Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Hobbit - by J R R Tolkein

Reviewed by Jackie Marchant

I re-read this wonderful book recently, and not for the first time.  I think that was when I was about 10 – the first re-read I mean.  I don’t remember my first read, only that it’s a book I love reading and will probably do so many more times. 

It’s been described as the gateway to fantasy.  I couldn’t agree more – partly because it’s the gateway to another, bigger fantasy, which has become mother to them all, but it’s also the first book I read that made me think this is a fantasy.  It’s what the fantasy genre is all about – and I don’t mean strange worlds with strange creatures.  

This is a different world, but it’s realised so perfectly you accept it without issue; its peoples and beings are not of our own world, but belong so easily here that you don’t question them.  The characters and the adventures they have belong utterly in that world – yet they are perfectly easy to relate to.  We live in the story as we live in the world of Middle Earth.

I have to admit that the reason I chose to read it again, was because of the films.  When the first one came out I kept thinking – was that in the book?  Will this really last another two films? 

Three long films from one book – impossible.  Yet, reading the book, there is so much packed into Bilbo’s adventures, it’s easy to see how Peter Jackson was tempted to spin out the action.  And, for reasons of political correctness, I might be able to forgive him for inventing a kick-ass female elf – although I could have done without the attraction between her and the dwarf. 

The films are highly entertaining with special effects begging for 3D.  But, despite being prequels to Lord of the Rings, I couldn’t help feeling that these were sequels – the sorts that have numbers 4, 5 and 6 after them, ie more of the same, but not as good.  These films fell far short of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Why?  In short, because they put too much in that was not in the original.

But back to the book.  If you’ve not read it and are relying on the films, then I urge you to visit this wonderful book.  It needs no 3D embellishments to make it stand out – just a great story, brilliantly realised setting, breathtaking adventure and good writing. It’s stood the test of time, as is evident by the myriad editions I could have chosen to illustrate this review – I’ve only managed a few of them.


Friday, 11 April 2014

The Crocodile Who didn't Like Water, by Gemma Merino, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

This is one of those very rare perfect picture books that makes you laugh, moves you, and leaves you thinking about  it for a long time after closing the book.  It is simple and fun at the same time as exploring a problem that almost anybody, big or small, can relate to; the problem of being the odd one out.

The little 'crocodile' of the title doesn't like water as his siblings do.  The bliss and excitement on those siblings' faces as they play water volleyball, jumping off trees into the water, and even synchronised swimming is in wonderful contrast to the terror and loneliness and determination of our little crocodile protagonist.  He does his very best to join in, being brave, and saving his pocket money to buy a rubber ring, but it doesn't work.  He just gets cold and miserable ... and that cold leads to a magnificent sneeze of fire that proves that he isn't actually a crocodile after all; he's a dragon!  Now that he knows what he is, he's happy.  He takes his siblings ballooning and flying on his back, but there's more.  The opening and closing images of this book are wordless but tell so much.  The opening image is of a basket of white eggs and one blue one.  The last image is of a nest made from the rubber ring, and inside that nest are lots of blue eggs ... and one white one.  The odd one out problem moves on a generation!

Gemma Merino has been very clever with this book, playing with different layouts on each spread to pace the story and milk the drama and humour.  Amazingly, this is her first ever book, developed from work done on an Anglia Ruskin MA course in children's book illustration.  This book is, deservedly, winning prizes, and I can't wait to see more from this Spanish architect turned children's book creator.

NB  This book is a very good example of the way that stories about anthropomorphic characters can often more pleasingly and more deeply (therefore more effectively) address problems that children might have in being included than human characters can.  I discussed that question in this blog http://picturebookden.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/can-you-see-me-now-by-pippa-goodhart.html


Monday, 7 April 2014

CRACKS by Caroline Green, reviewed by Cecilia Busby

I thoroughly enjoyed Cracks, although it's not the best of titles for a sentence like that - actually, it's hard to think of a sentence with the title in that wouldn't draw a snigger from several of the teenage protagonists of this book. That aside, it's a rip-roaring adventure that will appeal to many of the readers who devoured The Hunger Games, and reminded me of some of the futuristic thrillers I read as a child by Peter Dickinson, John Christopher, or Robert Westall. Essentially, it's the revolutionary underground against the evil system, but there is scope in that general area for all sorts of interesting things to happen, and Green adds her own inventive take, with some memorable characters and a good deal of exactly the right kind of nail-biting tension and multiplication of layers of plot which need to be uncovered.

