Monthly Archives: April 2006

Clair-de-Lune

Cassandra Golds

Orchard Books

1904442714

Oct 2005

A young balletomane, Clair-de-Lune, lives alone with her austere grandmother, Madame Nuit. Her mother (La Lune) died whilst dancing a dying swan ballet, and she has been mute ever since. Such overtly symbolic names emulate the methods of fairy tale, which sets the mood for this story.
The setting has an historical atmosphere (think Paris, 150 years ago). Clair-de-Lune lives in a very tall, very old building populated by artistes. It also hides a talking mouse, Bonaventure, who dreams of starting his own ballet school, and a magical secret doorway to a monastery by the sea. Here Clair-de-Lune meets Brother Inchmahome, who through sensitive listening and a series of probing questions, helps her to unlock her heart and her voice.
The “Ah, Reader!” style of narration and slight frou-frou factor (silk gloves, a King Charles spaniel called Chouchou, ‘the exquisiteness of a troupe of mice, dancing.’) will estrange a significant proportion of readers. Describing Clair-de-Lune’s lace collared dress, Golds notes: ‘It was’ not perhaps to everyone’s taste’. The same could be said of the book. Those who love ballet will adore hearing about the agonies and ecstasies of ‘The Dance’. But the emphasis on lady-like behaviour and genteel manners will not appeal to girls who like climbing trees or, I suspect, boys.
Bonaventure’s lengthy monologues (all his conversations with Clair-de-Lune are one-sided, after all) create a somewhat verbose read in places. And I couldn’t help thinking that the romantic tale of a talking mouse had been done before (in Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux). Golds asserts that ‘no one, to Bonaventure’s knowledge, had ever before’taught classical ballet to mice.’ Which of course put me in mind of Angelina Ballerina. The fascinating minutiae of mouse life (such as toothpick barres and toffee wrapper writing paper) have also been celebrated elsewhere, in Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge books. However, these familiar elements are fetchingly sewn together.
Golds’ narrative thread is straightforward ‘ the singular problem is Clair-de-Lune’s frustrated desire to talk. But as the story progresses an emotional depth unfolds. Characters who I had feared to be one dimensional reveal themselves to be credibly complex. Through them the powerful effects of loss and of love are perceptively explored. An allegorical message, that love is the most important thing in life, lifts the story to a philosophical plane. Some will read this as a moving exposition of sadness and solitude, laced with poetic metaphor, which is reminiscent of The Little Prince in its profundity. Some will find it all a bit too frilly.

The Foretelling

Alice Hoffman

Egmont

1904442714

Oct 2005

In a world where war dominates the media, and power and violence often go hand in hand, Alice Hoffman offers a timely reminder of the strength of mercy, humanity and compassion.
A fierce Amazonian tribe of women warriors battle for survival. Rain is destined to be their leader; she is the daughter of the queen, but she struggles against the cruelty and hatred demanded by her future role.
Bite size sections make the story easy to swallow, despite the serious and sometimes dark issues involved. The realities of war; brutality, murder, rape, are all there, but handled sensitively in terms of their emotional impact, rather than being disturbingly graphic.
Hoffman writes beautifully, her style blends the intimate feel of a diary with the authoritative tone of legend.
In traditional cultures rites of passage helped children to become adults. In a society lacking such rituals, it can be healing to enter, imaginatively, into a world where overt transitions do exist. Where things are simpler and deeper. Where dreams have significance, talismans have power, signs have meaning – the true magical essence of life is appreciated. Teenage readers will share a journey to womanhood which is spiritual as well as physical. With the strength of mind to follow her own heart, Rain provides an inspirational role model.
Carefully researched details about the uses of horses, bees, plants and minerals effectively evoke an ancient, nature-based culture. This earthy element should appeal to green teens. As will the fact that the publishers, Egmont, practise what they preach ‘ the text paper on both the paperback and hardback editions of this book comes from sustainable forests and is fully approved by the Forest Stewardship Council. The company also adheres to a fair trade Code of Conduct. Commendations to Egmont for this responsible approach to children’s book publishing.
The Foretelling triumphs because it transports you to another world, whilst its emotional truths matter in this one.
Soul food for teenage girls.

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.

Sweets

Sylvia Van Ommen

Winged Chariot Press

1905341024

Sep 2005

Made available in the English language through Winged Chariot Press, a unique publishing venture supported by the Arts Council England and aimed at brining European picture books to the English market, ‘Sweets’ is Dutch author, Sylvia van Ommen’s debut picture-book. It’s two-tone appearance is misleadingly unadorned and simplistic, for though instantly accessible, there is nothing simple about this narrative!
Joris and Oscar are friends who arrange to meet together in the park to share sweets and drinks and to ponder and share their thoughts and beliefs. Close examination of the home environs and world-views unique to both friends show us that Joris is drawn towards function whereas Oscar is drawn towards aesthetics.
These differences are indicative of the class antagonisms and struggles that Marx and Engels outlined within their ‘Communist Manifesto’ but union is enabled between the two because of technological advancement ‘ both friends are able to communicate with one another through use of mobile telephony.
Like many a philosopher before him, once in the park Oscar poses a conundrum that opens the gates to metaphysical enquiry:

‘Do you think there is something?’

