Monthly Archives: January 2007

Beware! Killer Tomatoes

Jeremy Strong

Puffin

0141320583

Jan 2007

‘Anyhow, I must have clipped the edge of the pyramid and it toppled over. The whole thing, thousands of tines of tomatoes. They came crashing down. It was horrible!’

With characteristic good humour and seeming irreverence, Jeremy Strong’s latest novel, ‘Beware! Killer tomatoes’ introduces Jack, a hapless individual whose catalogue of disasters include sitting upon the prongs of a fork ‘ ouch! ‘ swallowing a coin ‘ dangerous! ‘ and, most recently, crashing his bike into a parked car. These mishaps are affectionately termed by his family, Jackcidents.
Belying his most recent Jackcident is the real worry that Jack may unwittingly have killed somebody. His latest stay in hospital, accompanied by the clownish Liam and the surly Kirsty, is characterised throughout by the fear that police will come to arrest him.
The mechanics of observation chugging along beneath this narrative thrust and the comic means of its deliverance lend this ‘ and Strong’s other novels ‘ astute perception. Belying the sorts of question Jack has about the accident in the supermarket, is a character whose sense of self has been eroded by the type of comment made about him through familial influence.
A great warmth and affection arises through the parallels that are made as Jack’s broken leg gradually heals and he learns to walk again, and as his family and friends come to value the contributions he plays in their lives and the unique influence he holds. A subtle, clever book that inspires strength and inner resilience against all of our falls.

The Saddest King

Chris Wormell

Jonathan Cape

0224070452

Jan 2007

The prolific and diverse author-illustrator Chris Wormell adopts the feel and form of the fairytale in his latest picture book, ‘The Saddest King’. Readers are introduced to a country whose populace are always happy, who smile through sun shine, rain and snowfall alike, who are happy with flowers whether alive or dead are equally pleased with gifts whether they be boxes of chocolates or bad apples. Happiness is compulsory, decreed by the King himself.
The decree, however, is broken one day by a small boy who breaks the law by crying. The boy’s isolation through such actions and the strength of his feelings are emphasised through his being, small-in-scale, centred on a blank white page. Nobody is able to cheer him whether with dance, song or food.
Eventually the King’s Guards catch up with him and remove him to the dungeons where it is prophesised he will be tied up in the dungeons and tickled with feathers. Feather in hand, the King greets the boy with the widest smile he has ever seen and asks the reason for his melancholia. The boy explains how his dog has died, upon which it transpires the king is wearing a mask that hides the saddest, most tear drenched face the boy has ever seen.
The King’s own dog died and to cover his grief he made the decree that happiness should be compulsory. Together the King and the boy are able to share their sorrow and their memories of the two dogs. The King then tears up the special order that makes happiness compulsory and everyone has a good cry, the first they have had in many years.
This is an important book that legitimises and validates all feelings. It’s strength in its evasion of the happy ending, everyone cries, is that ‘ at last ‘ the populace are able to express the truth of their emotions. This is to be greatly applauded at a time when as many as one in thirty-three children and one in eight adolescents suffer depression’ perhaps, for many, childhood does not represent the ‘best years of life’ as is often purported and that care needs to be given both to listening and to letting tell if the adage is not to shackle and do injustice…

P is for Pakistan

Shazia Razzak

Frances Lincoln

1845074831

Jan 2007

Continuing their series of alphabetical introductions to countries and cultures other than our own, ‘P is for Pakistan’ is Frances Lincoln’s A ‘ Asslam-U-Alaikum (hello) to Z Zeewar (jewellery) of the country founded in 1947.
The book’s combination of photographic representation and verbal description provides a vivid, memorable and entirely unprentious tour of the architecture, culture, heritage, religion and geographical landscape of the country.
Insight into food, housing, music, clothing, the Indus Civilisation and the flora and fauna of Pakistan is all provided within this invaluable first introduction to the country. A welcome means for dispelling some of the racist assumptions and stereotypes that the guise of ‘terrorism’ or parts of the media’s interpretation thereof have given increasing rise towards…

Silly School

Louise-Marie Fitzhugh

Frances Lincoln

1845074696

Jan 2007

Twice winner of the Bisto award, author-illustrator Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick’s latest picture book tells the story of the seemingly belligerent Beth. It is Beth’s first day at school, however, she is reluctant to exchange the cosy environs of her bed for school when mum awakes her.
Aunty Bea tries to lure her with the prospects of the singing she will do at school. This is to no avail’ Sister Ann tries to tempt her with the promise of cuddly-wuddly toys. This falls on deaf ears’ Aunty Mel endeavours to entice her with the prospects of painting. This is futile. Uncle Ben and Gran try to appeal to her through lunchtime and storytimes. This is fruitless’
All ask Beth what she wants to do, upon which she replies she wants to play with friends. When it is explained that Beth’s friends are all at school too, Beth goes and is depicted playing with cuddly-wuddly toys, singing, painting enjoying lunchtime and storytimes. Will she be tempted to return home afterwards, however?
Marie-Louise Fitzpartick carefully introduces young children to what can be expected at school and the types of routine that will be followed in this gentle, affectionate book.

