Monthly Archives: January 2006

The Chronicles of Faerie: The Hunter’s Moon

O. R. Melling

Amulet Books

1904442714

Oct 2005

American Gwen and her Irish cousin Findabhair (pronounced ‘finn-ah-veer’) are sixteen, soul-mates, on the threshold of womanhood but still innocent enough to half-believe that they might achieve their childhood goal of finding a doorway into the Faraway Country. It is not the fairies at the bottom of the garden whom they seek, but an altogether wilder and more dangerous breed. Ostensibly on a bus tour of Ireland (parents have to be pacified in order to be put out of the picture) but in fact prepared to be more reckless in search of their goal, the two are quickly involved in a wild game of hide and seek where one of them inhabits a different realm from the other.
What awaits them is passion, fear, loyalty and friendship in unlooked-for places. In short, all the elements of a fantasy adventure but shaken up and given a new, female-friendly slant. I would have gobbled this up as a teenager (and have to confess that I gobbled it up as an adult). It is the first in a series, so watch out for more. Highly enjoyable, with a tinge of the uncanny and a large injection of teen-sized romance.

Let’s Get Lost

Sarra Manning

Hodder Children’s Books

0340877014

Feb 2006

“The way I see it, school is like on of those documentaries about big cats on the Discover Channel. It’s maul or be mauled. It’s not fair. It’s not right. It just is what it is. I spent two years of middle school having my lunch money stolen and my clothes, hair and teen, tiny, almost unnoticeable lisp mocked by a bunch of girls who were bigger and uglier than me. So when I got to senior school, it was beyond time to reinvent myself.”

In Isabel Sarra Manning has created what surely must be one of the most caustic and insular characters in teenage literature. Her torrent of acerbic and intimidating remarks towards the beginning of the novel make it difficult to identify or empathise with her. What becomes apparent is that Isabel is not only highly intelligent, but that she is also sensitive, however, much her endeavours might attempt to shroud that. It is these facts that pull her apart from partners in crime, Nancy, Ella and Dot.
A case of mistaken identity forms the basis for a relationship between Isabel and Atticus ‘ Smith to his friends! It is through being close with Smith, that Isabel finds herself able to confide more honestly elements of her feelings and eventually of her past, but this rests on the premise of a single lie ‘ that Isabel is 18. Inevitably, in true soap-opera-style Smith learns of this lie (courtesy of Isabel’s ever ‘amiable’ friends) the relationship unsurprisingly deteriorates with Smith unsure of which parts of Isabel’s character he can believe or find truth in
The plot of this novel does ‘ at points ‘ make one feel that one has fallen asleep in front of the television and awoken in front of an averagely scripted episode of Hollyoaks, but then this is the audience the novel is aimed towards. Where ‘Let’s get lost’ excels is in the plausibility of her teenage protagonists, their fears, anxieties, loves and laughter are detailed with extraordinary perception, as too are the politics of the school-yard. Parts of the novel are quite ‘adult’, but given the content of teenage magazines again this is in context with the novel’s audience. Sarra Manning has crafted that rare thing, a novel that is insightful and observant, whilst remaining a truly compelling read. Bravo!

Blart

Dominic Barker

Bloomsbury

074758074X

Feb 2006

Irresistibly irreverent, ‘Blart’ is one of those all-too-rare, laugh-out-loud books. A hapless sort of a chap, Blart, our eponymous protagonist and unlikely hero is a pig farmer by trade and all things porcine certainly form the basis for his comfort-zone. Together with the cantankerous wizard, Capablanca, blowhard warrior, Beowulf and petulant Princess Lois, Blart unwillingly becomes a part of the motley crew who aim to do battle against evil over-lord Zoltab and the minions and Ministers who seek his return.
Wreaking havoc at every point of their voyage and leaving in their wake a trail of, for the most part accidental, death and destruction ‘ quarterised pet dragons and a couple of very flat dwarves – one would be forgiven for imagining the future of the world not to beentirely within safe hands.
Despite the varied and various misfortunes that befall our heroes, through a series of coincidences things amazingly fall together towards the end of this misadventure in a way that has to be read to be believed. Whether in the Cavernous Library of Ping, or the Even More Cavernous Library of Zing, Blart is the most unlikely hero you’re likely to read about any time soon ‘ essential reading for anyone with fantasy leanings and a sense of humour!

