Saturday, 30 August 2014

Rose Under Fire, by Elizabeth Wein, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart


Image result for rose under fire imageThis is an exceptional and wonderful book.  I was given it as a prize on the History Girls blog but had resisted reading it for some weeks because the blurb made clear that this was a story that took us into a Second World War concentration camp, and I had a suspicion that it was going to be a harrowing read. 

It is harrowing, but so very rewarding that I urge you all to take a deep breath and read it.  How does it reward?  With wonderful characters one believes in and cares about, and who reflect that war is never a simple matter of goodies versus baddies.  With a plot that surprises even when we already know what happens in the bigger picture.  With detail about life in one corner of one horrific Nazi death camp history that came as news to me (I'd no idea, for example, that manufacturers such as Bosch and Siemens used slave labour in camps to manufacture the very bombs, gas and gas chambers with which that slave labour, and their friends back home, were being killed).  And with beautiful writing that includes some very accessible and moving poetry, along with descriptions of flying by an author who knows about that first hand. 

Rose Justice is a young American woman who has come to England to work in the ATA delivering planes and personnel for the RAF.  Chasing a doodlebug in the hopes of bringing it down before it reaches Britain, she loses her way over France, lands in Germany, and is captured.  She is sent to the Ravensbrook camp for women.  There she meets a range of women from a range of countries who meet a range of fates, but the ones who most stay with us are the Polish 'lapins'; the 'rabbits' that Nazi doctors experimented on.  I'm not going to give away what happens, but promise that we finish the book with damp hankies but feeling energised to make our world better.  I felt uplifted by it. 


Friday, 22 August 2014

Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders reviewed by Julia Jones

“ 'We wish we could go to the future,' Cyril said, 'But somewhere quite near, please.' ” At the beginning of Kate Saunders's heart-wrenching final adventure of Edith Nesbit's Psammead, the four older children – Cyril, Anthea, Robert and Jane – are still living innocently in 1905. The Psammead is the ancient sand-fairy who has been granting them wishes, with varying degrees of success, since they first dug him up in the classic story Five Children and It (1902). Nesbit's children encountered him again in The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) and once more in The Story of the Amulet (1906). The Amulet is a time travel story and includes scenes set in a benign Utopian future which reflects the author's own Fabian aspirations. The real future for those young Edwardians would be cruelly different. In the prologue to Saunders's Five Children on the Western Front the Psammead sends the children forward from 1905 to 1930 to visit their friend, the professor. While they are there Anthea looks at some photographs – but what they show is not the same as the photographs they glimpsed during The Story of the Amulet“ 'I saw a couple of pictures of ladies who looked a bit like Mother and might have been me or Jane but I didn't see any grown up men who looked a bit like you boys. I wonder why not.'
Far away in 1930 in his empty room, the old professor was crying."

And so was I! The current spate of World War 1 remembrances is hard on the emotions and one or twice I've been ashamed to find myself suffering something close to compassion fatigue. I approached Five Children on the Western Front with slight trepidation – was it just going to be a clever idea brought out at an opportune moment? I read it in the happiest of circumstances (lazing in the sunshine down a river on a boat) and was completely unprepared to find myself sobbing helplessly over the final pages. With my head I had guessed what would happen; in my heart I was overwhelmed. I opened that last chapter again just now to check the sequence of events and, dammit, I'm needing to wipe my eyes and blow my nose before I can carry on writing.

How has Kate Saunders managed this? Her novel is far richer and deeper than Nesbit's and, for my taste, funnier as well. This isn't intended to be dismissive of the Founding Mother – Edith Nesbit has a stature and originality that the rest of us will only ever dream of – but rereading her Five Children and It did make me aware of the limitations of the string-of-adventures format. Five Children on the Western Front has several story-lines, a plot, a wider range of tones and characters and the scope to be part of something that is bigger than itself. It's certainly a book which hits that magic, inter-generational space where both adults and children can read with full engagement.

