Category Archives: Fiction

Running On The Cracks

Julia Donaldson

Egmont

978-1-4052-2233-4

January 2009


Well, a full-length young adult novel from the creator of The Gruffalo and other successful picture books! That Donaldson is an expert in the shorter form is now unquestioned, and it is cause for celebration, both for her and for us, that she has decided to launch out in a new genre. The question everyone will want to know is: Can Donaldson ‘do’ a long narrative? The form is so different from the short rhyming texts of hers we are used to appreciating.
The answer to the question has to be a resounding Yes. Certainly by the end of the novel. I confess I felt a little uncertain during its opening pages, but alternating narrative voices always take a little time to become established. (I was also reading the early part of the novel on a train and there was a distractingly giggly conversation going on in the bay behind me.)
The main character’s voice belongs to Leo, a girl who has been living with her aunt and uncle following the death of both her parents in an accident. She is compelled to run away from home, both by a desire to discover her Chinese heritage and by the discomfort she feels in her uncle’s presence.
Once she has arrived in Glasgow the torque of the narrative really begins to pull the reader along. The secondary voice is that of Finley, a boy whom Leo befriends in Glasgow and who helps her avoid discovery.
In addition to the two separate narrative points of view, Donaldson extremely cleverly interjects newspaper reports, a shopping list, letters, an email… Coupled with the explicitly documented Glaswegian locations, this gives the book cast-iron credibility, creating a story that is believable, exciting and moving. (There is a touching episode near the end of the book when Finley’s family hear all about his role in Leo’s affairs.)

Then

Morris Gleitzman

Puffin

978-0-141-32482-1

January 2009


Last summer I was sent a very early proof copy of the new novel by Morris Gleitzman, a sequel to Once, a book published at the same time as and – media-attention-wise – unjustly overshadowed by The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas.
I have always had the highest regard for Gleitzman and regard him as one of the very best writers for the young of the past twenty years.
For months that proof copy lay untouched. A second proof copy arrived. I did not read that either. I had, I realised when I finally started reading the book in its final published format, been nervous of encountering ten-year-old Felix again in case any further adventures had a reptrospective lessening of the impact of the first book, read with so much admiration.
Picking up from the end of the previous book, Felix is accompanied by six-year-old Zelda (not his sister) and from the first words, “Then we ran for our lives…” this is the story of how they together attempt to escape being captured by Nazis.
We see many atrocities through child’s eyes (the most painful of all at the end of the book) but there is sufficient good fortune and good deed-doing to make this an ever-hopeful edge-of-the-seat read. The character of Genia – a woman who makes her home a safe-house for Felix and Zelda, giving them different names – is strongly drawn and helps ground the central part of a novel which might otherwise, as its title suggests, have been a then-fortunately-then-unfortunately continuum.
Another grounding motif is the figure of Richamal Crompton, described by Carol Ann Duffy in The Ultimate Book Guide as ‘the patron saint of childhood’. Certainly, in this book the creator of William acts on more than one occasion as the guardian saint of Felix, helping him to avoid potentially fatal dangers.
Gleitzman’s style is always highly accessible, so this book can be highly recommended for any child who is ready to confront the horrors of Nazi tyranny. Thank heavens there is no age-banding on its cover.

Life, Interrupted

Damian Kelleher

Piccadilly Press

978-1-84812-003-7

January 2009


Damian Kelleher is well-known on the children’s books scene. He was book editor in the glory days of Young Telegraph and T2, frequently chairs children’s book events and is seen at all the best publisher parties. For that reason, if I had not genuinely liked this book I would probably have kept my thoughts to myself.
The first thing to be said about it – this is Kelleher’s debut as full-length novelist, as far as I’m aware – is that it is extremely fluently written, in an unpretentious, unshowy first-person continuous present. The second thing to say is that the subject matter – a mother of two boys dying of cancer – is not one I exactly relax into.
There is a puff on the back jacket from Jacqueline Wilson in which she uses the phrase “searingly sad at times”, so I was braced for a hard read. As it happens, the mother is only a peripheral part of the story. The focus remains throughout on Luke and his brother Jesse, and the uncle who arrives to take care of them.
Conicidentally, as soon as I had finished Life, Interrupted I picked up The Paris Review Interviews vol. 3 and read the interview with Ralph Ellison, in which the interviewers remark at one point, “A common criticism of first novels is that the central incident is either omitted or weak.” It’s possible that some may feel in this book Kelleher does not give the central incident sufficient weight or emotional cache, relegating it, as the title of the book implies, to an interruption.
It seems to me that that would be to grossly misunderstand what Kelleher is trying to show here. In concentrating on an important schools football final and in optimistically acclimatising to life with their gay uncle, the boys are coming to terms in their own way with what has happened, and doing what boys often do differently from girls when life is interrupted by major events – moving on more quickly and with less overt emotion.

