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All These Beautiful Strangers by Elizabeth Klehfoth


Waterstones

Elizabeth Klehfoth

Penguin

9780241329498

July 2018

paperback

This is an exceptionally good pageturner of a novel.

It opens with an immaculately written Prologue, a single page of beautifully cadenced scene-setting prose which immediately sets up high expectations.

The opening chapters are set in a college called Knollwood Prep and I was briefly concerned that the book was going to be a conventional teen drama about a secret student club.

But it opens up in the fourth chapter to bring in a compelling back story involving the main character’s family.

Charlotte Calloway’s father, Alistair, had attended Knollwood a generation earlier and been a member of the the same society that Charlie herself joins.

From this point on the novel is variously told from the points of view of Alistair, Charlie’s mother Grace, and of Charlie herself.

As the thriller builds momentum, and the mystery surrounding both Grace’s disappearance several years previously and the true explanation behind the apparent suicide of a student who was at Knollwood with Charlie’s father, the reader is increasingly drawn into a web of intrigue and betrayal involving the older generation.

Klehfoth doesn’t pull any punches when writing these scenes, which is what makes the book so admirable. This is very much a Young Adult novel, rather than a work of teen fiction.

Some of the contemporary escapades involving Charlie and her fellow students can have a bit of a Riverdale vibe about them, even occasionally of boarding school antics as seen in The House of Anubis. Klehfoth’s writing never falters, always hitting the appropriate note.

She is particularly good at describing the foibles of the rich and privileged set who make up the membership of the secret society and from which Charlie herself comes. So good I wondered if the author herself comes from a similar background.

I had the opportunity to ask her this question during a lightning interview at an event in London recently. Apparently not. Her Indiana upbringing was far more humble, though when she attended college in Orange County, she was surrounded by students from a smart set whose parents would, quite literally, be able to buy them houses.

I also learnt that All These Beautiful Strangers is her first attempt at full-length fiction, which makes the way she manages to structure and interweave her mixed point of view narrative so extraordinary.

The book is already optioned and I can imagine it making a really good Netflix drama. But it’s as a thoroughly good read that I am recommending it here and giving it the full five out of five, because this is as good a YA thriller as you are likely to come by this year.

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Elise and the Second-Hand Dog by Bjarne Reuter ill. Kirsten Raagaard


Waterstones

Bjarne Reuter ill Kirsten Raagaard

Wacky Bee

9780995697287

April 2018

paperback

What a delight this book is!

It mixes a childlike wonder with generous sprinklings of adult irony that avoid breaking the spell.

Elise is missing her mother, a busy architect who is far away in another country busy with a large project. Her father, a musician, is kindly but busy with busking and performing at weddings.

Desperate for company, Elise yearns for a dog. Dad resists. But not for long.

Part of the book’s charm, greatly enhanced by the illustrations, is that it is told mainly through dialogue: Elise with her father; Elise with the dog; Elise with her aunt; Elise with Miss Martini, a Chinese neighbour who “folded the most beautiful roses made of the finest silk paper while listening to old Jim Reeves records.”

Elise names her dog Prince Valiant, but he maintains he already has a name – McAduddi – and that he hails from Tobermory in Scotland. It turns out that he has a penchant for singing sea shanties about Highland Park malt whisky.

The book will be a strong contender for ACHUKA’s Book fo the Month slot, when it is published in April.

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Misfit by Charli Howard



Waterstones

Charli Howard

PenguinRandomHouse

9780241328828

February 2018

paperback

Charli Howard struggled for years to become the size 6 or under model her (then) agency was demanding. After they finally dropped her, she gained notoriety when her post of protest on Facebook went viral. She is now a highly successful ‘curve’ model known for making a stand against the fashion industry’s obsession with slimness, and for being the public voice of the body-positive movement.

I was keen to read MISFIT, both as a reviewer of YA books and as someone who regularly photographs models and aspiring models.

Told with a free-flowing, highly-readable momentum, her memoir should become required reading for any teenager currently involved in, or with ambitions of becoming involved in, the fashion industry.

At around 250 pages in length, it’s not until page 145 that Charli, encouraged by an ex-boyfriend, makes her first contact with a modelling agency. More than half of the book, in other words, is devoted to her childhood, education and adolescence. Some may feel she over-eggs her early misfit-edness. The first line of the book is “I am not normal” and she is keen to demonstrate how “cray cray” she has been since an early age. Exaggeration is permissible in the name of entertainment, and in order for her story to resonate with readers Howard has clearly realised (or been steered to realise by those helping this book reach its final form) the need to build a narrative.

Maybe it’s not as unusual as she suggests for a 4-year-old to imagine she is a dog, and to keep this up until the age of 6. Many young children imagine things with great intensity and force adults to act in accordance with their ‘delusion’. It’s hardly a sign of not being normal.

