshingly different take on how the myth of Father Christmas came to be. When Nickolai was just a baby, the wicked Queen Magda killed his mother and the rest of his elfin people. Taken in and raised by humans, Nickolai is teased at school for his abnormally large ears.

When everyone from his settlement starts to leave for the beautiful city of Doransk, Nickolai says goodbye to his human parents and follows. Little does he know that he, and everyone else, are walking into a trap. He soon discovers that he�s the only one who can resist the evil Magda�s plan to steal children�s youth to keep herself young and beautiful; and he is the only one who can stop her.

A nice festive treat for tens and above. The book's major flaw is that it will obviously lose some of its magic at any other time of the year.


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Hugh Montgomery ill. by Liz Pyle
Walker Books
Oct 2005
What a beautifully produced book this is. Luxurious, thick pages, a swirling font and stunning illustrations. The blurb says simply: �In each myth lies a truth, like a grain of sand within a pearl�.

So I opened the pages with high hopes. Unfortunately, my expectations were not met.

Montgomery starts slowly; with a legend. In the beginning, he tells, Menfolk were divided: the Lowlanders settled in the valleys and the Mountainfolk settled in the mountains, �cloud-sailing� from peak to peak in coracles of ice. The narrative continues at an unhurried pace; we meet the main character - �the orphan boy� Sundeep � only after a florid passage following the flight of a bumble bee.

And that�s the problem I had with this book. Too much style and not enough content. A great deal of the story is made up of a description of Sundeep�s difficult ascent to the mountaintops, where he hopes to discover what happened to his parents. The beauty of the setting is evoked in detail, as is the experience of the climb (accurate minutiae based on the author�s own experience). There are moments when Montgomery�s phrasing is pleasing to the ear. But much of the abundant simile and metaphor neither develops the characters nor furthers the plot.

Most of the remainder of the book consists of the tales told by Ptarmagon and Morchilla, the old man and the young girl that Sundeep meets. I found the dialogue of these characters unnaturally formal, weighed down with exposition and more ornate description.

Some readers may simply enjoy being transported to a wonderful mountaintop land by some lovely imagery. And Pyle�s ethereal illustrations of the snow-sparkled world, which are all the more powerful for their restricted palette of blues and whites, will certainly haunt the imagination.

But I�m afraid this reader was left disappointed.

Greater Gains

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K.M. Peyton
David Fickling Books
Oct 2005

[Yet again I must follow the ministerial code and declare an interest. K.M. Peyton very kindly helped me with my writing and with general advice when I was just getting started. I�ve always been in awe of her writing ability.]

Another from the David Fickling YA collection, this book is the sequel to Small Gains, and continues the story of the Garland family, Norfolk farming folk in the early nineteenth century, beset by a fair selection of woes and challenges. The Enclosure movement, agricultural mechanisation, rural unemployment and depopulation, disease and the harsh social and penal systems of the time all rear their heads as historical backdrop to the two books. Even as this story begins, in first person narration by youngest daughter Ellen, we get a fair taste of the uncertain nature of existence�

My name is Ellen Garland. I am the youngest of four. The eldest, Margaret, died of the wasting disease when she was sixteen. My brother Jack, a year younger, had to flee from home to escape hanging after he fired Mr. Grover's hayricks, and my other sister Clara, now fifteen, is pregnant and still at home at Small Gains. I don't know who by, but I can guess. To give the baby a decent name she married the vicar's son, Nicholas Bywater, just before he too died of the wasting disease. To give Clara her due, she loved Nicholas dearly, as did we all. But the baby isn't Nicholas's. You can see this is a strange kettle of fish for a very ordinary farming family to be in, and our father is very depressed.

� and Ellen herself is, within a few pages, to be involved in a prank that leads to her imprisonment and subsequent transportation to Australia.

The heroine, however, and the dynamo driving force of the family, is Clara, and for her parts of the story we move into the third person. Clara is not pretty, she is the practical one, the hands-on daughter, tough and passionate. She is her father�s anchor, not least because, like him, she is born to the land and (more than anything) to understand horses, disdaining the conventions of the time to train her champion trotter Rattler for his gruelling twenty-mile races. Serious money can be made for the family from racing and from Rattler�s stud services.

In both the previous book and this volume, Clara receives her fair selection of knocks, and often fate seems to be against her. Her baby and her unwanted marriage are both the result of blackmail, in order to benefit or protect her family: yet although her heart screams at the shackles that hold her, her courage and willingness to meet circumstances head on without losing anything of herself allows her to thrive. And yes, there�s some romantic interest here, for Clara is in love with the son of another farmer, Prosper Mayes, currently in India.

I can imagine some readers finding these books too muddled � the switches in narration, the uneven jumble of events, frequent repetition of characters� thoughts and utterances and self-searching � whilst others might not like the almost melodramatic quality of Clara�s romantic rollercoaster. For me, however, Peyton tells it like it is. Practical realities to be met with grit and compassion, dreams that one should not let go of, conflicts and confusions (Clara has to acknowledge her sexual attraction to her arrogant, blackmailing husband but recognises that this is not the love she feels for Prosper)� and yes, a Philip Glass kind of repetition in what we say and think and question as we vary our human theme toward greater self-knowledge.