In the first part of the book, we meet Cal, who appears to be an average teenage boy, stuck with a rather nasty stepfather and older stepbrother and a mother who's turning a blind eye to the bullying going on in the family. But from the first sentence we are aware that all is not as it seems: Cal sees a crack running across the ceiling of the school toilet which, when he runs and calls for help, has disappeared. More cracks appear and disappear, he hears strange voices, saying things like, "He's waking up. We need to increased the dose", and sudden stoppages or slippages in time. Despite these clues, it's actually quite a shock when Cal "wakes up" and we discover where he really is.

I don't want to give too much away, because one of the joys of this book is that, along with Cal himself, you have to piece together what's going on from little bits of information or disinformation, and often Cal is forced to reassess things he'd previously thought he had nailed. But essentially, from the point he wakes up, Cal is fighting to find and regain his lost identity, as well as to avoid the establishment scientists who took it away in the first place. Along the way he makes contact with some other lost souls, and meets a girl, Kyla.

The future as painted by Green is recognisably extrapolated from our present - more terrorism, more control, more marginalisation of the poor or non-white. It therefore asks teenage readers to think quite hard about the possible end results of the casual racism, anti-immigration and fears of terrorism we are constantly showered with by the current government and press. White teenager Cal, by way of contrast, associates his warmest memories with an Asian family who ran the local shop in his home-town, and the girl he falls for, Kyla, is black - his growing feelings for her are tenderly drawn, as is his friendship with her best mate, also black, Jax.

I read the book in a little under a day, and it was perfect for that fast-paced, can't put it down, plot-driven story that is sometimes just exactly what you want. Green has recently published a sequel to Cracks, which continues the story, but focuses on Kyla, called  Fragments - I will definitely be looking out for that one, too!

Cecilia Busby writes as C.J. Busby, and writes funny, adventure-filled fantasy for readers 7+

Website: www.cjbusby.co.uk
Twitter: @ceciliabusby


Thursday, 3 April 2014


Here are two new books for the 7-10 age-group - both by writers who have more books in the same series.

THE DRAGONSITTER TAKES OFF by Josh Lacey, illustrated by Garry Parsons.

"Dear Uncle Morton,
I know you don't want to be disturbed, but I have to tell you some very bad news.
Ziggy has disappeared.
Mum says he was asleep on the carpet when she went to bed, but this morning he was nowhere to be seen."

Uncle Morton is staying at an ashram for a week in the hope of finding inner peace. He has left his pet dragon, Ziggy, with Eddie and his mum. This unsettles both the dragon and Eddie's long-suffering mum, and sets in train a series of hilarious problems which an increasingly concerned Eddie relates to his uncle by email - along with requests for help.

This book was shortlisted for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, and is indeed very funny. It's also very well written and tells a good story at just the right pace. Lively illustrations on almost every page add to the pleasure. I especially liked the one of Mum and Ziggy bonding over tea and biscuits.

Publisher: Andersen Press, 2013.

SIR LANCE A-LITTLE by Chris Inns and Dave Woods

Young Sir Lance A-Little is leading a quest, accompanied by the Cowardly Knights of Camelot - Sir Render, Sir Hugo First, Sir Cumference, etc. - plus a minstrel to make songs about their exploits:

"I'm Quaver the Minstrel
And we're on a brave quest.
I'm wearing clean pants
And I've tucked in my vest!"

With a short text, lots of pictures and captions, and a constant stream of verbal jokes, this book had me laughing straight away. There's a cookery-loving wizard who says things like "Abra-Kebabra" and "Hey, Pesto!", an "All Knight Diner", and the "Joust-a-Minute Jousting Tournament - sponsored by Shield and Armour Insurance." Our heroes' final task is to "slay a beast that rhymes with flagon." Now what could that be?

Glorious fun for a wide age-range.

Publisher: Orchard, 2014.


Sunday, 30 March 2014

BEAR'S BEST FRIEND, by Lucy Coats and Sarah Dyer. Reviewed by Saviour Pirotta

Bears have always been a mainstay of picture books. But they became even more so when the book industry went global and foreign co-editions became a make-or-break component of the book contract.  Bears look the same in and to every culture and and making them the star of your book often means you do away with the many niggly details that illustrations of children do.  Authors, however, nearly always use them as children-in-bear-clothing and write them into stories dealing with human issues.

The gorgeous bear in Lucy Coats and Sarah Dyer's story is blessed with many friends but not a 'best friend'.  He longs for that special someone he can share special moments with and the thought of not having one fills him with sadness.  