After the death of Alice Bennett

Rowland Molony

Oxford

0192754726

Jan 2007

‘Just because you can’t hear anything doesn’t mean the air isn’t full of radio and TV and text signals. You have to tune in.’

Being attune to our emotions, to the influences that exert themselves upon us and to beliefs and faith ‘ regardless of empirical evidence ‘ form a key part of the understanding and self-awareness that course through ‘After the death of Alice Bennett’.
Together with his family, Sam mourns the death of his mother. Desperate to believe in some way that she still remains available to him, Sam gradually convinces himself that the telephone number scrawled in the kitchen is a means for him to contact her. This belief appears to be corroborated after Sam sends a text and a reply is received.
Communications along these lines continue, reaching a head as Sam decides he must travel to Knutsford services to facilitate a reunion between mother and son. Standing alone on the bridge between service areas, watching the traffic beneath him, Sam reaches an epiphany.
The greatest success of ‘After the death of Alice Bennett’ is in the way Rowland Molony intertwines the physical voyage of the trip to Knutsford alongside the magnitude of the emotional journey towards acceptance. That both of these are made in solitude and isolation feels at once realistic and true, though also cripplingly sad. This is a touching, well-documented account of the feelings of loss and uncertainty that accompany all bereavement but that are exacerbated so much more in childhood… It’s a beautiful novel and, given its subject matter, is paradoxically life-affirming.

The Thing with Finn

Tom Kelly

Macmillan Children’s Books

1405090219

Jan 2007

‘I didn’t understand why he had to puke out all those words at the time, but now I’m telling you this I think I understand it a tiny, little bit. I think Rumsey just needed to say it so it wouldn’t just be locked up inside his head all the time. I was just the next step up from a smelly old rubbish bin in a school playground.’

Struggling to find a way to make sense of events that seem senseless, the novel opens with incredible pace and drama as ten-year-old Danny relates how he has thrown a brick through Grundy’s window, flattening his stuffed otter.
Through a careful series of revelations, it becomes apparent that some accident has befallen Danny’s twin Finn, leaving the former to host a range of powerful and all-encompassing emotions.
Split into three distinct parts, the first of these constitute two phases of Danny’s bereavement. The final stage, that of ‘Being’, is characterised by Danny’s meeting Nulty, a former art teacher who has endeavours to assuage his own personal grief through painting a massive mural.
Told using stream-of-consciousness, the novel is given structure as sequences of narration are themed around particular topics. Danny tells the story in the first-person, much of it is reflective, looking back on past events.
Tom Kelly’s deft humour prevents the book from becoming encumbered by the bleakness of its topic. Indeed, it is the humour, understanding and verve for life that makes this story soar, challenging readers to think about life and death and the ways in which we are able to find meaning from both.

The Killer Cat Strikes Back

Anne Fine

Puffin

014138283X

Jan 2007

‘Okay, okay. So stick my head in a holly bush. I gave Ellie’s mother my mean look. It was her own fault. She was hogging my end of the sofa.’

Nonchalant Tuffy the cat makes his triumphant third outing in this latest tale by Anne Fine. Tuffy is fast becoming an archetype in children’s literature. In him, Fine has perfectly captured the nuances of cattish behaviour. Just as it is now almost impossible to speak of bear stories, without Pooh or his alliterative counterpart Paddington coming to mind, Tuffy is the forerunner in feline fiction.
Keen to express her creativity, Ellie’s mother experiments with photography, painting and pottery. Tuffy the cat holds little appreciation for any of this art and accidents befall all but one of the pots as Tuffy ‘biffs’ and ‘strokes’ them. Eager to be rid of the monstrous artwork, Ellie’s father tries coaxing Tuffy to smash the final remaining pot, but contrasuggestible as ever, Tuffy evades each attempt as father places a tantalisingly tempting prawn into the pot and smears it in cream. What resolve, if any, could cause Tuffy to smash the pot’?!
As with the two previous books in the ‘Killer Cat’ series, this book is based upon an urban legend. Anne Fine has augmented this with her own inimitable wit and sense of social understanding making this a riotous, rib-tickling read.