Castles

Colin Thompson

Hutchinson Children’s Books Ltd

0091884861

Jan 2006

Part rant, part review, part plea for revolution’

Rant
Whatever else, we are surrounded by stories. News stories – national and international, gossip from gathered groups on street corners, astrological predictions, scientific assertions ‘ an essential constituent of our civilisation is concern with what happens next‘ We have unique capacities to communicate lives and surroundings, to make ourselves feel secure in the safety, or shocked and scared ‘ possibly scarred ‘ by stories’ With ancient petroglyphs and paleoglyphs as ancestral heritage, picture books show wonderfully dynamic ways of capturing and recording tales through dialectics of text and illustration.
It is easy to see the present always as sequential within development, as the zenith of achievement. The ‘Golden Age’ of children’s literature is symptomatic of such thinking. Children’s literature being located in a ‘Golden Age’ necessitates a culture whereby its contributions and worth are valued by all. Central to this, all exponents bringing literature ‘ in its many modern guises and forms ‘ to the masses must realise their respective positions working together to provide unilateral and unfragmented environs so supporting not only readers, but also the many producers who, through shared visions, bring us the range and diversity of literature now considered commonplace. When successfully achieved this is remarkably potent and powerful, when misaligned ramifications are far-reaching and arguably catastrophic. The decision of one major chain of bookshops to drastically restrict its selection of picture books sends ripples across the whole of the children’s literature world, impacting most dramatically upon children whose access to the range and diversity of styles and approaches to storytelling becomes restricted to that which is made visually available.
Review
From the symmetry of end-papers inwards, ‘Castles’ is most carefully crafted. Delineation between that which is made visible and that constructed as out of view forces dynamism in the acts of reading, interpretation and imagination. A framed doorway invites us into the body of the book proper and readers are instantly propelled into the self-referential world of Colin Thompson with vignettes from previous work ‘The Violin Man’ ‘ a wonderful Honour Book in the Australian Children’s Book Council Awards that remains despairingly unavailable in the United Kingdom ‘ biographical photos from Thompson’s childhood (see www.colinthompson.com for details)and the ever-familiar Caf’ Max.
Fairy tale allusions abound with references to Kings, Queens, Princes and Princesses and a quest is placed before adventurous readers as the voyage around the fantastic and fantastical castle begins proper!
Animal, vegetable, mineral’ earth, fire, air, water’ all are explored as potential sites for the structuring and later sightings of castle. There are mythical and magical feels to this epic picture book. Readers are provided with worlds whose inhabitants have crafted their surroundings from things that matter and hold meaning for them. There are puzzles, mazes, a myriad of minutiae for discerning readers to perceive.
Castles are seminal architectures in the history of the United Kingdom; Celtic strongholds, Roman Forts, Norman Castles these stalwart buildings mark many defining moments in forging the fundaments of nationhood. It is apt therefore that Thompson should explode these outwards into the realms of the possible, the potential and the perhaps impossible also’ Like Italo Calvino in ‘Invisible Cities”, Colin Thompson in ‘Castles’ re-structures logocentric truths and fantasies to create impressive landscapes comprising a multiplicity of narrative strands.
‘Castles’ is a book that demands reading and re-reading rewarding this with its richly good-humoured verbal and visual play. Careful readers will spot sea-saws, gravyboats, references to almost all Thompson’s previous work and much, much more also… Here is a book that encourages exploration, that enriches and enlivens all imaginations. Colin Thompson has crafted his Magnum Opus.
Plea for Revolution
This is truly a book that deserves home on every book-shelf across the land, in every heart of every child and adult. I have a dream that ‘Castles’ might start a quiet, bloodless and bookish revolution, people power for the picture book’

The Hand of the Devil

Dean Vincent Carter

Bodley Head Children’s Books

0370328833

Feb 2006

“It occurred to me long ago that what scares us most isn’t death, disease or nuclear war. What’s most terrifying isn’t the world outside, but the world inside.”