Five Children on the Western Front belongs less to the children than to the Psammead. The sand-fairy is in trouble, deservedly so. “By the sound of it you behaved like an absolute cad,” says the Lamb. “My dear Lamb everyone kills a few slaves.” He is comic, he is nasty and can be seen as the prototype of all fallen emperors. There's a brief chapter where the action fast-forwards to 1938 and he's discovered chatting amiably with Kaiser Bill, with whom he feels much in common.

When the Psammead arrives back in Nesbit's Kentish gravel pit in October 1914, just as Cyril, the oldest boy, is leaving for the war, he's been stripped of his powers. He's confused, vulnerable and furious “A stiff little boulder of crossness” as Saunders memorably describes him. He has been sent down to repent and it's lucky for him that Saunders has added a sixth child, nine-year-old Edie, to the original five. She's the only one who has time to stroke and care for him as her older brothers and sisters cope with the army, university, school and (for the older girls) their first attempts to challenge their parents' pre-war expectations. They are busy and are occasionally exasperated with Sammy's obdurate selfishness and his refusal to acknowledge his past crimes. Edie, however, sees “bewilderment in his eyes and lurking terror”. Her love is constant and undemanding and gives him his best chance to learn the lessons of the universe.

The Psammead does learn and tears are the true response. I've relished all Kate Saunders's books since the day she bought her Belfry Witches series to our children's village primary school but this is The One. Five Children on the Western Front will be published by Faber in October and I want to press it on every reading household. There is an Author's Afterword which reminds us, poignantly, that constant love and premature loss are not confined to 1914-1918. Some of us will still suffer “the worst sorrow there is.”


Sunday, 17 August 2014

PLUMDOG by Emma Chichester Clark Reviewed by Adèle Geras

I first met Plumdog through the internet.  She is a dog belonging to the artist, Emma Chichester Clark who started a diary/blog which she posted on  Twitter. Lots of people fall in love virtually these days and I fell in love with Plum.

She lives with Emma and her partner conveniently near the river in London.  A good thing for her, because one of the things she likes doing most is jumping in water. She loves rivers, streams, the sea, puddles...any water will do.

She has lots of friends, both canine and human and she lives a life which seems to me to be completely blissful. It's full of croissants, walks, trips to the seaside and lots and lots of relatives who all adore Plum.

You'd think from this description that Plum would be spoiled, but no! She's delightful in every way: amusing, charming, slightly waspish when called upon to be so and flirtatious at times too. There are moments of sadness (like the terrible time Plum spent a Channel Crossing in a car situated in the dark hold of the ferry.)  She is also very not keen on  being left. She knows about Packing and what it might mean...

Samuel Johnson had Boswell and Plum is just as lucky to have the wonderful Emma Chichester Clark as her scribe and illustrator. We all know Chichester Clark's work in the Blue Kangaroo books and very many others. She's one of the most sought-after and acclaimed illustrators in the world of children's books and her style, which is at the same time both impressionistic and detailed, is perfect for bringing to life Plum's voice. The pages are edged with what looks like a doggy  fabric pattern and there's huge variety in the layout. Some pictures spread over the whole page, some are laid out in a cartoon style. Some are the perfect background for Plum's  philosophical musings,  such as this one. If you can't read the text, I'll add it here. Plum says: "The tide comes in. The tide goes out. The tide comes in. The tide goes out. This is my place. Forever."

If you have any friends who are dog mad, then this is the book for them. I am a devoted cat lover but have recently acquired a grand- dog who is as charming in his way as Plum. I wish I had the talent and the skill to write a diary for him half as interesting and exciting as this one is. It's not every dog, though, who has her own book, and as I realized  when I first met her, Plum is a total star!

PLUMDOG is published by Jonathan Cape most beautifully in hardback. The book costs £16.99 and is worth every penny. If ever there was an example of a book that needs to be on paper, this is it.