In the Nick of Time

Robert Swindells

Corgi

0552555851

Jan 2007

We’re in the midst of wonders’

Taking a trip to Cold Tarn, Charlotte and her friend Pip discover for the first time a regular concrete base. It is whilst exploring this that the narrative splits, torn in half, as Charlie is transported from the present into the 1950s.
The reader becomes caught in a dialectic between these two ages, in the 1950s struggling to understand just what has happened to Charlie and what might allow her return to the future and to witness first-hand the very real anxiety and grief that family and friends suffer during her absence in the present.
Parallel narratives facilitate consideration into the types of social progress that have been attained across the ages, particularly with regard to standard of living and general health. In an age of increasingly prescriptive educational legislation, it is, however, hard not to envy the classroom of the 1950s with no walls, a boundary-less expanse from which children’s education could take small steps or giant leaps regardless of direction.
Robert Swindells plants the seed for a twist in this tale which creates a lasting and highly poignant ending. The strength of friendships, love and care are depicted clearly here and make for a lasting and moving finale.

Sebastian Darke: Prince of Fools

Philip Caveney

Bodley Head

0370329155

Jan 2007

‘Strangers can be blamed for certain things. Since there is nobody who knows them and can vouch for them, people are often willing to believe the very worst about them ‘ if you catch my drift’?’


Drawing on facets of the fantasy, mystery, comedy, action and adventure genres, Philip Caveney’s great skill in his debut children’s novel ‘Sebastian Darke: Prince of Fools’ is bringing together the familiar and the fresh for readers of all tastes, backgrounds and indeed ages.
Son of a jester, Sebastian Darke endeavours to appropriate his father’s occupation and together with his trust buffalope, Max, sets out to seek his fortune. That this aim seems ill-fated is evidenced by Darke’s inability to imbue comedic value to even the most simple of jokes.
Together with the pint-sized Cornelius, Sebastian and Max aid the Princess Karin, thereby becoming ensnared in a web of intrigue and cunning subterfuge. Only through their assistance will Princess Karin be able to ascend to her rightful position as heir to the throne of Keladon, however Brigands abound as obstacles towards this.
‘Sebastian Darke: Prince of Fools’ is a gripping quest novel that transports readers on a voyage across wide vistas of imaginative lands. Teasing out the elegance and grandeur of epics and energising these with fast-paced modern humour, the novel feels at once wholesome and wicked of wit…

DOWN TO THE WIRE

Bernard Ashley

Orchard Books

1846160596

Oct 2006

If I were still a teacher, this book would be a tempting choice to get my class engaged in a whole number of fields. Geography, history, current affairs and politics, evolving use of English language’ any of these might be approached through DOWN TO THE WIRE.
We’re in West Africa here; a fictitious but very recognisable country somewhere in the region of Nigeria and Ghana. Near the coast we have the wealthier part of the nation, the government, the dominant tribe, the strongest western influences. Inland, we have poorer, often-resentful tribal minorities, sharing their cultural and religious allegiances with those in neighbouring countries rather than with their own government and fellow citizens. Yet, as in so many west African states, the nation’s wealth is dependent on one or two commodities. It might be oil, or precious metals, or cocoa: in this case it is HEP, generated through a vast inland dam project (surely modelled on the Volta) and providing power that can be sold abroad, as well as driving domestic industry. But, typically, this resource lies within the territory of the tribal minorities. So when the question of independence for these minorities comes up, the government eyes its precious resource and is more than a little dismayed.
It’s a model that recurs constantly, one made possible by western colonization, non-tribal borders and further interference long after any occupying power has fled. The reliance on single resources and erosion of traditional subsistence economies, the wish to exploit natural resources, the wish to sell arms to both the minority ‘freedom fighters’ (themselves often sponsored or controlled by fellow tribesmen in other countries) and to the governing troops, the demented wish to sell nuclear technology to unstable powers (is there any other sort?)’ this is what drives the western take on so many developing countries.
So, into this bubbling mess drop Ben Maddox, a UK reporter, sent with his cameraman by a canny news editor to get a scoop on possible war and humanitarian catastrophe. Add also a promising young footballer, one of the tribal minority, under conflicting pressures to make his name on the lucrative world stage and to stick by his cultural and religious roots, to keep excellence at home. Stir in a ‘terror’ group that kidnaps children to turn them into soldiers. As a finishing touch add Israelis and others, possibly sniffing out a nuclear market; an Irish ex-football star, ostensibly talent-scouting; a western mercenary, with his eyes on power and wealth.
Ashley’s real coup here is that he sets this all up and makes it totally accessible to a teen audience, spinning an easy-read thriller-type plot that is told through e-mails, news reports, the diary of a kidnapped girl, football commentaries and texts, as well as short chunks of traditional narrative. Some of the main characters are a tad two-dimensional or unengaging ‘ there is a whiff of the boys’ adventure stories of yesteryear – but as a whole, the book is gripping and sickeningly realistic as we watch Ben and his colleague get drawn steadily across the line that keeps newspeople ‘neutral’.
A recommended, original read, tweaked from four to five chicks by its huge relevance.