Similarly, the story of her disastrous sleepover at a friend’s house when, at her instigation, they climb onto the balcony of a neighbour’s property and smear toothpaste all over the windowpanes – an escapade somewhat magnified when Charli casually throws a hairbrush onto the bed and smashes the screen of a phone belonging to her friend’s father – is surely a fairly typical example of adventurous naughtiness that many of us indulged in between the ages of 8 and 10. To be fair, she does describe herself as a “relatively normal eight-year-old schoolgirl growing up in 90s Britain”. It’s a great story though, and the book would be much the weaker without it.

Charli’s father was in the forces and the family were frequently on the move. While stationed in Germany, Charli is particularly affected by what she remembers as a pervasive sexuality. The school bus travelled each day through “an infamous street full of sex shops”.

Eventually, Charli is sent back to England to stay with her grandparents and attend a boarding school during term time. Even when her mother returns to England, Charli continues to be a boarder.

The picture that emerges from this part of the book and from all the anecdotes both of actual bad behaviour and of being wrongly blamed for other people’s bad behaviour is of a child craving overt love, affirmation and stability from her close family.

In its place, affirmation from her peer-group becomes all-important. Much of her behaviour – pulling the emergency STOP on a train – comes across as attention-seeking. But she does also have a knack for being at the centre of trouble for which she is not principally to blame. The best example of this is when the house of one of her best friends is trashed (£30,000 worth of damage) after it is gate-crashed (a story I remember reading about in the national press).

Born with a pear-shaped body frame she is soon comparing herself unfavourably with her peers and a pattern of eating disorders precedes her involvement with modelling by several years.

There is a telling disconnect between the two main parts of the book. For all the emphasis in the early pages on Charli as headstrong rascal, from the time she makes her first contact with the modelling world her character becomes passively compliant.

A steady relationship with a controlling boyfriend continues alongside a perpetually paranoid involvement with her modelling agency and their obsession with her hip measurement. She is mostly a 36 but continually exhorted to shed sufficient pounds to reduce that to 34 – a theme cleverly picked up on by the book’s cover designers.

The book is dedicated “To all the girls who have ever felt their bodies weren’t good enough”. There are no photographs in the book but scrolling far enough down Charli’s Instagram it is possible to discover images from the time when she was starving herself into an unnatural body condition, complete with gauntness of face, hollowed out cheeks and skeletal upper arms.

MISFIT is highly recommended as a good read and as a wake-up-call to others who may, even now, be travelling down a similar road.

It should also be a warning to model agencies and their bookers to be even more selective in their signings, choosing only those individuals who have a realistic prospect of meeting expectations.

Agencies do have a role to play in managing the young people on their books and encouraging them to keep in good shape and condition, but if models are always as terrified of visiting their agent’s offices as Charli suggests, something is very very wrong.

Island

Nicky Singer, with illustrations by Chris Riddell

Caboodle Books

97809929338963

October 2015

paperback

This very fine novelisation of a successful National Theatre stage play might not have ever been printed. The author’s regular publisher could not see how they might publish such a book successfully (despite its coverage of environmental and sustainability themes that are of vital interest to children and teenagers), so the author decided to seek crowdfunding and finance publication of the book herself. She has written about this on her website.
Caboodle Books have produced Island to a high standard – it ‘looks’ the equal of any mass-produced paperback. Chris Riddell has provided illustrations throughout, waiving his fee/royalties in return for a donation to Greenpeace.
Being an adaptation of a pre-existing stageplay, the book has an atmosphere quite different from most YA fiction.
A teenage boy and his mother arrive on a remote Arctic island. The mother, a research scientist, is there to work. Cameron has been dragged along under protest. The teenager is churlish at the start of the book, not wanting to be there, and missing his various gadgetry comforts. As the book progresses the mother’s character flaw (being so immersed in her work that she is sometimes inconsiderate to those around her) comes more to the fore. It is refreshing to read a YA novel in which not one of the main characters is immediately endearing.
It turns out that the visitors are being watched – by an Inuit girl and her grandmother. The main scenes in the novel – told in very short chapters, mainly between 2 and 4 pages in length – concern the meetings and conversations between Cameron and Inuluk, the Inuit girl.
Cameron has been allowed to bring an iPod and the girl watches him “unspool two long, thin white worms from his jacket pocket and attach one to each ear. The worms seem to alter the boy’s body language.”
Singer is very good at enabling the reader to observe Cameron through the eyes of the two Inuit females. The book is told in the omniscient third person voice and as a reader I felt very much as if I were hovering, godlike, above the affairs the book describes, watching them unfold beneath me – rather than moving along at ground level, beside and amongst the characters.
The writing – both the narrative and the dialogue – is fluent and faultless, as it explores the encounters between Cameron and Inuluk, from their two very different worlds. Although the book is never preacherly or issue driven, young readers cannot fail but ask themselves questions about the world they inhabit as a result of reading it.
There is just the right amount of dramatic ‘adventure’ alongside the quieter, ontological exchanges – especially so towards the book’s finish, as Cameron goes jumping from floating block of ice to floating block of ice and has a climactic confrontation with a polar bear, all engineered by Inuluk’s grandmother, who wants Cameron to experience a sense of awe in the face of a natural, potentially lethal splendour.
Not only did the book deserve to be published, it deserves to get the attention of various award shortlists.