 Turning the book  over to check on the ISBN (9780224098403) I see it's described as a GRAPHIC NOVEL.  That's right, I think and I can't wait for more from the musings and reflections of  Plumdog. 


Wednesday, 13 August 2014

TRIBUTE – by Ellen Renner

Reviewed by Jackie Marchant

This is heart in your mouth, gripping stuff.  From the first page, you know that its herione Zara faces impossible odds and, even worse, her deadly enemy is her own father, Benedict.  But, rather that the ever popular feisty gung-ho heroine,  Zara is a girl beset by fear rather than confidence.  She doesn’t appreciated her own abilities, and is all the more likeable for it.  She is in a terrible situation – her mother died  because she didn’t agree with Benedict, her beloved Tribute child was ruthlessly killed by him and the only thing that stops him from killing her is the fact that he thinks he can mould her into the daughter he’d like. 

But Zara has been spying for the Knowledge Seekers, who oppose her father.  If he finds out, the consequences will be terrible, yet she has no choice, if she is to free the world from his tyranny.  At the same time, she is his daughter, a mage like him and therefore hated by those she wants to help. 
And then along comes one of her father’s enemies, a Maker from beyond the Wall – a young lad who holds an immediate attraction for her.

This is set in a complex world, beautifully drawn.  The characters are real, their situation desperate.  it is a world where mages give themselves a godlike superiority, where everyone else is considered ‘Kine’ and treated like cattle.  The firstborn of all kine are snatched away to become slaves, or Tributes.  It’s in this harsh world that  Zara battles her own self-doubts, plus the doubts of those who despise her because she’s a mage.  She also has to keep one step ahead of her forbidding father, because he absolutely must not find out that she is spying on him.  He’s one of the nastiest villains I’ve come across.

All this leads to a great page-turner, beautifully written.  And the good news is that there will be a sequel – Outcaste.  


Friday, 8 August 2014

‘What Passing Bells For These Who Die as Cattle?’ ‘Ellen’s People’ by Dennis Hamley, reviewed by Pauline Chandler

‘Ellen’s People’ by Dennis Hamley

Reviewed by Pauline Chandler

Most stories inspired by the First World War focus on the suffering and horror of trench warfare, the sheer number of men killed like animals sent to slaughter, the injustice and futility of it all. I’m thinking about Pat Barker’s peerless trilogy, ‘Regeneration’ and Sebastian Faulks’ ‘Birdsong’, or for young readers, Michael Morpurgo’s ‘War Horse’ and ‘Private Peaceful’. There’s something riveting about the horrors so graphically described and I’m sure, if you were to conduct a poll, most people would say that their first thought when considering that dreadful conflict, is the unimagineable carnage.

But that’s only half of the picture. A whole generation of young men was lost. What effect did that have on those who were left behind?  It’s a rare writer who can go there, to make us feel, with the utmost compassion, a common bond with people who lived in times when manners and attitudes were so different. Dennis Hamley does just this, in this outstanding novel.   

In ‘Ellen’s People’, we see the war through the eyes of a teenage girl, not someone called up to fight, but, poignantly, someone called to deal with the consequences of the fighting.

Millions died, and millions lived for the rest of their lives, with the pain of loss, bereavement and grief. Ellen represents not the courage of the soldiers, but the courage of those who lived on, with an aching burden of memories. When I started reading ‘Ellen’s People’, Wilfred Owen’s wonderful sonnet: ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, came into my mind, especially the last few lines, which express this so beautifully.

As Owen does in his poetry, Dennis Hamley writes with a wider understanding of the war, not only revulsion at what amounted to mass murder, but also the confusion and grief of those left behind, as their world is irrevocably changed.

And not only that. Owen, a soldier at the front, could yet see the effect of the ‘cess of war’ on both allied and enemy forces. Dennis Hamley also approaches his subject with the same humane tolerance, offering us a deeper awareness of the effect on soldiers on both sides.

