Monthly Archives: November 2005

Snapshot

Robert Swindells

Barrington Stoke

184299347X

Oct 2005

Click. Victor takes a photo of a crime. Next thing he’s being followed. Someone wants those pictures. Someone with a gun.
This combination of unambiguous plot and short snappy sentences makes for a particularly accessible read.
Set in a grey world of tower blocks, stinking lifts and rainy streets, and peopled by blokes in baseball caps and puffer jackets, it will appeal to teenage boys who get into a certain kind of hard, urban cool.
Swindells strikes a good balance in his hero Victor. He’s disaffected enough to be tough but caring enough to be likeable.
Victor narrates the story in his own words ‘ colloquial language and slang designed to be easy to recognise and relate to. ‘Street language’ can be hard to write, it changes rapidly and what was right one day sounds wrong the next. But for the most part Swindells succeeds.
Boys often enjoy non-fiction and relish discovering gruesome information. Victor’s accidental involvement in a world of petty crime and murder should prove exciting stuff for such readers. They will also appreciate the fact that that the story is based on a real-life drama.
Barrington Stoke books aim to entice ‘disenchanted and under-confident readers’. Snapshot will do just that.

Clay

David Almond

Hodder

184509487X

Nov 2005

Since Counting Stars (a short story collection that can be viewed as a ‘Dubliners’ of the North-East), David Almond’s fiction has been set in the time of his own childhood, growing directly out of experiences he had as a young boy. In some ways there is a marked difference between this latest novel and early books like Skellig and Kit’s WIlderness. But the similarities are there too: the immaculate writing; the strange, mysterious individual, possessor of special powers, at the fulcrum of the story; the sense of menace; the intervening magic.
It did seem (I’m of the same generation as Almond) that there were a greater number of deranged, demented and scarifying individuals at large in the community in the late 1950s and early 1960s. More than one character in this book would, in a contemporary novel, have been counselled or (more likely) drugged into comparative quietude. This, coupled with the freedom that children had to wander around from dawn till dusk without parental paranoia (it really was like that then) makes it the perfect period to write about.
Almond’s fiction is special because it has a religious or spiritual layer. The main characters in this book are altar boys who, with typical adolescent mundanity, view their duties (at weddings and funerals) in the same regard as waiters serving at table, with an eye on the best tip. The damaged character is one who has been rejected by the Roman Catholic seminary, and yet, moulding figures out of clay, seems to have the divine power of investing the inanimate with life.
Like all great books, Clay contains tragedy, hope and a sense of right (or down-to-earth goodness) being wronged. It’s a reminder, if reminder is needed, that David Almond is the very best author at work in the field of YA fiction in the UK.
This is the first title on ACHUKAREVIEWS to be awarded five GOLD achukachiks.

Secret Scribbled Notebooks

Joanne Horniman

Allen&Unwin

1904442714

Oct 2005

Another addition to the already vast array of ‘coming-of-age diary’ novels written for teenagers, Secret Scribbled Notebooks tells of seventeen year-old Australian Kate O’Farrell, who is about to finish her exams, leave school and enter the world as a fully fledged proper grown-up. We follow her musings as she struggles to come to terms with her identity, (her parents abandoned her to be brought up by the owner of a guesthouse) falls in love with a ‘Russian Prince’ who lives in a garage and works in a second-hand bookshop, and adapts to a new life as an aunt when her older sister becomes a single parent.
It is always a struggle for authors of diary style novels to steer clear of becoming too prosaic and overly concerned with the tedium of everyday life. Writers such as Jennifer Donnelly and Dodie Smith handle it masterfully by the beauty of their writing, the lyricism and unique voices of their characters. Louise Rennison injects a huge burst of energy into her novels with spectacular wit and comic timing.
Sadly, on these counts, Joanne Horniman fails. There is nothing unique or engaging about this book or its characters, and by the end of the novel, I felt like nothing had really been achieved, realised, or concluded.