Receiving an intriguing letter from a Mr Reginald C. Mather, journalist Ashley Reeves sets off on an expedition to Tryst in the Lake District in pursuit of an exclusive story about the Ganges Red mosquito for magazine ‘Missing Link’. His arrival at Tryst is marked by an imminent rainstorm and on his journey across to Mr Mather’s island, Ashley looses control of his boat colliding it into rocks. Shattering on impact, Ashley is thrust into the cold waters of the lake and swims towards the island, arriving with a soaked, broken mobile phone and no immediate means for leaving the island’
The story moves on apace from this point forward and author Dean Vincent Carter proves himself a master of the genre displaying a true understanding of the terrors of one’s internal world and gradual corrosions of control… Mr Mather seems the archetypal, if not eccentric, entomologist. He is learned in insects, theories of evolution and also the legends surrounding the exceptionally sized Ganges Red mosquito ‘ an insect the size of a human hand and capable of secreting an agonising toxic saliva that aids the creatures blood ingestion. Paternal scenes where Mr Mather’s brings in cups of tea echo the extreme juxtaposition of psychosis with seeming geniality meaning character leanings of Mr Mather’s are as shocking and atypical as those of Hitchcock’s Norman Bates’
Central use of the mosquito is a touch of genius, the blood-sucking is reminiscent of the most traditional Vampiric horror stories, yet the more grounded use of an insect sets this story firm amidst the consciousness. ‘The Hand of the Devil’ is a multi-dimensional story. On one level it can be read as a taut and particularly gruesome, gripping and, in points, graphic horror story. On a more figurative footing, the story of the Ganges Red mosquito charts the horrifying ways in which love that is lost can manifest itself when a failure to grieve and to arrive at some sort of solace in one’s thoughts arises whilst at once being, in parts, genuinely touching. A true gore-fest, read this book and you’ll never see mosquitoes in quite the same way again’!

Yakov and the Seven Thieves

Madonna

Puffin Books

1904442714

Oct 2005

When is a children’s book not a children’s book? The question is neither as facetious nor as frivolous as it might first appear. With the publication of an increasing number of ‘celebrity’ written stories purportedly for children, the alleged new ‘cross-over’ market and the production of collectors’ editions of children’s books with a pricetag way beyond the means of the average child, when is a children’s book no longer for children?
One answer might be when it is written by Madonna! Yakov and the Seven Thieves is the third of Madonna’s five picture-books and sports the adage ‘for children (even grown up ones)’ – presumably because otherwise it might not be easy to discern. It is not difficult to criticise Yakov and the Seven Thieves. Even the title does not convincingly match the story, in which only five true thieves are depicted. It would be callous, however, to criticise too harshly as, whatever else, one suspects that the writing of these books was genuinely important to Madonna.
The stories, though overtly moralistic, are doubtless well-intentioned. Yakov and the Seven Thieves posits the thought-provoking idea that the ill-deeds of others are external manifestations of areas internal to us that we should seek to change, or that the text somewhat predictably tars as ‘bad’. The idea itself is intriguing and one that certainly warrants both consideration and debate. Whether a picture book in the United Kingdom (where, sadly, such books are seen on the whole only as an intermediary step towards learning to read) is the best milieu for such discussion is doubtful.
Has Madonna, the Queen of popular re-invention lived up to the reputation she has acquired for challenging her audiences? Both yes and no. Despite being resplendently illustrated, there is none of that good-humoured interplay between text and illustration that makes successful picture books at once stimulating and dynamic. Here. the relationship between both can only be described as sterile. The area in which Yakov and the Seven Thieves succeeds so laudably, alongside Madonna’s other children’s titles, is not only in drawing question to the nature, definition and indeed parameters of children’s literature ‘ always a worthy cause, if discussion and development in the field is to remain meaningful and responsive ‘ but also in bringing the marginalised picture book in the UK to a less strictly age-segregated audience. For both reasons Madonna should be praised.

Dinosaur Chase

Benedict Blathwayt

Hutchinson Children’s Books Ltd

0091892937

Feb 2006

Change allows us to meet our surrounding circumstances and thereby to survive’
Dinosaur Chase! is the fantastic new picture book by Benedict Blathwayt that allows small children’s imaginations to both soar and roar!
Fin and his dinosaur friends are playing – learning about the ways they can use their bodies. A gang of pre-historic bullies spoil the friends’ games and Fin leads them a chase across vistas and views of his prehistoric panorama. Gradually, through a process of elimination as members of the gang discover they can’t jump, swim and climb, the numbers diminish until there is a literal cliff-hanger for hero Fin!
What happens next is wonderfully liberating as Fin spreads out his arms to discover feathers and thereby to find that he can fly. Two beautifully detailed double page spreads celebrate his first ascent.
Blathwayt will be familiar to readers for his popular ‘Little Red Train’ series. What makes his books so accomplished is the multilayering of the stories. Each page of illustrations features detail to the n-th degree meaning readers can visit the book again and again each time discovering more.

