Category Archives: Historical

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

My Name’s Not Friday

Jon Walter

David Fickling Books

9781910200438

Jul 2015

hardback

One of the best children’s novels of 2014 was Close To The Wind by Jon Walter. The fact that it was overlooked by all the major children’s book awards (including the Branford Boase Award for a first novel, where it was not included in even the longlist, let alone the shortlist) left me open-jawed and, ever so temporarily, nervously questioning my own judgement.

Was Close To The Wind as good a book as I thought it was? Did it contain some flaw that made it ineligible for praise in the eyes of award judge panels? I looked at the book again and was reminded how unique, how special was the slow, unhurried but totally gripping narrative tone. I remained convinced. This was, it is, a very special book indeed.

And now we have the author’s second novel to stand alongside that exceptional debut.

My nervousness as a reader and reviewer returned. Would the new book excite me as much? Or would it help explain why none of those award panels had shared my enthusiasm for the earlier book.

That nervousness didn’t last beyond the first page of My Name’s Not Friday. In the short opening chapter we appear to be starting a story that is going to be told in the same unspecific, emblematic style of Close To The Wind. A boy is bound up and has a bag over his head. We experience things only through the boy’s sense of hearing. He calls himself Samuel, and starts off believing his captor to be God, since he feels he must have died and gone to heaven.

The tone and narrative style quickly shifts in the very next chapter. The boy is being taken to market to be sold as a slave. The book tells the story of how this has come to pass and what happens to Samuel once he is working as a slave.

Set near the end of the American Civil War, My Name’s Not Friday is more soundly set in a specific time, place and period than Close To The Wind. But Walter is still more keen on establishing convincing, emotion-engaging verisimilitude than on creating a precise historical exactitude.

There is an illuminating Author’s Note to read at the end of the novel in which Walter writes: “I had to use detail to portray a narrative that was believable and then make choices about how best to illuminate the truths contained within the story.”

As an illustration he refers to his use of the word “nigger”.

One of my first choices concerned the use of accent and dialect and I chose to use only a few words that gave the reader a suggestion of the time and place. I thought to do otherwise would be too intrusive. This decision was particularly acute in the use of the word “nigger”, which would have been used more commonly in the period by both vlack and white, but which I chose to use infrequently… This seemed to me the right balance – to bear witness to the past and still keep sight of the present.

At a little over 350 pages Walter has written a classic children’s adventure story in which the reader sides with the main character throughout, but is helped to see how the rights and wrongs of any particular situation are always shaded.

To those classic stories such as Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian and The Kingdom By The Sea by Robert Westall can now be added My Name’s Not Friday. It really is a fantastic novel. The characters all live as vividly as if they were in a Dickens novel. Reading the book I became aware of echoes with Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones and, of course, the movie 12 Years A Slave.

If Jon Walter is once again ignored by award panels after writing a book as good as this – with its enormously satisfying narrative arc and a main character whose belief in an interventionist God remains undimmed throughout – I shall be aghast.

The book is published in hardback by David Fickling next month (July 2015). Order a copy today. And if you haven’t yet read Close To The Wind, the paperback is available straight away.

Little Leap Forward: a boy in Beijing

Gue Yue, Clare Farrow, Ill. Helen Cann

Barefoot Books

1846861136

Jul 2008

“With music and your imagination you can travel anywhere; you will always be free.”

Barefoot Books have drawn upon the self-same creative sensibility, attention to detail and high production values that have earned them the place as one of the most distinctive and stylish picture books lists, in this their first forray into fiction.
The construction of childhood presented here is a decidedly pastoral one with its kite flying competitions, trips to market and sibling cookery sessions. Behind the surface of this, however, are the shifting political tectonics that lead to Mao Zedung’s Cultural Revolution of 1966.
Ramifications of this are both clearly and cleverly drawn through the capture and subsequent decline of a bird which Little Leap Forward keeps trapped in a bamboo cage. The bird’s refusal to sing and its inability to fly are consequences of its being held captive away from the natural influences that allow its replenishment. The creeping oppression whose reach is felt towards the end of the novel is wholly juxtaposed by the real sense of hope and liberation that the bird’s release and free flight signify.
Gue Yue and Clare Farrow’s text is marked by its reflective lyricism. This is complemented beautifully by the sights of Beijing, captured so evocatively through Helen Cann’s full-colour illustration plates that intersperse the novel. Combining freedom of thought, action and imagination, this is a welcome first fiction offering from Barefoot Books that leaves one eager in the hope that a subsequent, more regular publishing plan might follow in a similar vein.