In The Morning

Michael Cronin

Oxford University Press

1904442714

Nov 2005

Adult books have often addressed the issue of how the history of the Second World War could have been very different. Robert Harris’s Fatherland is a classic of the genre while Philip Roth’s more recent The Plot Against America gives a US perspective.
Michael Cronin has used this idea in Against The Day, Through The Night and now the final part of the trilogy In The Morning. His premise is that Britain was invaded in 1940 and the new book follows Frank and Leslie’s battle for survival in the dying days of the regime. Thanks to American and Soviet success on the continent, the occupiers are being forced to withdraw.
The pair are now experienced guerrilla fighters and the book recounts their attempts to hamper German efforts to depart quickly and efficiently. Along the way they meet a cracking cast of secondary characters including a double-crossing actor, collaborating policemen and British Nazis.
At the heart of the book is the story of the resistance’s attempt to stop the German commander Gauleiter M’ller escaping to Germany. The climax comes with Frank held captive by the Careys, a family of rich British Nazis, in Wiltshire and Leslie working with a local guerrilla group who are trying to foil the commander’s plans.
Having not read the first two books in the trilogy some of what follows may be unfair. However, In The Morning is being promoted as a standalone novel as well as the concluding part of the story so it’s fair to point out that it feels to this reader as if there are too many loose ends being tied, marring an otherwise enjoyable plot.
The plus points are a succession of fast-paced events that start immediately on Page 1 when partisans blow up a train. If you’ve read the first two books you’ll probably race through it. If not, it might be best to start at the beginning.

Ingo

Helen Dunmore

HarperCollins

0007204876

Oct 2005

Ours is a land steeped in stories. Books which unite magical secondary worlds with our real landscapes, which can be found on a map, have a special appeal. Like legends which promise ‘look carefully ‘ Arthur lies there still’ they make young readers feel initiated into secret layers of reality that grown ups are too blind and too boring to notice.
Ingo is such a book. It begins with the mermaid of Zennor, a real carving you can find in a real church in Cornwall. A Cornish legend tells how Mathew Trewhella was bewitched with love for the mermaid, and plunged into the sea with her, never to be seen again. Dunmore’s heroine, Sapphire, also lives in Cornwall, and also knows a Mathew Trewhella ‘ her father. This is the tale of his disappearance, and Sapphy’s quest to find him, which leads her deep into the amazing underwater world of Ingo.
Following her brother Conor down to the cove near their cottage, she meets Faro ‘ one of ‘the Mer’ with the body of a boy and the tail of a seal. Faro gives Sapphy her first intoxicating taste of Ingo, and soon she is in danger of becoming hooked, and disappearing off the face of the earth just like her father.
The pull of the sea has always seduced women writers. The wave of recent mermaid books (Liz Kessler’s Emily Windsnap novels, Heather Dyer’s Fish in Room 11, not to mention the shoals of glitter-coated books for younger girls) testifies that female readers are still fascinated.
They will find this book a pleasingly easy read, thanks to its clear exposition and accessible language (Dunmore making a conscious effort to explain unfamiliar vocabulary). Yet there are also subtle depths here – when Faro stares at Sapphy’s legs and calls her ‘divided’ he sums up her soul as much as her body.
This opposition between the sea and the earth is beautifully depicted. Dolphin rides versus a pet dog. Surfing the currents versus tea and cake. Sapphy’s wild imagination versus Conor’s dependable practicality.
Sapphy’s imaginings and emotions are convincingly portrayed, especially her feelings towards her family – how it feels to be the younger sibling, always following behind, the ever-present loss and longing for her father, the yearning for the company of her over-worked mother. Children will also identify with her thirst for thrills and freedom.
The story picks up great pace towards the end of the book, ensuring that readers will be left eager to pick up the next part of this engaging trilogy.

Charley Feather

Kate Pennington

Hodder Children’s Books

1904442714

Oct 2005

Think Moll Flanders for the younger reader, but if that description puts you off, then consider this simply as an exciting story about thieves, highwaymen, gang warfare and disguise. It is 1739 and Charley Feather has just seen Dick Turpin hanged. This is a salutary experience as thirteen-year old Charley is a highwayman too, a member of a gang led by the notorious Jack Wild. When Wild is captured, Charley has to run and ends up heading for London with the suave ‘Frenchy’. He has a plan for survival which involves playing a dangerous game of trickery, and Charley is caught up in it.
This adventure story is an exciting and evocative tale of loyalty, betrayal and characters who are not what they seem. There is a real historic feel to the book, enhanced by chapter headings in the style of the mid-eighteenth century. Chapter Two for instance is subtitled: ‘In which I find a poor billet for the night, reflect on my murky past and ponder my uncertain future.’ While details like this add to the atmosphere, they do not get in the way of a fast-paced story. The many twists and turns of Charley’s fortune draw the reader on and the setting is sketched with a light, sure touch. Very convincing and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Century