Girl On A Plane

Miriam Moss

Andersen Press

9781783443314

September 2015

paperback

I was looking forward to reading this book because it came with high recommendations from people whose judgement I respect, but I have to say I feel there is a real and rather fundamental problem with it, and that has to do with the fact that it is, as the author herself tells us in a Postscript “a work of fiction… grounded in a real, life-defining hijack that I experienced when I was fifteen.” She then goes on to give some examples of the detail she invented to help bring this fiction alive. But each thing she mentions is a fairly small amendment to what actually happened on board. In the book the main character sits beside a younger boy whose travelling companion is a terrapin. The boy becomes a significant character in the story, whereas in real life “There was a boy with a terrapin, but I never spoke to him.”
All sense of suspense is rather undermined by the fact that we tend to know the eventual outcome will see the passengers surviving the hijacking, but even so the announcement (well before the end of the book) by the plane’s captain that a deal has been reached comes as an extraordinarily deflating anti-climax. It’s not that we don’t want Anna and everyone else to survive, but in a novel we do expect the tension to ratchet up a little more tautly before it is so suddenly released.
I’m afraid, for me, the book does not work as a novel. Perhaps because of the rawness of those experiences on which it is based, Moss has been too reluctant to reshape what happened into something that could so easily have become a much more edge-of-your-seat reading experience.
It would work very successfully as the basis for a TV drama-documentary about the hijack, in which we accept that we are watching affairs playing out more or less exactly as they happened in real life, but with the usual dramatic license present in such programmes. In that sense it works well as memoir, rather than as a novel, and one that gives the reader an extraordinarily vivid insight into what living through such an experience is actually like.

Goodbye Stranger

Rebecca Stead

Andersen Press

9781783443192

September 2015

paperback

There is so much to admire in this new book from the author of Liar And Spy, winner of the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. The narration is multi-faceted and subtle. It’s a book that addresses an issue – sexting – and manages to approach it with a sense of proportion and humour. The book is never an issue-driven novel. Stead is extremely clever at using her characters’ dialogue to convey an authorial position on the matters at play in their lives – friendship, family, adolescent love.
And in Bridge, a girl who having cheated death by surviving a serious car accident has just returned to school following several years of recuperation, the author has created a character who cannot fail but enter the reader’s consciousness, wearing, as she does all the time, a headband with a pair of cat’s ears attached.
A passage from near the end of the book that doesn’t contain any plot spoilers, except insofar that it propounds a life view in keeping with the story:

That’s what life is. Life is where you sleep and what you see when you wake up in the morning, and who you tell about your weird dream, and what you eat for breakfast and who you eat it with. Life isn’t something that happens to you. It’s something that you make yourself, all the time. Life is that half minute in the morning before your cat remembers she’s kind of a grouch, when she pours out her love and doesn’t give a flying newton who sees it.

I agree with what a reviewer called Tasha on GoodReads says: “Stead finely captures the feeling of middle school, of just being in the process of changing and growing up, of different people being at various points of maturity both physically and mentally, of meeting new people and maybe being attracted in a different way, and of trying to stay friends through it all. Happily too, it is a book that shows the heart of girls, the bravery of being a modern kid, and the choices that are made. This is not a book that laughs at the antics of pre-teens, but one that celebrates them and this moment in their lives in all of its baffling complexity.”

