Category Archives: Fiction

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.

SaveSave

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.

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.

Bone Jack

Sara Crowe

Andersen Press

9781983440054

Apr 2014

paperback

This is one of those dark, atmospheric children’s novels of a type more numerous and popular in the previous century than today, in which tradition and landscape are as significant in the narrative as are the various human characters.
The incidents in the book take place during preparations for the annual Stag Chase, something that the main character, Ash, is busy training for, having been chosen to play the role of the stag boy, the lead runner pursued by a human pack.
Usually, of course, this tradition is pure theatre. But the author cleverly plays her plot (and its themes of suicide and post-traumatic stress) to create a psychological thriller of considerable force.
At sentence level the writing is taut and effective, and the relationship between Ash and his parents extremely well-handled. But a tendency to over-extend scenes makes the book at least 50 pages longer than it need have been.
The book has a really pleasing cover design by Kate Grove and Phil Huntingdon.

Eren

Simon P. Clark

Corsair

9781472110978

September 2014

hardback

Finished

Look – as politicians are all too regularly inclined to preface an equivocal and evasive answer – I really could not decide as I began reading this book whether it was a somewhat pretentious and presumptuous (for a debut author) enterprise, a heavy-handed homage to an admired author (the Skellig ambience is hardly disguised) or a remarkably deft and poised first novel.

Those who read my reviews regularly will know that I am not a great lover of Prologues and Prefaces in works of fiction. I am fairly sure that some of my resistance to this book could have been avoided with the omission of the opening announcement “This is a story about storytelling.” We really do not need to be told that. Nor do we need to be reminded that “Stories have always existed.” I challenge anyone to read the paragraph that begins with that sentence, in the middle of page 1 of this book, without feeling a sense of concern for the story that follows. I hope that it doesn’t cause too many to put the book down in a bookshop and move on to something else.

The small-format hardback has been beautifully and enticingly made (cover design by Jessie Price, cover and inside illustrations by Ellie Denwood) and comes with the following strapline by David Almond: “Distinctive, strange, poetic… a truly interesting new voice.” [On reflection, I read accuracy there – the book is all of those things – but also a hint of reservation implicit in the word ‘interesting’.]

Oli has had to move out of London to stay with aunt and uncle in the countryside. It is there that he encounters and has a series of conversations with Eren, a sort of monster in the attic.

Clark’s writing is exquisite. Economical and poetic. Em and other local characters are very well drawn. The mounting mystery of why Oli’s father cannot join them from London is skillfully ratcheted up with information about it only being given in the later stages of the book.

Eren is suitably foreboding and mesmerising and Oli convincingly under the creature’s spell. I finished the book still wishing the Preface had been omitted, still wishing the book had been a little less dreamlike and amorphous, more rooted in a fully-awake reality that the author is clearly skillful enough to evoke.

But let’s be done with reservations – Simon P. Clark has a distinctive new voice and a lithe economy of expression that is to be welcomed and celebrated, just as Corsair, an imprint of Constable & Robinson, is to be congratulated for publishing such a leftfield book.

The British-born author now lives in America. The book will have its US publication in 2015, at the same time as the paperback is released in the UK.

Seeing Red

Kathryn Erskine

Usborne

9781409570509

February 2014

paperback

Finished

These are the songs that Kathryn Erskine listened to while writing this marvellous novel. They form the Seeing Red ‘playlist’ and several of them are mentioned in the story:

  • RESPECT, Aretha Franklin
  • BLACK & WHITE, Three Dog Night
  • I’LL BE THERE, Jackson 5
  • STAND BY ME, Ben E. King
  • I AM WOMAN, Helen Reddy
  • Theme from M*A*S*H
  • WAR, Edwin Starr
  • I CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW, Johnny Nash
  • TAKE ME HOME, COUNTRY ROADS, John Denver
  • Theme from KUNG FU
  • LEAN ON ME, Bill Withers
  • SAY IT LOUD, I’M BLACK AND I’M PROUD, James Brown
  • O-O-H, CHILD, The Five Stairsteps
  • MY GIRL, The Temptations
  • CRACKLIN’ ROSIE, Neil Diamond
  • I’D LIKE TO TEACH THE WORLD TO SING, The Cola Singers
  • WHAT’S GOING ON, Marvin Gaye

