Monthly Archives: November 2006

Girl, Missing

Sophie McKenzie

Simon and Schuster

1904442714

Oct 2006

Fourteen year old Lauren is struggling to make an identity for herself, made more difficult by the knowledge that she was adopted as a small child. She soon becomes obsessed with learning more about the circumstances of her adoption and sets out to find her biological parents. Increasingly alienated from her adoptive family, hazy memories and hard evidence begin to emerge, suggesting that she may have been abducted from an American family and illegally adopted. Lauren is willing to risk everything to learn the truth.
Girl, Missing works best when read as a thriller/ suspense novel. It has an intriguing and unusual premise that was inspired by a real-life missing child case. However, I think that it also taps into one of the enduring archetypes of children’s literature, of the perilous quest that reveals secret identities and a hidden heritage/parentage. A stronger sense of place would have added another dimension to this story; more could have been made of Lauren’s journey from England to New England in search of her family. Lauren is not a particularly sympathetic character, but is probably more plausible because of this (some of the plot devices I found less plausible!). However, the descriptions of Lauren’s instinctive kindness towards her little sister were genuinely touching, and left me wanting more insight into her emotional development.

Blowout

Susan Vaught

Bloomsbury

074758284X

September 2006

The art of the review is often to circle gently around the crux of the novel without ever giving away the ending. Unfortunately the ending is at the heart of this novel. So in the immortal words of pre-internet newsreaders everywhere, if you don’t want to know the result, look away now.
Blowout is a book about a failed suicide. Jersey Hatch is an ex-jock and golden boy who for some reason took it upon himself to put his dad’s gun to his head and press the trigger.
Although he survived he’s not done himself any favours. Consequences include a loss of verbal control and his short-term memory is’ erm shot.
The narrative follows his journey to try and discover just why he might have done such a terrible deed. Blowout tells of his attempts to re-establish his relationships with those who might be able to help him discover more about his state of mind that terrible day.
And while Jersey’s emotional struggle with his situation and continuing dark thoughts is well recounted, some of the supporting characters, notably his mother, are defined solely by their anger.
The author clearly knows her facts, Susan Vaught is a clinical psychologist based in the States where the most common method of adolescent suicide is shooting (in the UK it’s a drugs overdose). She’s treated survivors so she knows just what the consequences, both physical and emotional, are.
A central theme of the book is dispelling the myth that people only commit suicide for big reasons. Blowout explores ‘the effect that such a terrible act has on family, friends and the person holding the gun’.
The trouble is that while this may be factually correct, the build up to Jersey’s search for reasons leads you to expect the exact opposite. In the end knowing that the reasons behind his actions don’t seem that significant gives a deflating aspect to an optimistic ending.
Books that attempt to fictionalise a ‘condition’ will inevitably be compared to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. This is an interesting read but it’s not in that class.

Alone on a wide wide sea

Michael Morpurgo

HarperCollins Children’s Books

0007230567

Sep 2006

‘We were brought up to know our duty. ‘Suffer little children to come unto me,’ the good Lord said. So we are doing his will, and this we shall train you to do as well. A child is born sinful and must be bent to the will of God. That is now our task.’

Taking its title from ‘The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’, Michael Morpurgo’s latest novel focuses on an autobiographical account of Arthur Hobhouse, a man who relates his boyhood but who is unable to provide the beginning to these story for his story remains incomplete at the time when he writes.
With little more than a vague memory of a sister called Kitty, Arthur Hobhouse’s voyage from childhood to a period of forced responsibility to secure his development and future begins. He journeys by ship from Liverpool to Australia to begin a new life.
On arrival in Australia, Arthur is taken to the farmstead of Mr Bacon, a religious fanatic whose fervent faith and the unquestioning nature of his own righteousness makes for a prohibitive and highly volatile environment against which Arthur and his friend Marty grow up.
After eventual escape, the boys are saved from severe dehydration and starvation by Aborigines. Touching scenes arise whereby despite language and cultural barriers, the boys befriend the Aboriginal children and are able to play with them.
Through a series of successes and saddening tragedies, readers follow Arthur’s life to adulthood and to eventual death. A shift in perspective sees his daughter, Allie, take up the narrative and indeed the challenge to learn more about her father’s origins in a voyage of great personal and familial discover.
Perhaps Morpurgo’s most powerful writing in the past, and indeed within this book, arises from a justifiable moral anger and outrage at situations that preclude the ‘natural’ development of the child. In a cultural climate that has begun to openly question the effects modern society has upon ‘the child’, exemplified in Sue Palmer’s ‘Toxic Childhood’, this is a timely and thought provoking novel highlighting the plight of child migration.

The One Tree

David Pierce Hughes, ill. Richard Perrot

Seasquirt Publications

1905470185

Nov 2006

‘I knew you would not let me down. I knew that one day you would come and help me to grow back into a tall strong tree.’

