Author Archives: rowan

Tanglewreck

Tanglewreck by Jeanette Winterson

Bloomsbury

0747580642

July 2006

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.
The central character, Silver, is an orphan forced to live with her selfish aunt Mrs Rockabye and her ferocious pet rabbits. Silver’s only comfort is the magical, sprawling house in which they live. When the mysterious Abel Darkwater arrives at Tanglewreck, seeking the legendary Timekeeper, Silver is dragged away from her beloved home and drawn into a sinister plot which sees her thrown through time and space, with the future of the universe on her shoulders.
To give much more away would risk spoiling others’ delight in unravelling this juicy adventure story for themselves. Packed with colourful characters, and skillfully paced, Tanglewreck also throws up some weighty questions about the nature of existence. Rarely does one encounter a children’s novel which so succesfully combines pure entertainment with serious philosophical and scientific contemplation. A hugely satisfying and memorable read.

RS

Elsewhere

Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin

Bloomsbury

074757720X

June 2006

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.
Following the post-death journey of a teenage girl, Liz, who is killed in a hit-and-run accident, Elsewhere’s title refers to a kind of alternative heaven in which people age backwards and eventually start all over again, coming back to Earth as babies. On arriving in Elsewhere, Liz goes through the inevitable stages of denial, bitterness and desperation before coming to accept her new (non)life. She finds her niche as a dog warden (people in Elsewhere have ‘Avocations’ rather than jobs) and discovers she has a natural gift for speaking canine.
A far cry from other prescriptive and clich’d (and often religiously weighted) metaphorical novels on death, Zevin has created an inspiring fantasy that encourages light-hearted contemplation on what would normally be a gloomy subject. Her airy, fluent prose conjures a dream-like, expectant atmosphere, and her engaging characters literally bring death to life. Elsewhere has all the ingredients of a classic teenage rites-of-passage, but with an elegant, original twist that sets it apart from the rest.

The Sirens of Surrentum

The Sirens of Surrentum by Caroline Lawrence

Orion

1842552554

April 2005

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.
The latest in the series, The Sirens of Surrentum, is possibly the most risqu’ so far ‘ tackling the tricky themes of sex, love and lust, as well as incorporating the usual ‘mystery’ at the centre of the story. Flavia and friends find themselves surrounded by debauchery and decadence when they visit their friend Pulchra, whose father Flavia idolises, at the Villa Limona. The mystery is who is poisoning Pulchra’s mother ‘ the possible culprits being the other house-guests, who include a selection of eligible young men and women. While the grown-ups wine, dine, flirt and frolic, the children attempt to expose the poisoner. But Flavia is preoccupied with matters of the heart, as her infatuation with Felix grows stronger and she longs for another year to pass so that she will be of marriageable age.
The customs and etiquette of Roman courting and marriage are explored throughout the book, as Lawrence once again manages to educate without patronising. The potentially controversial issue of tween love is gracefully handled, with a subtle appeal to the reader ‘ don’t rush into romance, and when you do, choose the safe man, not the dangerous one. It is a timeless message with which anyone who has ever experienced the highs and lows of a teenage crush will identify.
I for one was relieved when, in the process of solving the mystery, Flavia finally sees through her idol’s glamorous fa’ade and is released from her infatuation. Boys shouldn’t be deterred by the romantic theme ‘ there is still plenty of action and adventure to satisfy them, including a hilarious scene in which nearly all the characters (except the wise Nubia) are tricked into eating poison. Sirens of Surrentum is certainly a strong contender for my favourite Roman Mystery so far ‘ roll on book 12!

Lost and Found

Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers

Harper Collins

0007150369

May 2006

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 story drops straight in, without any pre-amble, to an unnamed boy opening his front door to find a penguin. Presuming it must be lost, the boy sets out to return the penguin to its rightful location, not knowing where that might be. After rowing to the South Pole and dropping the penguin off, the boy finally realises that the penguin just wanted a friend, and a heart-warming reunion follows. Lost and Found is a touching, subtly moral story that encourages the reader to think beyond the seemingly obvious. One is utterly endeared to the silent penguin as he unquestioningly follows the boy, unable to convey his true desire for company. The unanymity of the boy is sure to appeal to young readers who will enjoy filling in the gaps, or indeed placing themselves in the starring role. Similarly, the uncluttered, open spaces between the pictures and text, and the big blocks of colour across double-page spreads leaves room for the imagination to breathe. Appealingly simple, gently atmospheric and pleasingly reassuring, Lost and Found is certainly deserving of its acclaim.

The Colossus of Rhodes

The Colossus of Rhodes by Caroline Lawrence

Dolphin Paperbacks

1842551388

Oct 2005

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.
Lawrence’s skill at mixing humour and tragedy is once again demonstrated as Lupus’s dream is dangled in front of him in an emotive, frantic but ultimately abortive quest. There is some resolution as far as the kidnapping strand to the story goes – but only after Flavia and co have run the gauntlet of obstacles and red-herrings, as always ducking out of mortal danger just in the nick of time. The journey from Ostia to Rhodes entails some wonderful descriptions of the Mediterranean and Greek Islands, conjuring an atmospheric backdrop and a vivid sense of time and place. Perfect entertainment for any families heading to the Greek Islands this holiday season, The Colossus of Rhodes keeps up the momentum of this excellent series, making you eager to read the next one. Visit RomanMysteries.com for more information about the BBC adaptation and details of forthcoming books in the series.

