Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Vivian French deftly uses elements of fairy-tale and myth to create the setting of The Snarling of Wolves; so, for instance, we find a (Less) Enchanted Forest, three Ancient Crones (who, like the Greek Fates, weave a magical web), more princes and princesses than you can shake a broomstick at, werewolves, zombies, a faithful troll - and an intelligence network of bats, whose leader, Marlon, wisecracks away like a character from Raymond Chandler.

The heroine, Gracie Gillypot, is a Trueheart, someone who brings out the good in people. The hero is Prince Marcus, who, unlike most of the other Royals in the Five Kingdoms, is brave, bright and adventurous. Gracie lives outside the Five Kingdoms (which are quite small, as Marcus realises when he looks down on them from the top of a tower), in the Less Enchanted Forest with the afore-mentioned Ancient Crones. The Crones are also responsible for keeping Foyce Undershaft safely away from the public. Foyce is half girl, half werewolf - and all bad. She hates Gracie, whom she blames for her captivity, and concocts a cunning plan to get her own back on the other girl and her beloved Marcus. Her hatred is the engine that sets the plot in motion.

The story moves at a swift pace and is liberally sprinkled with funny dialogue and great characters, as well as a generous scattering of fairy dust. I particularly liked the Ancient Crones (like calling to like, no doubt...) and the less ancient but still pretty elderly Queen Bluebell - but was also strangely drawn to the splendidly wicked Foyce and the conflicted but ultimately principled werewolves. All these are brought visually to life by Ross Collins' splendid illustrations. I wish I could show you some; you can get the idea from the cover with its magnificent werewolf, but you really need to see the full-page line drawings too. The artist clearly had a lot of fun, and he adds greatly to the reader's enjoyment of the book and understanding of the characters and their environment.

All these elements are very fine, but the absolute tour-de-force is the ending. All the characters, and all the different strands of the story, are brought together (by means of exceptionally skillful plotting) in a stunning set piece, where the good triumph, the wicked are overthrown, the fairly average change for the better, the misunderstood receive a sympathetic hearing, and the onlookers - and - readers can only cheer in admiration and delight. I can't tell you any more about it because it would spoil it - but no word of a lie, I haven't admired an ending as much since I read John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany.

This is the sixth in the Tales from the Five Kingdoms series, which began with The Robe of Skulls. You could read it as a standalone, but why would you? Better by far to read the whole series. And if anyone from Dreamworks or Disney is reading this (and why wouldn't they be?) - please note that this series would make an amazing animation. Oh, what you couldn't do with the path-with-a-mind-of-its-own, the troll who regularly loses his head, the silly princesses and the sinister Foyce!

I'd say the core audience would be 9-12 year olds. But as with so many children's books, you really don't have to be a child to enjoy it.

(This review first appeared on my own review site, A fool on a hill.)





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Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Doughnuts for a Dragon - by Adam & Charlotte Guillain, illustrated by Lee Wildish - reviewed by Damian Harvey

George, the brave young explorer from 'Marshmallows for Martians' and 'Spaghetti with the Yeti' makes a welcome return in Adam and Charlotte Guillain's latest picture book - 'Doughnuts for a Dragon'.
To prove that he is fearless and bold, George sets out on a time travelling adventure and goes in search of a dragon. After building himself a time machine, young George packs a bag...

"With some snacks that a hero might eat.
There were cakes, pies and buns, and a bottle of fizz,
And doughnuts - the ultimate treat."
 
Adam and Charlotte's delightful rhyming is full of fun and it takes us along on George's adventure as he comes across a Princess, an Ogre, a Witch and more - passing each one with help from his bag of tasty treats. To find out what happens when he finally confronts the fearsome dragon you will have to read on for yourself.
 
Lee Wildish's excellent, artwork is full of character, detail and motion, and he really brings the story to life. Readers will have lots to look at and discover as they revisit this book again and again. Sure to be a big favourite on anyone's bookshelf.