Erskine was born in the Netherlands and spent her childhood in Israel, South Africa and Scotland. But she has lived in the US state of Virginia, where this novel is set, for most of her adult life.
Is it a cop-out for a reviewer to let the author herself summarise her book? I don’t know, but it seems rather silly to try to do this better than the writer herself, who recently contributed a guest post (‘The Importance Of Story’) on the FCBG blog, and described Seeing Red thus:

In Seeing Red, a story set in the post-Civil Rights era in the United States, young Red Porter gradually pieces together his community’s role in racism from a map, a scrap of paper, a grave marker, a Bible, a teacher and an elderly friend. This African-American friend, Miss Georgia, is able to tell Red how her grandfather was killed and their land taken away — a practice not uncommon after the U.S. Civil War — but even she doesn’t know all the details. As Red keeps digging, he resolves to reveal the killer and see that Miss Georgia’s land is returned. He’s determined to do as the sign above his family’s repair shop says: “Porter’s: We Fix It Right!”

Seeing Red is not just a story but has stories within stories. There are memories of his father that help shape Red and guide him now. There are real life stories of America’s past, like Emmett Till, Rosenwald schools, Massive Resistance. Those stories are an important part of our present and future because they’re what brought us to where we are now. The past doesn’t dictate our future but it’s up to us to respond to it and forge a new path.

The importance of story telling in Seeing Red, like many books, is to allow readers to think and feel. In this case, it’s to prevent history from repeating itself with other distinct groups in other parts of the world, and even specifically with African Americans in the United States, where the country may look very different from its 1970’s self but still has room to progress.

Yes, this book is unashamedly didactic. It sets out not just to move the reader, but to inform and educate. I normally dislike the inclusion of extra baggage at the end of a novel, but here the Author’s Note and suggested list of Discussion Questions will be welcomed by teachers who decide to use the book in guided reading sessions – it is particularly recommended for Years 5 to 8 (10-13 year olds).
But above all it is a totally convincing immersive read that can be enjoyed on an individual level from age 10 up to adult.
Every character featured in the story is vividly drawn and for all its attention to universal values the whole action is played out in a tightly localised setting of car repair shop, schoolhouse, church and various close neighbours. More dialogue-driven than many first-person voice novels, Seeing Red is eminently adaptable for stage or film.
I still have the pleasure of reading this author’s previous novels ahead of me, including the award-winning Mockingbird, and that’s good to know. If there’s any justice, Seeing Red will win awards too, and result in a significant increase in UK awareness of Kathryn Erskine and her work.

 

Red

Libby Gleeson

Hodder

9781444917307

February 2014

paperback

Finished

A taut and gripping thriller from the award-winning Australian author, Libby Gleeson. [The book was first published in Australia in 2012, where it won the 2013 Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Children’s Fiction.]
It opens in the aftermath of a cyclonic storm that has wreaked havoc on Sydney. A young girl comes back to consciousness smothered in mud.

Mud. In her mouth, her nose and eyes. Mud in her hair and caked on her neck and her arms. Mud filling her shoes and seeping through her clothes.

She can remember little from her past. A boy called Peri befriends her and piece by piece helps her regain some recollection of her past. Things start to become clearer when she sees a photo in the ruins of her old primary school.
She was mumbling “jaymartinjaymartin” as she regained consciousness and this mantra gains in significance as the story unfolds and Red has to attempt to deliver a memory stick storing highly sensitive information about organised crime to the Supreme Court in Melbourne.
I have to say it’s a pleasure to read a novel told in what, until recently (with the prevalent use in YA novels of the continuous present voice), has been the conventional 3rd person past.
This isn’t a novel that is going to change your life. But it will entertain and thrill you. Not a word has been wasted in the telling.
In short, highly recommended.

