June 2006 Archives

The Tide Knot

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Helen Dunmore
Harper Collins
May 2006
The ancient Greeks used to believe that the world was composed of four elements, earth, water, fire and air.

For Sapphy the battle is two-way rather than four, will the earth part of her nature ever manage to control the water elements that long to take her to sea? In Helen Dunmore�s second novel set in the world of Ingo, Sapphy continues the battle that her father lost in the first volume of the series.

With her father gone, her mother has found a new partner and moved the family from the cottage by the cove to the nearby but less hospitable St Pirans.

While her brother Conor is willing to give the new lifestyle a go, Sapphy is less willing. Her reluctance is not helped by the fact that her �friends� in Ingo continue to call her to the Cornish sea.

However, they are not entirely benevolent spirits, danger lurks every time she goes to sea, from sharks and the risk that she become too comfortable in the water. The watery voices are at best ambivalent about the fate of the humans who inhabit the shoreline.

Among the watery beasts are those who would wish the sea to destroy the settlements of man and destruction of the Tide Knot � the complex formation that ensures the tides fall as well as rise � leads to disaster.

St Pirans is flooded and the pair are called upon to go to sea to help resolve the situation as Ingo dwellers realise that the demise of the tides is not all good news.

The Tide Knot is an engaging standalone read but it would benefit a little from having read the first volume as the back story to some of the relationships � notably that between Conor and Elvira � would be useful.

That�s a minor point, however, as the character of the land and its relationship with the sea are at the heart of a lyrical and enchanting book.

The Sirens of Surrentum

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The Sirens of Surrentum by Caroline Lawrence
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!


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Ally Kennen
Marion Lloyd Books
June 2006

The cover of this one put me off: textured like the skin of a dinosaur, a huge yellow eye looking out of the beast�s face. Oh gawd, I thought, not horror, not Jurassic Park, not monsters, please.

Just goes to show how wrong you can be.

The book is not about monsters or dinosaurs. There is a creature in there, but he�s not the �beast�. The �beast� is 17-year-old Stephen, reaching the end of a three-year stint at yet another foster home and facing the grim prospect of going on to St. Mark�s hostel next, home to addicts and losers. Stephen speaks to us in conversational first-person, present-tense narration: a lot of that about at the moment. The first thing he gives us is a list of the ten worst things he�s done in his life. Clearly he�s learnt to have a certain perception of himself, and as we meet his foster family, his social worker and other influences in his life, we can see why. For all their wish to do good, even the best of them have marked him down as an outsider, an unreliable entity, a probable �no-good� troublemaker. Yet the person that gradually emerges for the reader is very different. He is responsible, according to his own rules, he has integrity, he is a fighter. Enough of a fighter to break through the self-doubt and the doubts of those around? Enough of a fighter to deal with the mysterious creature and to avoid St. Marks? To get the girl? Read it and find out. But don�t be surprised to find yourself gradually liking this boy more and more as the story unfolds, whatever judgment you made on page one about those �ten worst things�. See, you�re as bad as the rest of them.

A great book from a new Bristol writer. And, in retrospect, a great cover too.


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Cliff McNish
July 2006

In many ways, this title is pure, traditional ghost story. It sets out to chill and it does.

When twelve-year-old asthmatic Jack comes to live in an old country cottage with his mum, he can feel at once that there has been death in the house. With his own father recently dead of a heart attack, Jack has developed a keen sense for traces of those who have passed on. Just by passing his fingers over objects he can sense the passage of the once-living, a skill that his mother doesn�t appreciate. His entrance is watched with excitement by four ghost children. They have been here for so long, perhaps this new boy will bring them excitement, hope, laughter, something. However, their enthusiasm is tempered by fear: even as they watch, they are aware that the ghost mother, their worst nightmare, is awake once again!

Jack�s room was that belonging to the old lady who last had the house. He can sense her past presence and it comforts him. Yet when he awakes and finds a ghostly woman draped over his bed one night, it is not the old woman at all, but a very different presence: thin, hollow-eyed, seemingly affectionate. For the first time he can see and even talk to a spirit! Day by day his power to touch the dead is growing. The woman herself is delighted. She wants to take care of him, to play at being a second mother. Her own little girl, Isabelle, died of consumption in this very house more than a century ago and she longs guiltily for other children to dote upon. What could be wrong with that?