Sarah Singleton

Simon and Schuster

1904442714

Oct 2005

I did say to Michael that, for obvious reasons, I wouldn’t review fellow Simon and Schuster authors (with the exception of my test review using the excellent Sea of Trolls), but having just finished Century I feel compelled to break the rule.
Except for the single page of (unnecessary) prologue there is a beautiful lack of scene-setting or explanation in this book. We have a bitter, frozen winter’s night in a dusty and decaying mansion. We have an odd shadowy family living out the night as if it was their day. We have ghosts and shades of other lives woven into the twilight world. We have a seamless passage of time, a well-practised routine ‘ boiled egg for evening ‘breakfast’, studies with the governess Galatea, moonlit walks out across the frosted lawns, pre-dawn bedtime stories in the nursery parlour ‘ that makes the succession of nights hard to tell apart. And at the centre we have Mercy and her sister Charity, creeping through this existence like ancient mechanical toys.
Yet Mercy has seen a different ghost for once, something new in this world of the totally familiar and unchanging. A woman caught under the ice in the distillery pond.
Like the slightest feathery kiss on Sleeping Beauty’s lips, the ghost’s appearance (and then a snowdrop hidden under her pillow when nothing grows outside) nudges Mercy just enough for her to yawn and stretch and wonder at the curiousness of her existence. Where are her memories? Where is the sunlight? Where is her mother?
The quality of the writing is such that the reader has been drawn easily into the drowsy, whispering nights, fascinated and a little spooked perhaps. But don’t assume that this is a simple ghost story. Mercy’s slight rebellion, which grows and grows in momentum, sucking all her family into a new course, reveals an explanation that is complex and challenging enough to belong to Douglas Adams or Red Dwarf, with a pinch of Doctor Faustus or Mrs. Coulter thrown in. It is a further tribute to the author that even this explanation comes to us utterly believably and with almost some sort of inevitability.
A deserving prize-winner, there is little to fault in this debut novel. I did look for a final twist at the end, but perhaps I was simply being greedy.

Outside In – Children’s Books In Translation

Deborah Hallford & Edgardo Zaghini

Milet

184509487X

Nov 2005

What a tremendous resource this is. It opens, after a short introduction by the editors and foreword by Philip Pullman, with a series of articles by a reviewer (Nick Tucker), a translator (Sarah Adams), an author (Lene Kaaberbol), an academic (Gillian Lathey), a publisher (Kalus Flugge) and others. Then there are the book recommendations themselves, organised in five age categories plus graphic novels, non-fiction, and dual language books. The last quarter of the book is given over to author and illustrator biographies and helpful resource and organisation details. Finally, there is a very good index.
Most guides of this type have to be produced on a shoestring of a budget and often appear in dowdy pamphlet format. This one has been designed and produced to an extremely high standard (it has benefitted from Arts Council sponsorship), with cover and inside illustrations by Pablo Bernasconi. An essential resource for anyone seriously interested in giving children the widest access to all that’s best in children’s books from around the world. More than being a handy signpost to what’s available today, this bright user-friendly production ought to serve as an incentive for publishers to produce an increasing number of books in translation in the future.

Watch Out for Sprouts! Poems, pictures, doodles and serious thinking.

Simon Bartram

Templar Publishing

1840113685

Oct 2005

Children who have met Bartram’s The Man on the Moon, or Dougal, The Deep Sea Diver, will already know that they are in for a treat with this concoction from the same author. Any parents who haven’t yet introduced their offspring to Bartram’s vivid colours and writing – well, what are you waiting for?
This collection of musings and poetry has all the trademark Bartram exaggeration, not to mention his equally trademark cornish-ware cups of tea. From the opener, “What Happened to the Pirate’s Eye?” we are immediately in Bartram-land, where the reader is always encouraged to look beneath the surface, and wonder why, for example, pirates always choose to keep one eye covered. In “Puddle Trouble” he explores just what kind of big trouble parents are referring to, when they say, “you are now in BIG trouble”. This is immediately engaging poetry, and full of ideas that children will recognise and feed off, as well. As inviting as burgers and chips, and nourishing as bright green vegetables.

Fly By Night

Frances Hardinge

Macmillan

1904442714

Oct 2005

Fly By Night is set in an imagined world (both similar to and different from eighteenth century England) and turns upon the fate of twelve-year old Mosca, the incorrigible goose Saracen and unscrupulous, highfaluting Eponymous Clent. For various reasons they are each reviled and so, seeking to escape their straitened circumstances, they become mired in the dangerous political plotting that afflicts the Fractured Realm.
On some levels, it’s very tempting to compare this book to Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy and to view headstrong, courageous Mosca as a literary ‘daughter of Lyra’. However, far from being an imitator, Frances Hardinge has the confidence and skill to tell her story in a voice that is delightfully idiosyncratic, witty and humane. You cannot fail to appreciate the sheer relish with which Hardinge uses language, conveying how dangerous, seductive and wonderful words (and books) can be. There is also a strong sense of genuine affection in her depiction of humankind in all its weirdness and whimsicality. Characters that are variously terrifying, ridiculous, magnificent and pitiable are all described with equal care and conviction.
A very impressive debut!