Ellen Wilkins is sixteen when the recruitment officer signs up her brother, Jack, along with the other young men in the village to go off to the war. Tempers flare and the village is divided, when the local landowner, Colonel Cripps, seems to defend the Germans, but Ellen understands what he’s trying to say, that there are good and bad on both sides, and it would be wrong to go to war in a spirit of anger, seeking revenge, like butchers rather than soldiers.

These differences are highlighted in Ellen’s own home, when her father will not hear of her working for Colonel Cripps, in his eyes a ‘toff’, one of those who prey on the working classes and enslave them in domestic service. Ellen sees things differently. At the heart of the novel is her journey of self-discovery, in a male- and class- dominated world, a world at war. To be true to herself, Ellen has to defy her father and break open all prejudices. In this she has help from one of the hated ‘toffs’, Colonel Cripps’ daughter, Daphne, who takes her to nurse in France, fulfilling her highest ambition, and opening yet another unexpected chapter in her life.

‘Ellen’s People’ is a thoroughly satisfying read. The detail of everyday life in 1914 is fascinating and creates an authentic setting for Ellen’s story. Each of the characters is well delineated, with their own back stories and motives, but especially Ellen herself, who is an appealing and ageless heroine.

‘Ellen’s People’ is out now in an ebook edition (Kindle) , soon to be followed by a paperback edition, from Blank Page Press. The book was previously published in the USA, under the title ‘Without Warning’. 

Read more about Ellen, in the sequel, ‘Divided Loyalties’, a story set in WWII, out on September 3rd.


Wilfred Owen -  Anthem for Doomed Youth

Written between September and October 1917, when Owen was a patient at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, recovering from shell shock. The poem was edited by his friend, Siegfried Sassoon.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
    Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
    Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them from prayers or bells,
    Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
    And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
    Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
    Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
    Their flowers the tenderness of silent maids,
    And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Pauline Chandler


Tuesday, 5 August 2014

CUCKOO SONG by Frances Hardinge, reviewed by Cecilia Busby

Her head hurt. There was a sound grating against her mind, a music-less rasp like the rustling of paper. Somebody had taken a laugh, crumpled it into a great, crackly ball, and stuffed her skull with it. Seven days, it laughed. Seven days.

When I opened Frances Hardinge's new book, Cuckoo Song and read those words, I knew I was going to enjoy it. After a few more pages, I found myself closing the book, and hugging it close to my chest. I wanted to hold on to that moment - the fizz and delight of knowing this story was going to  get under my skin and make me live it, and for as long as I stopped, and refused to read any more, it would all still be there, waiting for me, stretching out ahead. It's the best feeling - and Cuckoo Song didn't disappoint. It's a glorious, imaginative, delicately spooky book, with characters that stay with you afterwards, and some fine twists and turns of plot.

One of the plot twists is quite a big one, and it's hard to review the book without giving it away, but I'll do my best. In fact, anyone even vaguely familiar with fairy tales will probably guess it quite early on (I did) but it doesn't spoil the story. There's still plenty of tension in working out exactly how this twist will play out and what will happen when it's discovered. And tension is one of the things that Hardinge does incredibly well in this book - from the first page, and that ominous 'seven days', the reader knows this is a story that has a ticking clock in the background. 

The book opens with the main protagonist, Triss, waking in bed and learning that she has been rescued from nearly drowning. Her memories of the event are elusive - and in fact, there's something very odd about all her memories. She's not sure who she is, or how she got there, and even when details of her life come back, they still feel odd, not quite real. It's as if she's acting the part of being herself. Something happened to Triss in the Grimmer - the lake where she nearly drowned - and she needs to find out what it is. She is ravenously hungry; leaves and bits of earth appear in her bedroom without any explanation; every night she has strange dreams, and each night the countdown is one less: six days left... five days...