Well, everything.

Thanks to a warning from the ghost children, Jack is alerted to something not so sweet in the ghost mother. But as his asthma grows � mirroring the breathing difficulties of Isabella � and as the ghost mother grows stronger, feeding gruesomely on the souls of the other ghosts, and determined to replace Jack�s real mother, so a time of horror begins. And only Jack�s ability to touch the dead and their different worlds can end the horror� if his asthma doesn�t triumph first.

The writing here is more than competent. McNish spins a suspenseful page-turner within his ghost story. I was also impressed by the degree to which he has developed explanations for how the ghosts move about, what rules they must follow and (despite a western Christian spin) what choices they might face after death.

A spine-tingler suitable for age ten and up. For those of brave disposition.

The Fourth Horseman

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Kate Thompson
Bodley Head
Jun 2006
�Maybe it was churlish, but I said it anyway. �Well done. The scientific colossus, bestriding the world.� It gives me the creeps now, thinking about that. I had no idea what I was saying.��

Recently given the distinction of being the only writer to win the Bisto award four times, it�s high time that Kate Thompson�s superbly pithy novels received the recognition they deserve. The publication of �The New Policeman� in 2005 finally saw this happen.

Open the pages of Kate�s latest novel, �The Fourth Horseman� and readers will find themselves gripped and fully immersed in an intense thriller in which questions and intrigue abound. Opening dramatically as Laurie is arrested for setting fire to her father�s research lab, it fast becomes apparent that she is no pyromaniac, a question mark arises as to her motives�

Combining multiple narrative strands that interlink to provide an impressive outlook over genetic manipulation and gene warfare, terrorism and more genial cricket matches, �The Fourth Horseman� provides a sobering account of the ways trust and knowledge are able to be appropriated.

A pioneering scientist, Laurie�s father has been commissioned to genetically develop a virus that will wipe out grey squirrels allowing red squirrels greater opportunities to survive and thrive. Hardly a naturalist, Laurie�s father employs his daughter to look after and to tame the baby squirrels he uses as his test-pieces. Whilst engaged upon this new occupation, an apparition of a horseman appears. Forming an alliance with her brother Alex and his best-friend Javed, the three set about exploring the true nature of the horseman in so doing uncovering a sinister stratagem for the use of the learning Laurie�s father has completed.

At once a chilling glimpse at a possible cause of the apocalypse and a passionately urgent plea for reconciliation and peace rather than revenge. �The Fourth Horseman� shows awareness of the pivotal role young people play towards such aims and the key importance of ensuring they do not inherit past generation�s conflicts�

Down the Back of the Chair

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Margaret Mahy
Frances Lincoln
Apr 2006
�Down the back of the chair� is the entertainingly imaginative new picture book by Margaret Mahy, the deserving winner of the 2006 Hans Christian Andersen author award. The book opens with a family catastrophe when dad loses his car keys � observant readers will not miss the true location of the keys on the first double-page-spread featuring Polly Dunbar�s vibrant and wacky illustrations. Wisdom arises out of the mouth of two-year-old babe, Mary who advises a fair old rummage down the back of the comfy chair.

What an assemblage of curios and creatures are to be found there� Hairy string, a diamond ring, pineapple peel and a conga eel� children and adults alike will delight in the increasingly unusual, extravagant and unlikely items that are to be found there.

Perhaps the best thing about this book is the fact that all of the items - so accurately detailed through Mahy�s magnificent rhyming text and so vividly realised in Polly Dunbar�s attractive and eye-catching illustrations � sow the seeds for a thousand tales as readers ponder the story of how they came to be there in the first place! The keys are never found, but I think you�ll agree the resolve here is far more exciting!