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Monday, 10 November 2014

Mariella Mystery investigates…The Spaghetti Yeti by Kate Pankhurst reviewed by Lynda Waterhouse

This is the fifth book in the series featuring the sparky nine and bit year old girl detective called Mariella Mystery created by Kate Pankhurst. The book is written in the form of Mariella’s super sleuth journal which allows for lots of fun with the page layout and for the use of lots of Kate’s lively illustrations.
In this adventure Mariella is on a camping holiday with her family and fellow Mystery Girls, Poppy Holmes and Violet Maple. Also coming along for the holiday is The Peanut aka Pippa Patterson best friend of Mariella’s annoying younger brother, Arthur. They pitch up at Limpet Rocks campsite and begin to sweep the campsite for ‘mysterious avenues.’ Salty Bay is a place where ‘The shops are all really old and the shopkeepers seem totally bored.’ Just when it seems that nothing is going happen a mysterious creature appears and makes off with the spaghetti pan! Is there really a spaghetti loving yeti hiding in the woods?
What made this story stand out for me was the quality of the writing. I have read so many book aimed at this age group that uses limited vocabulary, tries to be too jokey or too reliant on the illustrations to carry the plotline.
There are some great characters in this story too. I loved Olga De Bouffet and Mr Roads. Kate Pankhurst also beautifully portrayed the tensions of a seaside town when a new business sets up. A funny and warm story.
A Mariella Mystery story would make a great Christmas present.
Published by Orion books
ISBN 978-1-4440-1230-9



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Friday, 7 November 2014

THE SALT STAINED BOOK by Julia Jones, read by Anna Bentink. Review by Penny Dolan.



As a definite land-lubber, I am starting to mess about in books on boats and sailing, ready for next year’s work in progress. So it was a pleasure to be sent an audio-book of Julia Jones’ THE SALT STAINED BOOK recently. 
 
As the current owner of the real “Peter Duck”, Julia is a woman who knows her sailing stuff.  So it was no great surprise to discover this novel draws heavily on the world of Arthur Ransome, “Swallows and Amazons” and sailing on the River Orwell in Suffolk. There are references to Hiawatha and Treasure Island within the mix as well.
 
Although the book is intended for older middle grade and young teens, it seemed perfect “escapist” listening for a winter afternoon when you have some mind-numbing tasks to do.

THE SALT STAINED BOOK is definitely a ripping-yarn type of adventure but one brought into modern times: it has a contemporary setting and modern believable child characters, facing current problems. The likeable main character, Donny is almost fourteen, is used to helping his reclusive Granny care for his beloved mother Sky, who is deaf, dyslexic and scared of strangers.

When Granny dies, Sky and Donny leave Leeds in Granny’s old holiday campervan. They drive south to the Suffolk coast, ready to meet Great Aunt Ellen, their unknown yet only living relative, as directed by a mysterious telegram.

Donny and Sky fulfill Granny’s last wish - to buy him a copy of “Swallows and Amazons” - but after they leave the bookshop, Sky wedges the van in a car-park exit and gets in a panic. Suddenly, life gets much worse.  A nasty version of Social Services intervenes, rule-bound and unwilling to listen to what Donny is trying to tell them. Sky ends up in a secure hospital and Donny, not knowing where she is, is in a foster home.

I must say that the reader, Anna Bentink, really does enjoy voicing her baddies: the sweetly two-faced social worker Denise “Toxic” Tune, the bullying, racist policeman Jake Flint and the worryingly awful foster team: unctuous Vicar Wendy and Gregory, her weak, veg-peeling husband.  The double-tongued “languages” of care, health and safety, social systems, school and more made me squirm with a sort of  recognition. Julia Jones was, I felt, clearly making pointed observations here. I rather wondered if any young listeners should know that at least two of these nasty characters are revealed as “real” villains later on?

However, the quartet of young characters really makes this story. Donny - slow and lacking in confidence - falls in love with sailing from the moment he sees dinghies bobbing on the reservoir near his new school.  He is still determined to meet Great Aunt Ellen at Shotley.

Then at the Vicarage, Donny makes friends with Anna, a cunning looked-after child who knows how to work the system to her own advantage. 
(The scene where Anna makes sure she and Donny are allowed out is a comic delight.  She may be small but she has such wit!)

On the school bus, Donny and Anna meet the privileged Ribiero sisters:, admirable loud-mouthed Xanthe and her kind, observant little sis, Maggie. Daughters of a black magistrate and a doctor, these new “Amazons” have learned to stand up for what they believe in. So, when they eventually hear about Donny’s love of the water and his need to meet up with his lost relative – as well as being attacked by a bully in a boat - what can they do but help him?