The Grubby Feather Gang

Antony Wootten

Eskdale Publishing

9780953712380

April 2015

paperback

This is a great little book – one I’m so thankful to the author for bringing to my attention. It’s essentially self-published, but don’t let that put you off. It’s an exceptionally polished presentation – my only minor quibble regards typesetting: an unusually large inset for the first line of each paragraph.
As a short chapter book about bullying and pacifism, set at the time of the First World War, it presents moral and behaviour conflicts in a manner that makes it eminently accessible for children of primary school age. It would make a very good group read.
The author is a primary school teacher and says (his experience is one I can share from my own time working with this age range), “I believe there are many very capable readers in upper key stage 2 who are put off by longer novels but who do want to read challenging and interesting subject matter.”
The book is presented as the first in a series of “BigShorts” – short novels for strong readers, that Wootten intends publishing and promoting through his website. If subsequent titles are as good as this, ACHUKA will be happy to help promote them.
The writing is clear, visual and uncluttered. The characters are finely delineated – the bully, the victim, the pacifist father, the strict schoolteacher, the friend & accomplice – but all very believable. The conflict between the main character’s parents – his father the conscientious objector, and his mother who has to bear the brunt of fellow women’s resentment that while their husbands are away fighting hers is at home shirking – is one of the best aspects of the book.
Female readers might want George’s friend, Emma, to play a more forthright role in subsequent adventures.
Oh, and there is animal interest, in a cat named Azar.
The formula is a good one.
The author’s publishing website: http://www.antonywootten.co.uk/EskdalePublishing.html

The Man In The Mountain

J. E. Roberts

Sea Campion

9781943092703

June 2015

paperback

Sea Campion is a tiny independent press. This is its first children’s book publication.
The author, J. E. Roberts can write. He can write very well. And I enjoyed this short but atmospherically intense novel very much indeed.
Set in the Black Mountains (where the author lives) it is described as “an ecological adventure story for children 9 years old and above’.
Roberts succeeds in establishing a rapport with his main character Joe (a boy recently moved from the city who has an interest in Charles Darwin) but is also able to create vivid supporting characters, notably an old man and an old woman, and also Joe’s much younger brother, Ant. Less vivid is Gwen, the girl Joe befriends.
Nearing the climax of the story I feared the book might become too polemical, too message-driven, but in the end this was successfully avoided.
The book bears comparison with Bone Jack by Sara Crowe, albeit without the sense of menace, and deserves to find a readership in its own right.
The publisher is actively trying to attract more authors with work highlighting ecological issues.

The Bear and the Piano

David Litchfield

Frances Lincoln

9781847807175

September 2015

hardback

I’m not surprised this book was selected as a Highlight of the Season in The Bookseller’s Children’s Autumn Buyers Guide. It’s rather special. And it’s Litchfield’s first picture book. He will be opening The Bookseller’s Children Conference later this month when he will be exhibting (alongside five other illustrators) original artwork from this title.

I recommend a visit to his website:

davidlitchfield

From the end papers and the opening spread, the artwork in this picture book is stunning. And I love the variation in page layout. The designers have done a wonderful job.

But well-presented artwork also needs an original and moving story and this book has that also.

A bear discovers an old piano abandoned in the wood. He plays on the piano every day, practising for months and years until he can play so well that other bears come to listen. One night his playing is overheard by a girl and her father, who ‘discover’ him and entice him away to the city, where he performs in public and becomes a star on Broadway. He wins awards, is lauded, and feted. But he misses his home and his friends.

He returns to the forest. The piano has gone. His friends aren’t there. He is forlorn. But it turns out the piano has simply been moved to a safe position. His friends have been following his career. They are his fans too. He sits down and plays a special concert set just for them.

Litchfield’s forest and city illustrations are equally strong. I love, in particular, the auditorium double spread. The hardback’s dustjacket tells us that he uses “a variety of traditional techniques, assembling the different elements together in Photoshop to create large-scale, dramatic scenes.” We’re also told that the book was inspired by The White Stripes short 50-second song ‘Little Room’.

Terry Perkins and his upside down smile

Felix Massie

Frances Lincoln

9781847806208

August 2015

hardback

I sat down this morning with my 11 o’clock espresso and spent some time browsing through the Autumn Catalogue of the Quarto Publishing Group. When I came to the section for Frances Lincoln Books I stopped on p80 and thought to myself, “Ooh, this looks interesting – hope I’ve been sent a review copy.” So up I get and look at my pile of recently received picture books. Yes! It was there. And what a wonderful debut it is.
Felix Massie is a London-based award-winning animator and illustrator. He designed the short, animated trailer for the book:

Massie’s illustration style is disarmingly simple, but perfectly suited to this rhyimng tale about a young boy who is fine, until he starts to speak, when all his words come out garbled, as if they have been written upside-down. The doctor recommends a straightforward remedy to Terry’s mother. Turn the boy himself upside-down and then the words should come out the right way. Which they do. But all is not well. Now he can talk. But can’t walk. He has to be pushed around in a trolley. He is teased mercillessly at playschool. Then a girl called Jenny befriends him at a playground. She is hanging upside down on the monkey bars, and when she means to say “Boo!” it comes out as “Poo!”and Terry finds himself laughing for the first time since being turned upside down.

It’s an amusing story about being different and will be especially helpful to parents of young children who have speech difficulties.

Massie is already signed up to create a second picture book for FL which will be called George Pearce and his Huge Massive Ears.