Waterslain Angels

Kevin Crossley-Holland

Eerdmans

978-1-84255-691-7

Autumn 2008


Set in Norfolk in 1955 this children’s novel, both beautifully and poetically written (“poppies white as talcum powder and pink as peardrops and scarlet as new blood” in the opening paragraph) and tightly plotted from one daring escapade to the next, is a thrilling and evocative read.
Ten-year-old Annie and eleven-year-old Sandy (just returned to England from America with his mother) take it upon themselves to try and discover a set of carved angels missing from the church for hundreds of years.
The freedom allowed ten and eleven-year-olds in the 1950s allows Crossley-Holland to write episode aftger episode of reckless daring. One particularly vivid scene has them climbing the church tower and being attacked by a swarm of bees.
The dialogue is marvellously clipped and unbloated. When the adults are involved the reader is made party to remarks that cleverly create, brushstroke after brushstroke, a backstory going back a decade, when American GI’s were stationed in the region. The other backstory reverberates across centuries from the time when the angels were first carved to the time when they were taken or hidden away and on to the present time of their attempted recovery.
The characters in the novel are presented at the front of the book as a cast list. I could think of nothing more pleasing than a television serialisation of this wonderfully well-modulated story.

The Pretender

David Belbin

Five Leaves

978-1-905512-51-5

November 2008



Oh, I loved this book! I have read several of David Belbin’s young adult novels. Each of them has been readable and engrossing, but I don’t remember any one of them having quite the touch of class that the author manages to maintain throughout the length of this very literary mystery memoir, published by Five Leaves on their adult list.
Set at the turn of the 1990s, it is written in the voice of a nineteen-year-old with a talent for literary pastiche. The tone is perfectly pitched. A marvellous mix of confidence, embarrassment, sexual inexperience and adolescent audacity. It’s a voice most often encountered in short stories (Somerset Maugham, V. S. Pritchett) rather than novels, especially contemporary novels. It works perfectly here.
Mark discovers his power of pretending at school, when he writes a story in the style of Dickens, and the teacher accuses him of cheating. During a time-out year in Paris he finds himself faking an early Hemingway story and the die is cast.
From that point on (most of the book is played out in Soho, in the offices of a struggling literary review preparing for a special anniversary issue) Mark’s mind is preoccupied with the escalating consequences of his successive deceptions. He is drawn to almost farcical lengths when, on the very day of the author’s funeral in 1990, he sneaks into Roald Dahl’s writing shed to knock up an undiscovered Dahl treasure for the magazine to publish.
This is the closest Belbin comes to stretching reader credulity. Most of the authors mentioned are real. Belbin deploys his knowledge of the literary scene and circumstances surrounding their lives, and the peculiarities of their styles and working practices, to good and pleasing effect. His creation of a fictional author – James Sherwin -as the focus of the final fraud is convincing enough. The secondary characters are also well-drawn, especially Tony, the editor of the failing magazine, a poet who feels his own talent has been sacrificed to his endeavour, with no due appreciation coming his way.
Highly Recommended to readers who enjoy literary mysteries and don’t require dead bodies in their thrillers.

The Carbon Diaries 2015

Saci Lloyd

Hodder

978-0-97015-7

Autumn 2008


Both the futuristic setting and the cover design led me to expect a different type of young adult novel. The “Coming soon… The Carbon Diaries 2017” facing page 1 gives the clue to the type of book Saci Lloyd has written. I read it on a train travelling to and from the Bacon and Rothko exhibitions and the book was a welcome contrast to the heavily engaging content seen there.
What we have in Carbon Diaries is essentially a family sitcom as reported by one of the daughters. World energy supplies have reached such a pass that each family is given a carbon footprint ration. The authorities respond swiftly whenever the ration is exceeded. Just six months into the situation the father is cracking up. Because 2015 is not all that far away, and because the author is careful not to be too outlandish in her predicted vision of Britain seven years from now, the book is very believable, which makes it at once highly comic and thought-provoking. Most readers, once they’ve finished laughing, will think, Hang on a minute, is this really the way things are heading? How are we going to cope?