Airman

Eoin Colfer

Puffin

9780141383354

Jan 2008

“One of my childhood favorites was The Princess Bride [by William Goldman]. Read that to see how I was influenced by his pacing and the swashbuckling tone he set there while being quite humorous. That’s one of the finest examples of a high adventure book,” Eoin Colfer says in a recent interview with the magazine Newsweek.
Airman is a fabulous mix of adventure, high daring and romance. There are comic moments, but these are lowkey compared with the emphasis on high adventure. Colfer has already achieved fame and fortune with his Artemis Fowl novels. With Airman he will have achieved new stature and respect for his abilities as an author.
With each turn of the page the quality and pitch of the writing seems to ratchet up an extra notch until, in the last section of the book, it feels to me that Colfer is writing at the the very peak of his abilities, skillfully maintaining tension and excitement while repeating scenes from different points of view.
He has produced a work of literally marvellous escapism, and selected a real-life setting (The Saltees) perfect for his requirement.
Very highly recommended for confident readers aged 9+.

Cleopatra

Adele Geras, ill. M. P. Robertson

Kingfisher

0753413590

Oct 2007

The reunion of ‘The Spice Girls’ has brought back into common currency their maxim: ‘Girl Power’. Centuries prior to the historic plight of women’s rights being commodified to a snappy, two-word, slogan, Cleopatra was Queen of Egypt and ‘ with considerable diplomatic powers and prowess ‘ set about forging kinship between Egypt and Rome.
In bringing the story of Cleopatra to life through the eyes of Nefret, a young Egyptian girl who is conscripted to work for the royal household, Adele Geras paints a vivid portrait of this extraordinary, sparkling historical figure. The diary entries of Nefret provide a wealth of colour and detail about Ancient Egypt and ‘ through choosing a first-person narrative told by a girl, Geras easily conveys just what an astoundingly inspirational figurehead Cleopatra must have presented.
Cleopatra’s story links Ancient Egyptian history with that of Ancient Rome, both focal areas in the key-stage two, National Curriculum history syllabus. Production values of the book are incredibly high with M. P. Robertson’s lavish spreads that perfectly capture the movement, tone and time of the period being interspersed with photographic imagery of key historical artefacts. Notes are appended at the end about Alexandria, the Roman army, the river Nile and more, providing valuable factual context to this fictionalised account of Cleopatra’s life.
An accomplished synergy of wonderful writing, illustrative innovation and pride in publishing production values make this a venture that is not to be missed. Whether reading for pleasure or for purpose, this is a tome to be treasured. Look out for Steve Augarde’s ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ which Kingfisher have scheduled for publication in 2008.

The Mozart Question

Michael Morpurgo

Walker Books

1406306487

Nov 2007

Following a colleagues misfortunes on the ski-slopes, journalist Lesley McInley is enlisted to interview the world famous concert violinist, Paulo Levi. Inexperienced and somewhat intimidated by the magnitude of the task facing her, Lesley feels inadequate, however, Paulo embarks upon explaining the extraordinary tale of how he discovered his love for the violin.
The strands of a story that spans three separate generations are woven together expertly by Michael Morpurgo and chart life prior to, during and following the Holocaust. Far from explicit, the atrocities of the period are concealed beneath the urgent attempts of Paulo Levi’s parents’ to survive.
High culture and barbarism are played out against one another emphasising the tragedy and extent and magnitude of the history that underpins this fiction. Subtle reference to this is made as Morpurgo draws a wide geographic base around his characters that are thrown together, pulled apart and eventually drawn back to one another through the nature of all they have seen and heard.
The power of art to heal and foster understanding is explored and manifested in this quiet, contemplative work.