Firestarter

Catherine Forde

Egmont Children’s Books

1405210567

Feb 2006

Catherine Forde’s novels have the emotional impact of a clenched fist to the stomach. She writes powerful prose that deliver firm blows. Three-year-old Annie is the lynch-pin in Firestarter, not because she contributes directly to the plot, but rather because she epitomises the dependency and innocence of early childhood, thereby setting a direct contrast with unpredictable and dangerous Reece Anderson, the eponymous Firestarter’
Reece is the latest in what we understand to have been a long line of delinquents to dwell with well-meaning Mrs Duff. When at the beginning of the novel he pops his head over the fence to look into his neighbour’s garden, he traverses the safe boundaries and parochial outlooks of ‘not-in-my-backyard’ mentalities’
The fuse for this fiction is lit and it sizzles swiftly! Keith, baby-sitting for younger sister Annie, becomes immediately concerned for her safety. Hee senses that Reece is not malicious but suspicions that he is dangerous are confirmed when he unwittingly sets fire to Annie’s beloved doll, Raggy.
Firestarter is an astutely observed novella whose dramatic conclusion forces readers to match their own attitudes against those of the characters in the book. The chilling and thought-provoking ending leaves a long-lasting soured aftertaste.

Whispers in the Woods

Mark Bartholomew ill. by Jan Evans

Educational Printing Services Limited

1904904610

Jan 2006

It is exciting stumbling unexpectedly upon a book that catches one unaware, making one both think and feel in a different way than before. Whispers in the Woods is such a book. It is a traditional and at once quiet tale that looks back to medieval life and traditions, in so doing offering peace and solace from the hustle and bustle of modern life.
Taking the legendary green children of Woolpit as its inspiration, Whispers in the Woods deftly takes its child protagonists Fern and Hickory on a quest for ultimate self-knowledge and acceptance. What is so admirable in this is the way the tale captures the mood, music, movement and motions of medieval English life whilst covertly questioning issues of nurture and nature in the two children’s development.
The gentle narration and the endearing depiction of Fern and Hickory make this a likeable and comforting story. That is not to say the tale is not also resonant. The children’s persecution by witchfinder Silas of Wickham draws parallels with race issues of the present day. Similarly, the children’s relationship with nature stimulates thinking about our contemporary relationship with the environment. Interwoven into the tale are legends, folk-lore, a brief grounding in the origins of surnames and etymology, and an overview of mediaeval castle life.
On a purely practical level, production values on some of the illustrations are low, preventing them from properly complementing the text. The inclusion of a glossary is useful in providing an understanding of some of the more specialised language.
A welcome addition to the bookshelf.

The Wind Tamer

P. R. Morrison

Bloomsbury Children’s Books

074757950

Feb 2006

The Wind Tamer is distinctively sensual. First time author P. R. Morrison has a wonderful knack for grounding her prose with strong imagery. The brilliant pure white Ice Gulls against the bleak darkness of Westervoe in coastal Scotland and the slam and screech, whistle and roar of the wind make for a hugely atmospheric and at times filmic backdrop to an unusual novel that sweeps readers into its richly imaginative world of suspense and intrigue.
Archie Stringweed is turning ten; there’s a suspicion amongst his family that life will never be the same again’ Several generations ago a curse was put on the Stringweed family and early on in the novel a terrible transformation takes place. A web of curiosities and mysteries involving green balls of light, talking gusts and blusters of wind, clouds of white birds, a huge amount of snow, a couple of coins and the sudden appearance of eccentric and well-travelled Uncle Rufus all come together as part of the conflict with the tornado Huigor.
The main strength of this novel is its castlist of colourful and unconventional characters. They are painted with verve and good humour and each has their own particular anxiety to overcome. It is how they do this and the type of bravery they display that makes the novel both heartening and admirable. At times the onslaught of different and discursive story-elements leaves the reader feeling slightly wind-swept, but this is a book that will quench the thirst for action and adventure of even the most thrills-desperate child.