This highly illustrated work paints human worries and preoccupations as transitory against the span of existence that trees have traversed. Impressive in magnitude, it charts the millions of years that trees have grown, been maligned by ice sheets and fire, but yet have struggled to survive. It maps out the millions of years over which evolution advanced. It arrives at a present day that is at once timeless and enduring.
At the heart of this present day, not far from anywhere yet near somewhere, stands a lone tree. This touching tale tells of the special kinship and closeness that develops between the tree and a boy. The tree sees the good and the utility in all things and from him the boy is able to learn and, at last, to no longer feel lonely.
When the boy and his family are due to move to a new town hundreds of miles away, the boy resolves to visit his friend one final time. Torn into the hillside, however, are deep tyre tracks and when the boy arrives, all that is left of the tree are a few roots and broken branches, the tree has been cut down.
Timescale shifts again within the work and the boy becomes a man and grows older, never able to feel fully at home or at ease. Eventually he journeys back to the site where his friend tree used to live and weeps at the memory of all they had and shared. The tears feed the earth and from it grows a shoot of a tree that grows firm and strong.
Centred around man’s relationship to his environment and the key importance of remaining responsive to this in all of our actions, ‘The One Tree’ is an unusual, highly distinctive, timeless tale. Richard Perrott’s earthy, organic illustrations wonderfully augment the story and the vivid green of new growth adds considerably to the sense of mysticism and magic engendered within nature’s vitality.

Politics: Cutting Through the Crap

Bali Rai, ill. Chris Riddell

Walker Books

1844287785

Sep 2006

A humorous and thoroughly humane guide to politics. Necessarily implicated through his own politicised opinions and views, Bali Rai’s candid explanations of the mechanics of politics are both engaging and accessible. Together with expert illustrations by Chris Riddell, who as political cartoonist for ‘The Observer’ is no apprentice to illustrative political satire, Bali Rai provides an insight into systems of governance.
Divided into two distinct sections, in the first of these Rai imparts an introduction to politics, explaining its application and constituent parts in the United Kingdom. An overview is given of the major political parties, of political ideologies and the relationship between politics and the media. The second part of the book arose from responses to a questionnaire Rai held with young people whereby he probed whether there were other areas of politics they would like to know about. A succinct outline of the Iraq war, the war on terror, global warming, education, racism, asylum and immigration are provided within this portion of the book.
Written in the demotic, it is hard not to feel at points that the profane use of language will not detract from some of the lucid points being raised here for some readers. Whereas in Rai’s novels this lends credibility to his characters and the situations they are implicated within, here it may serve to marginalise his work from key sectors of the market, most particularly perhaps in more staunchly traditional education settings.
As well as the clear elucidations that he presents, one of the most enviable elements of the book is the way Rai stimulates and challenges further thinking on the part of readers. This is aided through provision of a list of web-sites and books. Rarely have politics been presented so palatably and with less jingoism and jargon.

Star Dancer

Beth Webb

Macmillan

1405091754

Sep 2006

‘I will find a way to take the power I deserve, he thought. Even if it means I have to work in the dark.’

Ancient magic, mysticism and darkness run rife through Beth Webb’s debut novel, the first in a quartet, ‘Star Dancer’. An evil is coming and it has been prophesised that a Star Dancer will protect the people. The Star Dancer is to be born beneath the stars and Druids are awaiting the fulfilment of the prophecy, praying to the spirits and the Goddess.
Tegen, child of Clesek and Nessa, is born beneath the stars, brought into this world by Gilda, but the possibility of her being the Star Dancer is rejected by and is abhorrent to Witton, chief druid, and his followers who cannot except the role who might be executed to a woman. Preferring to believe themselves to have been forgotten and left without salvation rather than to accept the truth, fear and apprehension predominate within their society.
On discovery of her ability to dance, Tegen begins to realise and to practice her powers. So it is that when Witton falls ill and his death seems inevitable, Tegen is able to nurse him back to health.
The sonorous nature of Webb’s prose together with the complex and convoluted relationships she intertwines between persons in the novel makes for an at once rewarding and absorbing read. Skilful craftsmanship imbues the natural with an energising electro-static charge’ here is a book with a genuine buzz!

The Emperor of Absurdia

Chris Riddell

Macmillan

1405050616

Aug 2006

The commonplace and everyday form the backdrop to Chris Riddell’s latest solo outing, ‘The Emperor of Absurdia’. Extending the intriguingly imaginative worlds established in his earlier works such as ‘Horatio Happened’ and ‘Mr Underthebed’, ‘The Emperor of Absurdia’ is firmly grounded amidst the familiar landscape of a child’s bedroom.
Elevated to monarchical standing, the Emperor of Abusrdia awakes from a most extraordinary dream to be ably assisted in the act of dressing by a wardrobe monster, alas however, it becomes apparent his scarf is missing, a scarf hunt is embarked upon, the fruits of which are the finding of his snuggly scarf in the nest of the pointy bird.
During lunch, the Emperor’s egg hatches into a dragon that flies off. Ensnared within the excitement, the Emperor now embarks upon a dragon hunt. After riding his trusty tricycle through the flower beds, the umbrella trees, the pillow hills and over the bouncy mountains, the Emperor is on the verge of giving up when he spots a series of footprints leading to a deep dark cave, the contents of which lead to an Emperor hunt!
There is a wonderful sense of absurd symmetry as the Emperor is chased back across the bouncy mountains, through the pillow hills, under the umbrella trees and towards the flower beds. Saved by the pointy bird who captures the Emperor’s snuggly scarf in his beak, the Emperor makes a bid for freedom, tumbling through air into the arms of the Wardrobe monster. Deciding to look for his scarf again tomorrow, the Emperor goes to sleep and has the most extraordinary dream bringing the tale neatly to its conclusion but also back to its beginning.
Much pleasure is to be had looking at the bedroom and determining those objects which branch off into the surreal to form the dreamlike land of Absurdia. Observant readers will discern the details of the endpapers as they spring from the apparently sombre and sobre to the delightfully lively and diverse. From beginning to end – and back again! – this is a picture book that will enthrall, enrapture and enrich with its enchanting depiction of the imaginative worlds of early childhood.