The Toymaker

Jeremy de Quidt

David Fickling

978-0385-613583

Autumn 2008


What an exciting and unsettling book this is! A superb debut! Partly because of the author’s unfamiliar name and partly because of a slight similarity to the atmosphere of Cirque du Freak in the book’s opening pages, I wondered if this might be Darren Shan writing under a nom-de-plume. Certainly the book has all of Shan’s relentless pace and narrative energy. No sooner are you over one tense episode than the next one begins. I found myself reading sections of the book aloud to myself, so flowing is the author’s style, which is timeless and classic, as befits the setting of the story. If my initial impressions were Darren Shan, as I read on I was reminded more of a classic adventure such as John Masefield’s The Box Of Delights.
This novel is genuinely scary. Very scary. The fiendishly indestructible dwarf Valter is a vivid agent of evil in the story.
The main character, a boy named Mathias, acquires a small piece of paper after the death of his grandfather, for which he is pursued. Helped in his flight by Katta, a girl with an injury to her skull, the two become our harried hero and heroine in what is essentially one long extended chase narrative.
This novel is very highly recommended. And well done to David Fickling for once again bringing us such a compelling and promising new author.
One small but significant criticism. Gary Blythe’s black-and-white illustrations inside the novel add excellent atmosphere, but it was a mistake for the coloured jacket illustration to be based on one of a bonneted woman (Anna-Maria) which gives the entirely inaccurate impression that the book is a rosy-cheeked period drama.

The Ghost’s Child

Sonya Hartnett

Walker

978-1406313192

May 2008


I really haven’t much to say about this superb novel of remembrance, other than to urge you to read it. No book this author writes is in any essential sense a young adult novel or piece of teen fiction with a readership confined to adolescents.
Hartnett is the real thing.

How to get Famous

Pete Johnson

Yearling

0440868173

Jun 2008

“In my opinion fame is like a giant blue bubble… This blue bubble can quite suddenly come floating and shining towards you, showering you with glory. And it’s great being even a bit famous… But the thing is… this blue bubble of fame appears when it feels like it… But I know it can vanish in an instant…”


The frail, fickle nature of fame has been a recurring theme in Pete Johnson’s fiction, in ‘I’d Rather Be Famous’, astute comment was made as to the types of decision that are driven only by outward appearance, by what others think rather than what we ourselves actually feel. In ‘The Hero Game’, Charlie’s idolisation of his grandfather and his sheer determination to immortalise him are challenged by revelations as to his grandfather’s past, that he finds difficult to equate with his present perception of his uncle.
‘How to get Famous’ sees friends Tobey and Georgia desperately seeking the lime-light but learning the bitter consequences that follow failure and rejection. This is exacerbated further still by the crushing humiliation Tobey faces at an audition in which Georgia is successful. Pressures of personal hopes that are defeated alongside the achievement of friends’ achievement places friendship into a fragile context.
In a surprise turn, however, Johnson achieves a twist that demonstrates incisively the spontaneous manner via which we affect and influence others through our actions as compared with the forced nature of acting and rehearsal.
Tobey’s comic capers, retold through an approachable epistolary style, make for a humorous and affectionately told story that is elevated through the characteristic social comments and human observations that permeate this author’s work.

Little Leap Forward: a boy in Beijing

Gue Yue, Clare Farrow, Ill. Helen Cann

Barefoot Books

1846861136

Jul 2008

“With music and your imagination you can travel anywhere; you will always be free.”

Barefoot Books have drawn upon the self-same creative sensibility, attention to detail and high production values that have earned them the place as one of the most distinctive and stylish picture books lists, in this their first forray into fiction.
The construction of childhood presented here is a decidedly pastoral one with its kite flying competitions, trips to market and sibling cookery sessions. Behind the surface of this, however, are the shifting political tectonics that lead to Mao Zedung’s Cultural Revolution of 1966.
Ramifications of this are both clearly and cleverly drawn through the capture and subsequent decline of a bird which Little Leap Forward keeps trapped in a bamboo cage. The bird’s refusal to sing and its inability to fly are consequences of its being held captive away from the natural influences that allow its replenishment. The creeping oppression whose reach is felt towards the end of the novel is wholly juxtaposed by the real sense of hope and liberation that the bird’s release and free flight signify.
Gue Yue and Clare Farrow’s text is marked by its reflective lyricism. This is complemented beautifully by the sights of Beijing, captured so evocatively through Helen Cann’s full-colour illustration plates that intersperse the novel. Combining freedom of thought, action and imagination, this is a welcome first fiction offering from Barefoot Books that leaves one eager in the hope that a subsequent, more regular publishing plan might follow in a similar vein.