Tanglewreck by Jeanette Winterson
The return of Doctor Who to our TV screens in 2005 gave rise once again to the vast possibilities of using time-travel as the central premise of a storyline. Jumping on the time-travel bandwagon, Jeanette Winterson has seized upon its potential with a spirited originality in her first children’s novel, a gripping and provocative fantasy-thriller.
Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin
I’ve always secretly believed that my pets could understand everything I said, and that it was my own ignorance of their language which made meaningful communication a problem. It seems Gabrielle Zevin has a similar inkling, since her latest book (just published in paperback) opens with a moving account of a dog’s reaction to her teenage owner’s death, and its frustration at not being understood by the remaining members of the family. My heart was immediately won over by this touching prologue, which sets the tone for what becomes a magical, philosophical and tender interpretation of the Afterlife.
The Sirens of Surrentum by Caroline Lawrence
Any long-running series of books, or TV for that matter, runs the risk of its formula becoming tired and its characters falling flat. Thankfully, with her admirable attention to detail and carefully planned story arc, Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries have so far avoided this trap. Now on book 11, Lawrence’s historical japes are still fresh, intriguing and entertaining.
Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers
Last year’s Nestle Prize (0-5 category) Gold winner, Lost and Found, has just come out in paperback, prompting me to finally get round to reviewing it. Being rather a fan of penguins, I was immediately drawn to the cover, which depicts a boy and a penguin looking lost whilst floating in an umbrella not far from an iceberg. Jeffers’s quirky, contemporary style puts me in mind of another promising young author-illustrator and former Nestle winner, Mini Grey, which is no bad thing. Both manage to convey huge amounts of energy and expression using stylised, simplistic drawings and unpretentious, child-friendly text. Before even opening the book, I was intrigued and expectant.
The Colossus of Rhodes by Caroline Lawrence
Having read about a forthcoming television series to be made of Caroline Lawrence’s popular Roman Mysteries series by the BBC, I was compelled to catch up with the antics of Flavia and friends. The most recent paperback, The Colossus of Rhodes, takes to the sea, with the usual appealing mix of mystery, history, humour, myth and adventure. Each of the Roman Mysteries tends to focus on one of the four main characters – and this is Lupus’s story. Setting sail from Ostia in Lupus’s ship, with Flavia’s father as Captain, the friends embark on their latest mission – to find and free the children kidnapped into slavery by the evil Venalicius the slave-dealer. Lupus also has his own agenda – to fulfil a sacred oath to himself to find his long-lost mother.
Small Steps by Louis Sachar
Holes by Louis Sachar is one of my all-time favourite books, so it was with equal parts excitement and trepidation that I approached its sequel, Small Steps. Sequels can so often disappoint and even taint fond memories of the original (Star Wars’need I say more). Having said that, Small Steps is more like a spin-off than a sequel, since it picks up on two of the secondary characters from Holes three years after their horrendous hole-digging nightmare at the notorious Camp Greenlake correctional facility. The unfortunately nick-named Armpit is catching up on his education by way of summer school, whilst also making some money working as a gardening labourer ‘ mostly doing something at which he is well-practiced – digging holes. The Small Steps of the title refers to his rehabilitation counsellor’s advice to take things one step at a time. This worthy intention is interrupted when his well-meaning but misguided friend X-Ray turns up with a dubious plan to make money by touting concert tickets, convincing Armpit to part with his hard-earned cash in order to purchase said tickets.
Mixed Magics (audio CD) by Diana Wynne Jones, read by Anthony Head
Originally published in 2000, this collection of magical short stories is being published as a CD audiobook for the first time. Not having previously read any of the other Chrestomanci books, I admit to being tempted into starting with this one purely on the basis of it being read by Anthony Head. I was not disappointed – his mellifluous tones are easily absorbed and his subtle delivery perfectly complements Wynne-Jones’s lively prose. I discovered that the stories work fine as a stand-alone collection and you need not have read the others in the series in order to appreciate them. Each of the four tales is linked by the mercurial and often unpredictable presence of Chrestomanci, an enigmatic enchanter who presides over many worlds, intervening when needed to maintain harmony and balance.
Nicholson’s latest offering, the first instalment of a new trilogy, took a while to get under my skin. The sleek prose at least made for an easy read, but I didn’t start to really care about the characters, or their respective quests, until quite a way into the action. The three young protagonists from different backgrounds are introduced separately to the reader, before their paths cross and they discover a mutual ambition. Motivated by different circumstances, they all long to become a Noma – a type of revered, mystical warrior – but must first prove they are worthy. The ensuing adventure sees the brave but na’ve young adults have their individual beliefs and ideals challenged and sometimes crushed as they come up against the harsh realities of the outside world.
Not since I feverishly immersed myself in the fantasy adventures of E. Nesbit and Elizabeth Goudge over twenty years ago have I been so utterly swept away with the fairies. As an adult I’ve enjoyed many ‘magical realism’ stories, and have at times revisited various interpretations of the traditional fairy tales, but Sally Gardner’s I, Coriander refreshed my imagination and enthusiasm for all things magical beyond any of these.