The long and complex plot of the “SALT STAINED BOOK” offered me plenty of exciting moments (and an enigmatic back-story), moments of sadness and joy on Donny’s behalf, and a rather wonderful meeting near the end. Perfect for a grey day, I felt.  The paper version of this book is the first in Julia's "Strong Winds" trilogy which seems, for keen readers, a good thing. How can an old Chinese junk be otherwise?

Although, amazingly, Donny starts learns to sail by studying his battered copy of “Swallows and Amazons”, Ransome’s inspirational stories never quite made me into a sailor. But, for a while, I certainly longed to be one and  -  though a duffer* - did enjoy re-living those young sea-dreams through Julia Jones Salt Stained Book adventure.

Have you listened to any good audio-books lately?

Review by Penny Dolan

Ps At another level entirely, I found the chapters being read didn’t correspond to the chapters indicated on my Ipod display, but that is a technical niggle, and may well be at Apple’s audio end rather than a Golden Egg production problem.

*“Better drowned than duffers, if not duffers won’t drown” is the permission given for the children to sail to the island in Swallows and Amazons.


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Monday, 3 November 2014

WRITING IN THE HOUSE OF DREAMS by JENNY ALEXANDER. Review by Penny Dolan

Writing books seem to divide into two categories.. Both kinds, at different times, are valuable. There are books that look outward, offering advice about how to do it – create the characters, build a plot, write a breakthrough novel, get your work published and so on – and the kind of book that looks inwards, into the writer and the imagination and the creative act of writing.

Jenny Alexander’s book, Writing in the House of Dreams: Creative Adventures For Dreamers & Writers, is very much about the workings of that inner writer. Jenny carefully weaves the threads of her own life in Shetland and in Cornwall with her knowledge of psychology, anthropology myths and therapy, and builds a fascinating book for dreamers and for writers.


She traces her own growth in understanding and experience, from early struggles and difficult dreams through to her work now as a writer, anti-bullying expert, writing tutor and as a leader of dream-work courses and workshops. 

Each chapter starts with a brief introduction to a new stage in the dreamer’s journey, a section of Jenny’s personal memoir and an activity.

Jenny’s book moves away from “analysing dreams through universal symbols” style. Instead, she believes in the personal meaning of each “dream story” for that individual. What I found most valuable was that, throughout the pages, Jenny sees the similarity between the dreamer dreaming stories and the writer in their “trance”, dreaming up stories. She describes how “the coming and going between the worlds has a transformative effect.”

Although Writing in the House of Dreams explains the practice of daily dream journaling and the control of worrying dreams, there are many simpler practical exercises too.

Having attended a couple of Jenny’s collage workshops, I know these activities can free up the mind, even if you, too, are not a frequent dreamer.

Independently published through Five Lanes Press – that story is within these pages too - this book speaks in a calm and reassuring voice. Writing in the House of Dreams is clearly a work of love and deep thought and, as Jenny herself would say, “a book of the heart”.

Jenny also runs a “Writing in the House of Dreams” blog and her companion volume, “When a Writer Isn’t Writing: How to Beat Your Blocks and Find Your Flow”, is published in 2015.

Penny Dolan


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Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The Last Of The Spirits by Chris Priestley - Review by Dawn Finch

First the blurb....
London is in the icy grip of winter. Sam is freezing and hungry. When he asks a wealthy man, Ebeneezer Scrooge, for money he is rudely refused. Sam is filled with violent rage and vows to kills this selfish man. Later, huddled in a graveyard for warmth, Sam sees the wraithlike figure of a man approaching. The man warns Sam about the terrible future which awaits him if he chooses the path of murder...

Chris Priestley has enviable talent as a writer of Gothic tales and, in November 2014, adds The Last of the Spirits to his growing bookshelf of titles. 'Tis the season of ghosts and icy nights, and so this is a fitting time to bring out this companion to Dickens' Christmas Carol. Companion is exactly what this book is, those expecting a simple retelling will be in for a pleasant surprise as this tale stands solidly beside Christmas Carol, but this is no retelling.

Last of the Spirits follows the misfortune of two homeless children on the icy streets of 19th Century London. The two children, siblings Sam and Lizzie, are caught up in the spectral visitations that plague Scrooge through his tormented Christmas Eve. They are not part of Ebeneezer's story yet, they have their own tale to tell first.

