May 2011 Archives

Small Change For Stuart

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Lissa Evans
May 2011
278 pp
Whole book read
Yes Yes Yes
What makes me like this book so much? Is it that it concerns a collection of old threepenny bits, those belovedly brassy coins of childhood? Is it because it is such a well-formed object of a physical book, a beautifully proportioned small hardback with pleasingly designed dustjacket and chapter heading illustrations (both by Temujin Doran)? Is it because it reads so smoothly, with not a word wrong-footing the inner ear? Of course these things help, but novels ultimately have to make their impact by virtue of characters and narrative, rather than style, form or inanimate objects.

Stuart, very short for his age and with a surname (Horten) that doesn't help matters, is 10 years old when he has to move away to a new town, leaving all his friends behind. His new neighbours, the Kingsley triplets, do not believe him when he tells them how old he is. These neighbours are highly entertaining creations, as is Stuart's father, a writer of crosswords, who always chooses the longest words to describe things. A great-uncle of Stuart's used to live and work as a magician in the town they have moved to. The discovered collection of threepenny bits and the subsequently collected sequence of clues lead Stuart (and, eventually, one of the triplets) on an adventure of discovery to find the lost workshop of Teeny-Tiny Horten.

Perfect reading for children aged 7-10, and highly recommended as a readaloud class novel for teachers of Y4 or Y5. The author is a radio and television producer. She has written two or three adult books. This is her first children's novel. It ought not to be the last.

Beautiful Malice

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Rebecca James
July 2010
353 pp
Whole book read
Read On? Yes, but...
This book had a lot of publicity when it came out last year, so I am not going to waste too many words on it here. Suffice to say that I was led to believe it was a a debut novel by an Australian author that shouldn't be missed. From the recommendations I had remembered reading I was expecting a psychological thriller of the highest order. Well, it isn't that. It's highly readable in a trashy kind of way, and I read it from cover to cover while on the train to Glasgow. I think it could work quite well as one of those 3-parter TV thrillers, but whoever turned it into a screenplay would have to make the ending far less easy to predict.
I only had one book accessible on the train, otherwise I would have stopped reading half way through, as it was fairly clear by then which way things were going. Good advertisement for a Kindle I guess. In fact, I wonder if Kindle readers are more inclined to give up on books than book readers, in view of the easy access to alternative titles.

Between Shades Of Gray

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Ruta Sepetys
April 2011
344 pp
Whole book read
Read On? YES

Ruta Sepetys discusses her upcoming novel, Between Shades of Gray from Penguin Young Readers Group on Vimeo.

As the author herself says in the book trailer above, the war crimes of Hitler are well known and well documented both in histories and in fiction. The war crimes of Stalin and the sufferings inflicted on the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are not so widely known, especially amongst the young.
The American author is of Lithuanian descent and her novel is based both on personal family history and on general research. After the Baltic states had been annexed to Russia lists of those deemed unsympathetic to the Russian state were compiled. The men were arrested and imprisoned. Women and children were herded onto cattle trains and sent away to camps in Siberia.
The novel follows the experiences of a 15 year old girl, Lina, her mother and brother as they are shipped away to a cruel Arctic winterland. Sepetys makes a compelling case for her story in the book trailer (as she did also when I heard her speak recently at a Puffin event). I was pleased to find that as a novelist, she tells her frequently harrowing story just as compellingly. The only parts that didn't work for me were the italicised sections, which I found distracting and unnecessary.
This powerful and important novel is a very impressive debut from a new author.