Small Steps

Small Steps by Louis Sachar

Bloomsbury

0747580308

Jan 2006

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.
Sachar’s writing is as fresh and uncomplicated as ever, and one is immediately swept up into the compulsive narrative. Tension builds quickly as the two boys find themselves hurtling back towards incarceration when their supposedly fool-proof scam inevitably goes awry. Armpit finds counsel in an unlikely friendship with his neighbour ‘ a younger girl with cerebral palsy who takes her problems in her stride and encourages him to do the same. A romance blossoms under the most unexpected circumstances and Armpit is drawn into the daunting world of a teenage rock-chick, further complicating his already fretful situation.
The somewhat far-fetched storyline is carried along by the tender and convincingly imperfect relationships and by the unaffected directness of the author’s voice. The story comes to a satisfactory conclusion, whilst mercifully avoiding a clich’d happy ending. Small Steps has a completely different feel about it to Holes ‘ which makes it almost impossible to compare the two. Instead I would recommend treating the latest book on its own merits ‘ a skilfully plotted, beautifully executed tale of friendship, trust, love, prejudice, disillusionment and redemption. I am happy to say that my only disappointment was with how quickly it was all over ‘ I challenge you to try and make it last for more than one sitting ‘ I couldn’t.

Mixed Magics

Mixed Magics (audio CD) by Diana Wynne Jones, read by Anthony Head

Collins

0007213425

March 2006

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.
The first story, Warlock at the Wheel is a farcical romp, featuring a hapless warlock who has lost his magic powers and gets himself transported to another world in order to find them again. There follows a catalogue of disasters as he steals a car and in doing so accidentally kidnaps a demanding young girl and her aggressively protective dog. Stealer of Souls is an altogether darker yarn, in which two young enchanters are kidnapped by a wicked soul-stealer and have to use all their wits, without the use of magic, to overpower him. I found Carol Oneir’s Hundredth Dream hugely entertaining, with echoes of ‘The BFG’. Young Carol has the unusual gift of being able to control and record her dreams, but needs Chrestomanci’s help when her characters go on strike. The final story, The Sage of Theare is the most complex and atmospheric of the four. It deftly confronts weighty issues through the eyes of the unwitting ‘sage’ Thasper, who threatens the supremecy of the gods with his incessant questions.
Each story varies in tone, and as a collection, Mixed Magics strikes a satisfying balance between humour, intrigue, fantasy and philosophy. This (unabridged) audio version is bound to go down well with parents and children alike – Mums especially will be charmed by Head’s dulcet tones, and Wynne Jones’s clever, multi-layered narrative allows her stories to be appreciated on many levels.

Seeker

William Nicholson

Egmont

1904442714

Oct 2005

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.
The setting is fantasy, but the modern day metaphors are somewhat transparent ‘ themes of suicide bombers, public execution, religious intolerance, blind faith and unjust social hierarchies are all explored. The balance of good and evil is more ambiguous however ‘ the separate communities are each convinced of the supremacy their own beliefs, and the reader is invited to judge for themselves. If you can get past a slowish start and avoid getting bogged down by these potential moral dilemmas, you will find yourself immersed in a cracking fantasy adventure with well-painted and ultimately likeable characters.

I, Coriander

Sally Gardner

Orion

1904442714

Oct 2005

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.
Part fairytale, part historical snapshot, it seamlessly weaves two sharply contrasting worlds ‘ the oppressive, controlling and threatening real world of 1650s pre-Restoration London and a dreamlike fairyland ‘ both seen through the eyes of our spirited heroine, Coriander. All the essential fairytale ingredients are here – a Wicked Stepmother, a Handsome Prince, Magic, Hardship and a Happy Ending – but there is also much originality and freshness about the author’s approach to the genre. Without the use of her paintbrush, Gardner expertly evokes through graceful yet unfussy prose a vivid, theatrical backdrop in which the reader feels almost part of the scenery. Her characters are equally well decorated, each with their own quirky back-story, and with a role to play in the advancement of the storyline.
Coriander’s transition from na’ve and rather spoiled child to world-wise young woman is no picnic. She swings between heartbreak and exhilaration during an emotional and physical journey that sees the death of her mother, the prolonged exile of her father and exposure to brutal cruelty, as well as the forging of new friendships and the first flutters of romantic love. The impressively paced narrative comes to a satisfying conclusion without indulging in too many clich’s and an uplifting ending suggests the beginnings of further adventures. Whether or not there is a sequel, I am content to entertain many more magical possibilities for the inhabitants of this beautifully imagined enchanted world.