So begins the friends’ eschatological enquiries about heaven, acceptance into an after-life, familiarity and of the unknown. If this sounds pretentious or outside the realms of the plausible for a picture book, at heart this is a deeply perceptive and sensitive story about the relationship between two friends, that relationship’s endurance and its respective partners’ ability to share.
It should be obligatory to read “Sweets”‘ it makes an excellent talking point which spring-boards to some fascinating debate. Here, in truth, is a book worthy of a cult following!

The Cafe on Callisto

Jackie French

Catnip

184647003X

Apr 2006

‘No, it’s not the moon Callisto that orbits Jupiter in our solar system. Callisto is a sun too, a gazillion light years from Earth, and Callisto 4 is the fourth planet away from that sun. All the other planets circling Callisto are either too hot or too cold for humans, but Callisto 4 is like Earth used to be, just about perfect.’

Catnip are a new publishing venture incorporating the established Happy Cat Books list. One of many exciting publications featured within their list this year is the award-winning Jackie French’s ‘Callisto’ series. Perhaps most familiar to readers in the UK as the author of the thought-provoking ‘Hitler’s Daughter’ Jackie French is an author whose breadth and diversity of work frequently broaches territory that is both challenging and uncharted!
Billed as a comedy and whilst being genuinely humorous, ‘The Caf’ on Callisto’ is as much a poetic treaty on the role the natural environment plays towards the healthy development of children. Sam and her dad live in a future Earth, twenty-five levels beneath the ground. They live not only in the darkness beneath the ground, but also in the shadow of the tragedy that befell Sam’s mother, an event that lead to the impetus for transporting the family towards the stars to be lost.
All of this alters when a caf’ becomes available on Callisto 4 and Sam and her chef father are able to claim residency in this brave, new inter-planetary world! Together the pair must make their living through selling food on a planet where food and its sharing is a cultural way of life’ Will they succeed and be able to carve a living for themselves?
Exposition on nature versus artifice and the eventual need to escape Earth to attain towards the natural locates the novel firmly in the realm of simulation and simulacra which Baudrillard hypothesised as constitutes of the hyperreal. Here is a science fiction work that glances forward to see the importance of our pastoral pasts’ Fans can look forward to its sequel ‘Space Pirates on Callisto’.

Doodlebug Summer

Alison Prince

A & C Black

0713675799

Mar 2006

‘We know what the things are now. Doodlebugs, people call them. Flying bombs’ They’re packed with explosive, and they work on a rocket motor that stops when it runs out of fuel. Sometimes they nose-dive and blow up at once, other times they glide for a long way, you never know.’


It is the paradoxical sense of knowledge and yet of malignant uncertainty that Alison Prince has captured so well in ‘Doodlebug Summer’. Set in Blitz-ravaged London environs in 1944, this deceptively complex, short novel pulls together narrative threads that provide an astute look at familial concern, the resultant impact of advancements in technological warfare upon civilians and a sensitive portrayal of the horrors imbued within themechanics of conflict rather than the villification of a set of people, or of an abject construct of ‘nationhood’ wholesale.

‘…the great, glossy concert grand pianos are made in Germany, the country we are fighting. There must be people there who like us, sick of the war.’

There’s a beautiful fullness in the symmetry between the opening and close of this novel as Katie and her friend Pauline climb their tree. The tree itself is grounded in the presents with far-reaching roots… from the boughs of the tree is a standpoint with an enviable panorama into the future.
‘Flash Backs’, the series within which ‘Doodlebug Summer’ sits is a collection of historical novels published by A & C Black with the aim of expounding key historical moments through strong short pacy reads. Useful historical notes are provided towards the rear of the novel, as too is a glossary of more speciailised areas of diction used in telling the story.

King Cudgel’s Challenge

Karen Wallace

A & C Black

0713675535

Apr 2006

‘This is the challenge! ‘First you must find the golden pack of cards! Next you must play the right game! Only then will you learn the secret that will keep you the kingdom! You have three days to complete the task and you must stay together all the time!’