Triss also has to contend with a fiercely antagonistic younger sister, Pen, jealous of the special attention the invalid Triss gets from their parents, and also apparently terrified of her older sister. But it's Pen who holds the key to what has happened, and it's only when the two sisters join forces that they begin to have a glimmer of a chance against the mysterious Architect who's behind it all. The bond between the two sisters is at the heart of the story, and Hardinge skilfully shows the mix of jealousy, rivalry, loyalty, love and exasperation that animates their relationship.

The book is set in the 1920s, in an imaginary industrial town in, at a guess, the midlands, and the fairy-tale elements gain some of their power from the contrast with this very down-to-earth setting of trams, telephones and motorcars. It's the beginning of the modern era, but lurking in the shadows of the remaining gas-lamps, and in the cracks and wastelands of industrial development, are the Besiders, Hardinge's version of the fairies. The Architect is the most powerful but there are others, too - the Shrike, with his strange bird-like face, and others, whose shadows flit across the corner of your vision - and they want something from the humans, something they are prepared to kill for.

But it's not just the story that makes this book so brilliant - although that's superbly realised - it's also the language. Hardinge's images and descriptions are pure delight, and on almost any page you can find a sentence that will make you want to copy it out and put it on the wall to remind you of what amazing writing looks like. Here she is on jazz:

All the instruments plunged in at once, as if they'd been holding a party and somebody had opened a door on them. Where was the tune? It was in there somewhere, but the instruments fought over it, tossed it between them, dropped it and trod on it, did something else, then picked it up again and flung it in the air just when you were least expecting it.

Later, Triss watches a party of young men and women dancing to some of this untamed music in an old warehouse down near the river. The windows, looking out over the water, make her feel as if she's on a boat.

Nobody was steering the boat, everybody was dancing, and nobody danced more wildly than Violet. There was something desperate about it, as if dancing would stop the boat sinking. There was something fierce about it, as if she wanted to drive her foot through the hull and sink the boat faster.

Violet, the ex-fiancee of Triss and Pen's dead brother Sebastian, is a motorbike-riding, cigarette-smoking, thoroughly fast young woman. In her acknowledgements, Hardinge suggests that the inspiration for Violet was her own grandmother, who 'threw her home village into confusion when she returned from London on a motorbike'. Wherever she came from, she's another treat in a book full of them.

In a recent blog post on ABBA, I tried to come up with a set of criteria that got at the heart of what a really good children's book should be. Cuckoo Song, for me, fulfils all those criteria with gusto, humour, wit and pure panache. 

C.J. Busby writes funny fantasy adventures for  age 7-11. Her latest book, DEEP AMBER,  was published in March 2014 by Templar and has been shortlisted for the Stockton Book Award.


Friday, 1 August 2014

THE ROMAN BEANFEAST by Gillian Cross. Reviewed by Ann Turnbull.

Davey has problems. His dad is in the Far East and the phone lines are crackly. His mum has her hands full - literally - with the toddler twins. And next door lives Molly, who is clean, organised and good at everything. Molly is in Davey's class at school, and she enjoys making him feel stupid.

The class is studying the Romans, and everyone has been asked to make something for the Roman Prize at the end of term. Davey tries hard, but every time he makes something Molly copies his idea and makes a better one. Davey tosses all his failed projects into his wardrobe - and then he has a brilliant idea! But can he keep it a secret from Molly?

This is a delightful story for children aged around seven to ten - a reissue of a book first published in 1996. The plot is satisfyingly clever, but it's the characters and the mayhem of everyday life that makes the story so entertaining. There's Davey's harassed mum doing up the baby buggy straps with one hand while holding a wriggling twin in her other arm. There's the constant messiness and zest for life of the twins (including a hilarious scene in the library). And there's Davey himself, not stupid at all, but inventive, determined - and kind-hearted. Ros Asquith's witty illustrations add to the fun.

And the reader learns a new word: onager. (Well, it was new to this reader, anyway.)

Published by Frances Lincoln, 2013.