This is not quite Kathleen Peyton�s best work, but it is still streets ahead of most of the field, and very moving, as ever. The writing style is relaxed, direct and appealing, the historical detail full of life and passion, and the emotional questions blisteringly relevant. She is, in the words of The Times, a �born storyteller�.

Under Fragile Stone

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Ois�n McGann
Oct 2005
Fantasy is a genre that divides. It�s a case love it or loath it � so if you are in the latter category stop reading now, this comic tale of the shape-changing Myunan is not for you.

That�s not a reflection on the quality of the second volume in The Archisan Tales merely an acknowledgement of a status quo that even super-sellers like Terry Pratchett struggle to overcome.

It�s unfair because at its heart this is simply a good traditional adventure story: foolish kids put their parents in peril and have to team up with a wayward uncle to redeem the situation. Along the way they pick up new skills, make new friends and save each other and their companions from peril.

Set such a plot in a Peckham housing estate � cue lots of gritty urban realism � and it�d be taken as a tale for our times. Add in a few flying beasties and some giant cargo-carrying centipedes, however, and suddenly the critical acclaim slips away.

However, if you like fantasy then the combination of the intuitive Myunan children, battling first with business-like warlords of the Noran and then with the dunderhead Reisenick and their leader Ludditch is well worth picking up.

The central theme is obviously Gaia-esque: tampering with the spirit of the earth brings chaos. Only if the god of the mountain is reunited with his realm will normality return.

That said there�s a collection of wondrous creatures that London Zoo would cast an envious glance at, a set of rogues who veer towards the pantomime and two engaging central characters on a voyage of discovery that pre-teen and early teen readers will empathise with.

The Myunan�s great skill is their ability to meld and flex flesh and bone so that they can take on any form they like, enabling them to blend into walls, gain wings and fly. As the novel proceeds Taya and Lorkrin gradually develop their ability to take advantage of this extraordinary asset.

Although it�s the second volume in the series it reads simply as a familiar cast of characters getting together for a new adventure, you don�t really need to start with Volume 1.

It all leaves you marvelling at the invention of Ois�n McGann. If quietly amusing rather than laugh out loud sounds like damning with faint praise it�s not meant that way � it�s because more often than not I fall into the fantasy-free reading group.

Crow Girl

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Kate Cann
Barrington Stoke
Oct 2005
Lily is lonely; often bullied, at best ignored. She takes refuge in the nearby woods, finding solace with the crows that live there. Her visits to spooky clearings, her desire for cobwebby outfits and her growing ability to call the crows, give this title a gothic edge.

An avian theme runs throughout the book. No nonsense grandma, Grandy, says that Lily has been in �what I call �the ugly duckling phase��. The story charts Lily�s transformation from ugly duckling to dark swan � Crow Girl.

Having always comforted herself with chocolate, Lily has always been overweight. So walking in the woods, instead of past the sweet shop, makes her look better. Grandy teaches her the importance of posture and a well fitted bra. Add a little black dress and red lipstick and she�s a new woman.

In a world where glossy women�s magazines have teen versions (how they must rub their hands in glee � a whole new market of fashion and beauty consumers!) such a �makeover� is many a young girl�s dream.

However, I had reservations about this Trinny and Susannah style transformation. Like Andersen�s Ugly Duckling (which, incidentally, is not a traditional tale but one he made up himself) it seems to recommend changing outward appearance, suggesting that beauty is the ultimate goal.

Happily, Cann does redeem herself � her emphasis on walking tall and pushing your hair back from your face shows it really is all about attitude. Thank goodness she lets teenage girls in on the Big Secret: that being attractive is all about self-esteem. Lily starts to like herself. She grows in confidence, develops her creativity and stands up to the bullies.

Cann gets teenage concerns exactly right. That feeling of being misunderstood, undervalued, the burning need to �show them all�. Those who fantasise about their triumphant moment, when their true powers are unveiled and their tormentors stand in awe, will find Lily making her own fantasy into a reality inspiring stuff.

House of Spies

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House of Spies
Andersen Press
Oct 2005
The madness that can grip communities in times of strife, real or imagined, is fertile ground.

Griselda Gifford�s latest book visits a troubled community battling with the very real challenges of wartime. With German invasion a threat and families split up by the demands of military service, the focus of the story is on Pip and Harry, two young girls who are growing up fast.

And while it contains all the classic elements of horses, rival gangs and nasty adults it also adds a darker edge � the locals� antipathy to an elderly couple that they believe might be German spies.

The suspense is slowly ratcheted up as Pip and Harry become involved with Max � the grandson of the elderly couple � who is trying to run away. The threat of an adult lynch mob builds cleverly through the book as it heads towards its conclusion.

Interwoven with the main story, the reality of living with the war � Pip and her mother are evacuees � and the uncertainty of life and relationships when you literally are under attack is well illustrated.

The relationship between Pip and Harry has a real intensity but the book also ends with an insightful ambivalence about the way in which the girls' friendship might develop. This may be a girls' adventure but it�s not all jolly hockey sticks.