The Astonishing Life Of Octavian Nothing

M. T. Anderson

Candlewick Books

0763624020

Jan 2007

An outstanding novel.
The first of two volumes, its full title is The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor To The Nation – Volume 1: The Pox Party. I already tell everyone I meet to read this author’s fantastic satirical novel, Feed, and now I shall be telling them to read this.
I dare say young readers – especially those unfamiliar with Feed and Anderson’s other novels – may struggle to get into it, fearful that the formal eighteenth century diction and grammar of Octavian’s narrative might never develop into a compelling story. But they will soon be fascinated by the narrator’s realtionship with his young teenage mother and by all the goings-on at the College of Lucidity, where Octavian is treated to a trial education of letters and manners.
Eventually both the boy and the mother fall victim to another trial involving smallpox. Dr Trefusis observes at one point during this harrowing section of the book, “When I peer into the reaches of the most distant futurity, I fear that even in some unseen epock when there are colonies even upon the moon itself, there shall still be gatherings like this, where the young, blinded by privilege, shall dance and giggle and compare their poxy legions.” It is just that ‘most distant futurity’ which Andersen describes (in a far different prose) in Feed.
Octavian’s own narrative comes to an abrupt halt three quarters of the way through the novel, at a moment of great heartbreak, and it is a tribute to Andersen’s skill and confidence as a stylist that the miscellany of documents and correspondence that fills most of the remaining part of this first volume holds the reader riveted until Octavian’s return.
I haven’t mentioned yet that Octavian is a black child born to an African mother; that the book is about slavery and the events leading up to the War of Independence. Those are the themes. And Andersen’s book will remain a classic treatment of slavery and the birth of the American nation for a very long time to come.

Dead Man’s Close

Catherine MacPhail

Barrington Stoke

1842993917

Feb 2006

‘You know what I think? I think it’s stories that keep the whole world together. From Lewis looking for monsters in Edinburgh, to Shahrazad telling stories about magic lamps in Arabia. Everyone loves a good story.’

A school trip around Edinburgh centre careers into a desperate chase through time for siblings Spider and Lizzie. Resolved to play a trick on his sister, Spider slips into a doorway planning to leap out on his unsuspecting sister. Separated from the group as a consequence of this, Lizzie worries the pair might have taken a wrong turn’
A welcome addition to Barrington Stoke’s ‘FYI: fiction with stacks of facts’ series, Catherine Macphail weaves a tight web of spills, thrills and plenty of chills seamlessly interspersing information, detail and local colour about the history of Edinburgh. Readers experience first-hand the sights, smells and sounds of the city as Lizzie and Spider aid Lewis in escaping the clutches of a broken-toothed felon and assist his endeavours to learn more about his mysterious neighbour’s nocturnal endeavours.
Appended to the adventure is a notebook, purportedly by Spider’s hand. Catherine MacPhail’s passion, understanding and lively delivery of details together with the personalised, over-arching epistolary form in which they are written makes for a reading adventure and story-arc that is in equal parts profound and impressive.

The Sirens of Surrentum

The Sirens of Surrentum by Caroline Lawrence

Orion

1842552554

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!

Forged in the Fire

Ann Turnbull

Walker Books

1844289354

March 2006

Being young and in love but apart is the best of times and the worst of times. The anticipation of being together is wonderful, each letter brings a surge of optimism but the on-going trial of being separated by distance can seem impossible to overcome.
For Susanna and Will these challenges are doubly difficult to bear. She is in Shropshire and he is in London, it is 1665 and there is no National Express coach to bring them together.
To make matters worse just as they were about to be joined reunited and married the plague breaks out in London, trapping Will in the festering, sickening city.
And like all young couples, the affairs of love are never smooth, a misunderstanding when they finally meet threatens the whole relationship.
If these were the only challenges this young couple had to face then Ann Turnbull’s follow-up to the Whitbread-shortlisted No Shame, No Fear would still be a tale and a half.
However, there’s a further level of complexity. Susanna and Will are Quakers ‘ dissenters from religious orthodoxy, a vulnerable position in the febrile climate of the mid-Seventeenth century.
Forged in the Fire is rich with details about the sufferings of the Quakers. Will spends time in Newgate prison, a group of Quakers face transportation to the West Indies while on-going persecution is an everyday fact of life.
The climax of the tale coincides with the Great Fire of London and the risk that everything Will and Susanna have worked for will be destroyed.
This is a compelling story of life in uncertain times and an excellent portrayal of life in a minority community for readers aged 12 and over.