Many writers have tried to snack at the groaning table of Dickens' remarkable works, but Priestley brings something new and satisfying to the feast. In a time of over-long tomes filled with wasted words, this book is refreshingly bright and to the point. No wasted words here. Priestley writes with blade-sharp clarity and this story is completely new, whilst also having a reassuringly familiar quality. It is rather like finding out something new and fascinating about an old family member. Priestley has turned the camera-eye around on the classic tale, thus allowing us to see what else might have been happening at the same time. The story has lots of chilling moments, plenty of ghosts, and you can really feel the deep icy cold of the season as you read it. I recommend a nice cosy room when you read this!

One thing that really jumped out at me (including the startling spirits!) was how well this book reads aloud. Even the best of books sometimes fall down when it comes to reading them aloud, but Last of the Spirits would make an excellent book to share aloud with others. Dickens regularly read Christmas Carol out loud and did so for decades after publication. Some books are written to be heard as well as read, and I can see this taking its place as one of those books brought out every year to share again.

Review by Dawn Finch (author of Brotherhood of Shades. www.dawnfinch.com)
Suggested reading age - 9-11
Pub - Bloomsbury
06 November 2014
ISBN - 9781408854136
Cover price - £10.99


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Thursday, 23 October 2014

The Firebird Trilogy by Nick Green reviewed by Julia Jones


I've just read the three parts of Nick Green's Firebird Trilogy as one big book. It's been a terrific experience and I'd happily go back to the beginning and start again.

Project FirebirdLeo Lloyd Jones is a teenage joy-rider from Salford who is picked – accidentally, he assumes – to be part of an elite group of youngsters who might be required to rehabilitate the world in the case of cosmic catastrophe. This is Project Firebird. Now I don't normally do much in the way of cosmic catastrophe and my appetite for dystopias is distinctly limited. But I love adventure and stroppy teenagers and their capacity for moral decisions and courage and emotion and idealism and that's what Project Firebird gave me.

Leo's quality is leadership, the indefinable sort which is something quite different from ambition or the desire for power. Most of the time he's completely unaware of it but when push comes to shove he's usually able to make the right choices and find the words to inspire others. On his first day at Project Firebird he is sitting next to fourteen year old Rhys Carnavon, the fit, good-looking ' natural leader' who has just trekked back from Antarctica after witnessing the death of his scientist father. The shifting relationship between Leo and Rhys is a main plot strand running throughout the trilogy. It's complex, does not allow for second guessing and has a resonance beyond the individual characters. It's one of the reasons I'd like to read the trilogy again.

Plotting is excellent throughout. For me the books really began to sing at the shift between volumes one and two, Project Firebird to Firebird Dawn. The shock at the beginning of the second volume was, I thought, brilliantly managed – especially when an unexpected twist and additional layer of complexity was revealed later in the book. Another welcome moment was the emergence into the open air. Nick Green seems to be particularly good at evoking effects of light on landscape and glistening natural beauty. Not that the post-disaster countryside is uniformly lovely: there are methane flares from pockets of rotting garbage and a glimpse of a survivor spending his (short) life melting down abandoned plastic. One imaginative insight I especially enjoyed was Leo's occasional sense of his 'own' landscape – Salford, Manchester, the M6 motorway – buried a thousand years below the landscape on which he and his friends are struggling to survive.

There's cruelty and loss in this second volume but I feel somehow that it's the most human of the three. That's a descriptive not an evaluative point. The mainly female Blackwater village, the ruthless Dustral raids are small scale in comparison with the brutalities and stark struggles for existence in the final volume Firebird Radiant. That's fine. I think trilogies should work rather like symphonies with themes introduced, developed and brought to some resounding climax. AS such, however there the obvious danger or predictability and one of Nick Green's clevernesses in his third volume is to counterpoint the megalomaniac’s bid for global domination with the intimate domesticities of broken nights and nappy changing.


There are thrilling action sequences, delicate moments of relationship and some extraordinarily fine descriptive writing throughout the trilogy. There's also plenty of intellectual content and much to reflect on and discuss in our management of the natural world. I rather hope that we are sufficiently co-operative to establish a Global Seed bank to preserve crop varieties – currently I hear more about fragmentation and restrictive patenting. These books could be offered to consumers of The Hunger Games or Malorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses. Instead each volume is available for £1.85 on Kindle. I don't think this is ideological statement: I think this is 21st century publishing's failure.


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