 

Roof Toppers

Katherine Rundell

Faber and Faber

9780571280599

March 2013

278pp

Whole book read

Katherine Rundell’s extraordinarily well-received debut novel, The Girl Savage, passed me by but my expectations of this, her second novel, could not help but be raised by all the enthusiastic comments about that first book filling the back page of the publicity sheet.
The writing is lucid and the chapters are short. Structurally I found the narrative a bit loose; somewhat languid. I wanted to hurry it along. I didn’t feel enough was happening.
Sophie, as a young girl, survives the sinking of a passenger ship. She is, apparently, the only female survivor – found, as a baby, floating in a cello case in the middle of the English Channel. The man who lifts her into the rescue boat – a fellow traveller and scholar – becomes her guardian. The early part of the book concerns the difficulty Charles has in persuading the authorities that he is the right person to fulfil that role.
Sophie becomes convinced that her mother was a musician on the ship that sank; convinced also, against all the evidence, that she survived.
Once the action moves to Paris – by which time Sophie is considerably older – I expected the mother-searching to begin in earnest. Instead, the middle part of the novel is taken up with the relationship between Sophie and Matteo, a ‘rooftopper’. Charles believes in freedom, so effectively gives Sophie his blessing to wander the rooftops of Paris all through the night with an unknown friend. Hmmm. Well, it is set in a different period of time, not the present, so I guess we can suspend disbelief.
But I did find myself becoming restless in this section of the book. Rundell seems to fall into the trap of becoming beguiled by her new character and the whole notion of roof-dwelling and too set on evoking the thrill of this lifestyle without actually moving the narrative along.
Matteo is eventually the agent who leads to a satisfactory conclusion to the quest, but it does not come about in any emotionally involving way. (There is a brief sequence of gang rivalry, with knives flashing, and the heroine kicking someone in the crotch, but this sequence is so out of character with the rest of the story that it appears merely gratuitous.) The finale is picturesque and seen from a distance, through Charles’s eyes. It is over too quickly, and left me feeling frustrated. I could imagine the much better, more engrossing novel it could have been. It would have taken some reworking, some rewriting. But it would have been worth it.
I’m giving it four chicks, even though my review reads as if it deserves fewer, because it could so nearly have become a very fine five-chick read.>>

 

Bartoleme, The Infanta’s Pet

Rachel Van Kooij

Little Island

9781908195265

September 2012

200pp

Whole book read

Little Island Press is an Irish publisher of quality fiction by Irish and international authors for older children and teenagers. Rachel Van Kooij, as her name suggests, is Dutch-born, but lives in Austria and writes in German. The book being reviewed was first published in 2003 and has only recently become available in an English translation (by Siobhan Parkinson).
This is a wonderfully well-paced and realised story about a young deformed dwarf who, at the start of the book, is growing up in the Spanish countryside with a father absent for long periods working in the royal court in Madrid.
All changes when the father announces that the family is to up sticks and move to the city to be with him. But he does not want to take Bartoleme with them, fearing the boy will only be ridiculed and be nothing but a source of embarrassment for the family. Eventually he agrees that Bartoleme can come, but only if he remains hidden from view at all times.
The first half of the book concerns this hidden life, and Bartlome’s determination to better himself and prove himself to others by learning to read and write. However, when an accident exposes him on the streets he is spotted by the young princess – the Infanta – who mistakes him at first for a dog, and insists on it becoming her pet plaything.
The back of the eye-catching book jacket shows a scene from Valasquez’ painting Las Meninas, the significance of which becomes cleverly apparent towards the end of a novel which is thought-provoking, moving, entertaining, life-enhancing and powered by a dignified narrative momentum. This is a book that takes the reader beyond their present-day experience and presents them with the issues faced by those who have a handicap or are otherwise physically very different from most other people.
The father is insensitive and unfeeling and has a thuggish streak – there is one upsetting scene of domestic violence – but is never depicted as a pure brute.>>