To while away the lonely hours Bear makes tree-pictures of all his woodland friends. He's got a real talent for trimming topiary and one day someone turns up to admire the pictures....might that someone be looking for a best friend too.....?

Lucy's witty text is a perfect foil for the childlike illustrations, full of muted colour. A winner of a book that could become many a child's best friend. 

Reviewed by Saviour Pirotta

facebook: spirotta
follow me on twitter @spirotta


Sunday, 23 March 2014

WHERE THE POPPIES NOW GROW by Hilary Robinson and Martin Impey. Review by Penny Dolan.

This year we are, in a variety of ways, commemorating the outbreak of the 1914-18 Great War.  

It is a topic that has led to reports of spats between historians and Michael Gove, as well as Jeremy Paxman’s comments about young people being taught about the war only through the poetry of the period, which seem to have annoyed both English and history 

Although Odeon Cinemas are offering the Morpurgo’s “Warhorse” ntlive production, and the novel has shot to fame and film, teachers involved with the Key Stage One “picture book” age may also want to be involved in the significant year. 

Where can they find a book to fit this sombre anniversary? Maybe with this title?

Schools – and possibly families - will surely welcome “Where the Poppies Now Grow”, a book inspired by the family histories of both writer and illustrator.

 This rhyming text has been written by Hilary Robinson. Hilary uses the familiar “This is the house that Jack built” pattern, which makes the text simple enough for use in school or similar assemblies:

“This is Ben and his best friend Ray 

Who are two of the children that like to play

Out in the field where the poppies now grow.”

As the rhyme grows,  the book tells how the two childhood friends, Ben and Ray are eventually forced to join up and share the terrible experiences of the trenches together. It is clear from the mood and detail of the pictures that this is a terrible event, even though the two pals do at last return home.

The text is sympathetically developed through Martin Impey’s powerful illustrations of both friendship and war, using a colour palette that is totally fitting for its sombre purpose.


“Where the Poppies Now Grow” is published by Strauss House Productions.

Penny Dolan


Tuesday, 18 March 2014

THE SILK SISTERS: PINK CHAMELEON by Fiona Dunbar; reviewed by Gillian Philip

There's something especially exciting about diving into a book when you really don't have a clue what awaits. I knew that Fiona Dunbar's Silk Sisters trilogy had a fashion element and that it was futuristic, but that was pretty much it. I was expecting quite a 'girly' story, what with the pink cover and the fashion theme, but what I got was something else entirely. The running girls are more of a clue, because this is a fast-paced adventure that never entirely lets up.

Rorie is a wonderful heroine. She and her little sister Elsie (who is something of a loose cannon, but a very entertaining one) have a near-ideal life until one day, their inventor parents vanish on the way to a business meeting. Taken in by their foul uncle and aunt – who make the Dursleys of Privet Drive look like models of foster parenting – they have to survive the boarding school rigours of the horribly named Poker Bute Hall, escape their relatives' dastardly clutches (for Uncle Harris and Aunt Irmine have Ulterior Motives), and discover the truth about their mother and father. And since it's a trilogy, that's never all going to happen in the first book.

What I love about the futuristic aspect of this story is the assumption that the reader is in on the details. This isn't a story full of spaceships and aliens - it's a future world you can imagine happening tomorrow, with digitalised clothing, intelligent SatNavs, 'shels' (the new cellphones) and 'slants' - the new and better version of jeans that were developed for use in mines on Mars. It all seems so very close and next-week-real, and if anything it makes the story seem more contemporary than sci-fi. That leaves the reader free to enjoy the ride as Rorie and Elsie make their escape attempts, and to wonder and fret about the awful hidden secrets of Poker Bute Hall. Because it seems there is something very, very dark going on, something that's even worse than the strict regimen of housework, cataloguing classes and hammerball...

The good news is, the Silk sisters have allies, too, very appealing characters in their own right. And the good guys' chances look up when there's an accident involving a chameleon and a lightning bolt....

There are two more books in the trilogy, Blue Gene Baby and Tiger Lily Gold, and I really am waiting with bated breath to read them. Pink Chameleon has everything a 9-12 year old reader could want – adventure, danger, technology and super powers – and please, if you know a boy who likes any of those, just wrap the book in blue paper and persuade him to read it. This is not a book the girls should be allowed to keep for themselves.

PINK CHAMELEON (The Silk Sisters Trilogy) by Fiona Dunbar (Orchard Books 2007)