The Yuk Factor

Tracey Turner

Hodder Children’s Books

0340917148

Sep 2006

A little knowledge can sometimes go a long way’! Have you ever wondered how many decibels the loudest burp on record registered? Are you eager to learn which animal urinates down its legs to keep cool? Could you stand to learn about the horrible habits of the frigate birds?
If you want to avoid the perils of luncheoning on head-cheese, ensure you’re not subject to the vomit-inducing Scottish cure for worms or circumvent a trip on a ‘violet cart’ ‘The Yuk Factor’ is essential reading.
Impress your friends with your wide, varied and frankly disgusting diction with key terms such as entomophagy, micturation and oncychophagia. With four hundred questions covering all you could ever hope to know ‘ and a great deal you really would rather not ‘ about the gruesome, the grim, the grotesque and the grisly, ‘The Yuk Factor’ is guaranteed to inject bilious brilliance to any quiz. Though indigestible, this informative book will make an indelible mark upon mind and memory… Doubtless most would be diabolically delighted to find it lurking at the bottom of their Christmas stockings!

The Making of Me: A writer’s childhood

Robert Westall ed. Lindy McKinnel

Catnip Publishing

1846470080

Sep 2006

‘there is a freedom in ghostliness. You break the surface of life and let the underside come out. If even life is a flat plane, the ghastliness gives depth and height. It’s a new dimension.’


Without question one of the foremost talents in contemporary children’s literature, the collection of memories and reflections that have been sensitively collated and assembled to form ‘The Making of Me’ offer unique insight, awareness and allow greater understanding of the formative years of writer Robert Westall offering a rare glimpse at the root of many of the concerns and preoccupations rooted throughout his body of writing.
A remarkable book, in equal parts because of its method of conception and its content, the musings and memories collected here make for a remarkable legacy. Upon Westall’s premature death in 1993, his literary agent Laura Cecil and partner Lindy McKinnel discovered several autobiographical pieces amongst his papers. Placed in chronological order alongside previously published autobiographical stories, the collection provides the closest equivalent to an autobiography for Robert Westall and offers a fascinating and rare insight into the author’s childhood and the ongoing influences this exerted over his writing.
This a book to be relished by aficionados of one of the most extraordinarily diverse, prolific yet consistently assured children’s authors of the past century, it is a book to be valued by scholars and an invaluable resource that needs to be read by all with an interest in the field and development of children’s literature.
An inspiring and life-affirming work, it has stimulated a new desire to re-read a number of Robert Westall’s novels again, an opportunity in itself aided by publisher Catnip who have simultaneously made a new edition of Westall’s supernatural thriller, ‘The Wind’s Eye’ available.

Nemesis: Into the Shadows

Catherine MacPhail

Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

0747582688

Sep 2006

‘I could recognise the places on these walls: a map of the British Isles, another of the Middle East, the countours of Australia. How could I remember that? Had I travelled to these places? Where had I learned about them? But nothing came. No matter how hard I concentrated, nothing came. Not even the sliver of a memory.’

Urban, gritty and urgent in pace and tension, Catherine MacPhail’s first novel in her new ‘Nemesis’ series, ‘Into the Shadows’ asks as many questions as it answers, it cranks up levels of uncertainty, danger and desperation cleverly interspering the power that knowledge brings with the powerlessness that accompanies ignorance in whichever of its many forms…
Discovered in a lift with the victim of a murderous assault, things look bleak for Ram, who is unsure as to his identity, his past and, what with his current predicament of what his future might hold’ Unsure what to believe about himself, Ram becomes wanted as a suspect in the murder investigation, with a man purporting to be his father attempting to make contact and the murder victim’s true killers planning a deadly assassination attempt against him, the chase is on and the clock is ticking.
The net tightens around Ram in a manner that is excrutiatingly exciting. Much of the action takes place at nights upon the streets of Glasgow. This places bold, brilliant adventures against a black backdrop that makes a stunning visual impact upon the imagination. Heart-thumpingly paced adventure strands are skilfully interwoven with the tectonics of shifting self perception and self identity.
Catherine MacPhail has crafted that rare thing, a gripping and urgent thriller with staggering depth, motivation and characterisation. Many questions are left wholly or else part unanswered in readiness for the second novel in the ‘Nemesis’ series, which will be eagerly awaited’