October 2008 Archives

The Toymaker

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Jeremy de Quidt
David Fickling
Autumn 2008

What an exciting and unsettling book this is! A superb debut! Partly because of the author's unfamiliar name and partly because of a slight similarity to the atmosphere of Cirque du Freak in the book's opening pages, I wondered if this might be Darren Shan writing under a nom-de-plume. Certainly the book has all of Shan's relentless pace and narrative energy. No sooner are you over one tense episode than the next one begins. I found myself reading sections of the book aloud to myself, so flowing is the author's style, which is timeless and classic, as befits the setting of the story. If my initial impressions were Darren Shan, as I read on I was reminded more of a classic adventure such as John Masefield's The Box Of Delights.
This novel is genuinely scary. Very scary. The fiendishly indestructible dwarf Valter is a vivid agent of evil in the story.
The main character, a boy named Mathias, acquires a small piece of paper after the death of his grandfather, for which he is pursued. Helped in his flight by Katta, a girl with an injury to her skull, the two become our harried hero and heroine in what is essentially one long extended chase narrative.
This novel is very highly recommended. And well done to David Fickling for once again bringing us such a compelling and promising new author.
One small but significant criticism. Gary Blythe's black-and-white illustrations inside the novel add excellent atmosphere, but it was a mistake for the coloured jacket illustration to be based on one of a bonneted woman (Anna-Maria) which gives the entirely inaccurate impression that the book is a rosy-cheeked period drama.

Nat Fantastic

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Giles Andrae & Katharine McEwen
Orchard Books
Autumn 2008

This was a big hit with the group of 5 & 6 year-olds I read it to this afternoon. The illustrations are a delight. Bright and bold without being brash. Full of colour and life. The storyline has a repeating refrain which soon has the audience joining in with gusto.
Nat loves his bedtime story. We soon find out why. Mum is constantly interrupted in the reading of it - carrots on the boil, telephone ringing, doorbell buzzing and each time she goes away to attend to these things Nat has a sneezing fit which turns him into Nat Fantastic and off he goes on an amazing adventure. After the sneeze, "FLASH! BANG! WHIZZ! KABOM! NAT FANTASTIC'S IN THE ROOM!" Antoehr sneeze brings him safely back to his bedroom after he variously saves a boatful of schoolgirls from a crocodile, goes to the rescue of an old lady about to be crushed by her disintegrating house and foils a bank robbery by wrestling the villains to the ground.
Bedtime doesn't get more exciting than this. Five chicks!

Voyage Across The Cosmos

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Giles Sparrow
Autumn 2008

This mega-sized non-fiction title is without doubt one of the most striking books about space I've seen. It's superbly well-produced and designed, with high-quality photographs and illustrations. Sparrow's writing is never condescending. It commands respect and attention, and because it's presented in manageable factboxes, even less fluent readers will be encouraged to read for meaning. Presented as a flight through the solar system (with a double page spread given to each of the planets and their moons), the Milky Way and then out beyond our galaxy, it is easy to navigate around.
A white typeface on black page backgrounds contributes to the book's striking impact.
This is a book that will be pored over for hours and is complex enough to provide several years of interest.
I can imagine an inquisitive child given this when he or she is eight years old still finding things to interest them when they are fourteen. Indeed, any adult seeing the book lying around is likely to pick the book up and find likewise.
Pleasingly free of flaps and fiddly bits.
Simply highly recommended.

Minders Of Make-Believe

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Leonard S. Marcus
Houghton Mifflin
Summer 2008

This wonderfully well-written and assembled history of children's book publishing in America will prove indispensable to all those making a serious study of the genre, but is also fascinating reading for anyone with an interest in bookish affairs.

For me the most rivetting passages in the book fell within the first two-thirds. During the early history it was a joy to come across names familiar to me from the time when I did my research into the friendship between Melville and Hawthorne. This part of the book describes, for example, the first moves of librarians to separate out children's literature from the rest of the stock. As the story moves into the 1920s and 1930s Marcus is good at pointing out the degree to which children's literature had separated itself off from the main culture of modernism.

Several times during my reading I found myself wanting to turn to a few pages of illustrative plates giving portraits of some of the key players in this fascinating story. Margaret Wise Brown is described as "the charismatic ash-blond editor with film-star good looks" - it would have been helpful to be able to turn to a photo to corroborate this description :)

Marcus finds room for some fascinating detail regarding the editors who turned down Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War. The last two decades covered - the 1980s and 1990s - are given brushstroke treatment in comparison with the in-depth analysis accorded the earlier years, but that didn't bother me in the least.

Meticulously indexed and referenced, this is a work of high scholarship written for the general reader.