The Road of Bones

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Anne Fine
Jun 2006
�When it�s so cold, breath freezes straight to grains of ice. That rustle comes as they fall around you.�

A hybrid of political concern and an excruciatingly exciting adventure-thriller, Anne Fine�s �The Road of Bones� could easily be described as a Magnum Opus. In it, the politicised nature of childhood is unravelled, a theme that runs central to the whole body of Fine�s work, whether that be in picturebooks for the youngest readers �Poor Monty� or her recent coruscating comedy for adult readers, �Raking the Ashes�.

It is this awareness of the politicised nature of childhood - the very fact that education, social, political, psychological and familial discourses locate it both as pivotal and formative - that give Fine's work such power and weight and that has resulted in their well-deserved standing and stature in the field of children�s literature.

The shadowed stranglehold of depression sweeps an emotional and economic depression across the landscape of �The Road of Bones� in huge drifts, contributing together with the repressive politics and the fear and moral panics surrounding these, to the stifling atmosphere of the novel.

This intrinsic oppression that so characterises this novel might surprise aficionados of Anne Fine�s writing and it is true that �The Road of Bones� represents something of a departure� This is the first book for teenagers set wholly in a historical context (arguably, �The Book of the Banshee� utilises a partially historical context with the analogies made through William Scott Saffery�s �The Longest Summer�), given the intense focus on Yuri, his age, relative inexperience and his forced departure from the family enclave, it is a highly solipsistic novel offering little in the way of redemption or resolve� His eventual assimilation is entirely convincing and is representative of the personal journey Yuri has travelled from the idylls and ideals of childhood to the realism and the need to survive in adulthood.

The importance of contextualising this is paramount. However desperate and extreme the time, the geography and the setting, the novel maintains the avid interest and deeply heartening comment, care and thought into the socio-politics of family life. That Yuri is forced to extract himself from these serves to accentuate their significance rather than to diminish it. The key-role education plays and over-arching all of this, the impact upon both that political systems and ideologies enforces. This is thought-provoking, stimulating and highly engaging food for thought and readers will be left mentally masticating for a long time after completing the novel!

As with any Anne Fine novel, characters will have you hooting with laughter and howling with rage. Fine has an uncanny ability to make her readers squirm, making them turn themselves inside out, burning away layers of �self-awareness� like the most acerbic of acids dripping upon complacency. Grandmother in particular is a delight, a fiercely intelligent amalgam of personal history and folk-tales she brings a dark, scathing humour with her indictments and forthright opinions and views; �Must you always be as wise a tree full of owls?�

Following an accident at the building yard where Yuri works, his anger boils forth in great bubbles of rage forcing him to flee if he is to survive. So begins a quest for escape and freedom that sees the extent of the blight that the politics of his country have caused on its landscape and population unfold in a series of horrifying revelations. The power and scope of this is astounding and literally makes one gasp for breath!

The language here is lyrical and reflective. With assured power, Fine links the intense imagery of landscape with emotions of character in a way that delivers blow after blow to the hearts and minds of her readers. This commands both time and patience to reflect upon fully, a fact in itself that surely is enviable? Wiithout time for consideration how can we ever develop understanding and compassion?

Here is a book that makes you think, that dares you to measure the present against this portrayal of the past that challenges us to strive for more and better things to secure our every future� Here is a novel that in no way diminishes the intellect or capabilities of young people and that makes comment about the highly politicised nature of youth.

An edgy novel that evades ease of definition� "The Road of Bones" is set in a past that could easily read as a politically disenfranchised present... It is set in Russia, but that landscape could be substituted for a bleak view of a climate-changed future� It is set under the repressive rule following the Russian revolution but could easily be a world where civil liberties and personal freedoms have been stripped by reactionary anti-terror measures.

All of this represents a major achievement for a �children�s literature� that continues to be viewed as something that is only capable of frivolity and light-heartedness, it is also an achievement that brings about consideration as to the politicised nature of education and childhood� This is not a depressingly dark novel, but rather an imperative message of awareness gleaned from a past of inhumane denial and desperation. �The Road of Bones� might be cold in setting, but at heart it glows with an intensity of warmth, passion, fervour and belief, it is THE novel that all should resolve to read.