‘The Crunchbone Castle Chronicles’ is a new series of engaging easy-reader novels published by A & C Black and written by Karen Wallace. This humorous series, opening with ‘King Cudgel’s Challenge’, marks a departure for Wallace from the deeply sensitive, character-based novels that explore issues of memory and identity for which she ha become most renowned.
King Cudgel has a problem ‘ or rather a pair of problems ‘ his trouble is twins, the positively petulant Prince Marvin and Princess Gusty Ox. Their reign of terror and terrorisation runs amok through the palace raining on reigning King Cudel’s parade.
At his wits end Cudgel invites his court wizard, pleasingly-onomatopoeically-named-Crackle, to set a challenge for the right royal sibling rivals and both pace and plot pick up with satisfying swiftness as completion of the challenge is attempted. Will Prince Marvin and Princess Gusty Ox ever get on? Will King Cudgel’s dream of a royal retirement to a place overlooking the sea come true and most unnerving of all, if unsuccessful in their efforts will Godric the Geek ascend to the throne at Crunchbone Castle?
Illustrated throughout by Helen Flook’s wonderfully expressive and anarchic snapshots of the action, this is a very promising start to a series aimed at engaging and developing independent reading. Fans to the series are able to eagerly anticipate the the second title ‘Prince Marvin’s Great Moment’ which is forthcoming…

Brilliant Brits: Boudicca

Richard Brassey

Orion Children’s Books

1842552341

Apr 2006

Richard Brassey’s ‘Brilliant Brits’ series continues with its eighth title, this time focusing on formidable Queen of the Icini, Boudicca. As with other titles in the series the book begins by exploring popular facts ‘ and sometimes fallacies ‘ about its subject. Then begins its account proper, pieced together from accounts by Roman historians Tacitus and Dio and corroborated through findings of archaeological artefacts.
Brassey’s illustrations have been carefully researched and provide a wealth of background detail that populates and brings to life the time and world-views surrounding Boudicca. Where this book is excels is in its clear presentation of the facts which are equalled with a consideration of historical accuracy and bias that must underpin theory of the subject.
Facts are as easily digestible here as they are accessible, a welcome addition to the collection and one that will readily augment the study of the Romans, a key component on the National Curriculum history syllabus for key stage two pupils.

Not Exactly Normal

Devin Brown

Eerdmans Books

0802852831

January 2006

They speak the same language and share a lot of our values but America is clearly not simply the home counties with better shopping.
Not Exactly Normal is a US tale for nine-year-olds and up. It’s the story about Todd Farrell who is interested in soccer, slightly confused by girls, particularly Leda from California and inspired by a Dead Poets Society style teacher at a slightly quirky school in New England.
That short pr’cis could easily be translated to a British environment and make an equally interesting read but the style and the characters would be very different.
In Devin Brown’s story the characters are more self-conscious and dare I say it more precocious than their UK counterparts would be. Religion is firmly at the centre of community life ‘ not a bad thing in itself ‘ but the way moral points are made seems overtly formal even simplistic.
At an age when their sisters are entering into the weird and wonderful world of Jacqui Wilson, the families in Not Exactly Normal will seem defiantly conventional and well, normal to boys in the UK.
The core of the book is Todd’s quest to write a school report on mystical experiences ‘ not something that features on the UK syllabus. After a poor performance in his previous project he’s determined to do better and resolves to have his own mystical experience.
He makes a lot of notes in the library, he plays a lot of soccer (sic), learns a bit about selflessness and inclusiveness and rescues his best friend from certain death in an icy river. Finally, however, he has his own mystical experience and can report back to his class.
This is a book about ideas rather than fast-paced plotting, a brave move in these days of Young Bond and Harry Potter. A cultural curiosity rather than a must read.

Katie Milk Solves Crimes and So on…

Annie Caulfield

Corgi Yearling Books

1904442714

Oct 2005

Despite the promise of the title, there’s not a whiff of a crime for at least six chapters. Instead leisurely scene setting and character introductions fill the pages. But if you can get through the slow start, you’ll be rewarded by some engaging situations and unexpected plot twists.
Katie starts boarding school hoping to have adventures. Night-time expeditions investigating rumours of mad nuns, and the mystery of an orphan girl who claims that her mother is really a supermodel, provide the excitement she craves.
The story is told in the first person. Katie’s chatty tone and frequent reflections on the world could either amuse or annoy. Stereotypically, teenagers speak with limited vocabulary and frequent repetition. Katie Milk’s voice has this real life ring, which makes for an easy read, but also means descriptions are not as rich as they might have been.
Occasionally, Caulfield seems to have used Katie’s youthful inexperience at narrating to cover some slightly awkward plotting. ‘Now, I expect you’re not supposed to do this ‘ to say about things going on that you didn’t know were going on at the time ‘ but I think it’s important for you to know the thing going on at the time that I didn’t know was going on at the time” This didn’t work for me.
What did work though were the well observed details which brought characters to life ‘ hair flicking Danielle was a particularly convincing show-off. Secrets and lies surrounding key characters add a puzzle element which readers will enjoy trying to untangle. And the resolution succeeds in tying all the loose ends neatly together, whilst still being unpredictable.