Saturday, 22 April 2017

Perfect by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Cathy Fisher - reviewed by Damian Harvey

Published by Graffeg, an independent Welsh publisher, and longlisted for the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal 2017, this picture book may well have slipped past many people - and that would be a great shame.  Written by Nicola Davies and illustrated by Cathy Fisher, Perfect is, in my opinion, just that - Perfect. 

The story itself is about the birth of a disabled baby, told from the point of view of the older sibling - but it's much more than that too. The young boy in the story loves the top floor room of their pointy little house. He loves watching the swifts that nest in the roof above the window and he loves watching as they swoop and fly around above their garden. All winter, the boy eagerly awaits their return - and this winter he also awaits the arrival of their new baby.

The baby arrives on the same day that the swifts return - racing and chasing each other, "screaming over the rooftops with the joy of being home." As the boy excitedly watches them he knows that this is how it will be with him and his little sister... "racing and chasing, screaming with laughter and delight." But when the baby comes home from the hospital, the boy realises that sadly, things won't be the way he had imagined. There will be no racing and chasing - instead, the baby just lies silently in her cot and looks at him. The boy finds it hard to come to terms with having a sister that's disabled. He's upset and doesn't know how to deal with the emotions that he feels, so instead of interacting with new baby, the boy turns away to hide his tears and stares up at the birds.

One morning the boy finds a little bird curled up in the grass. The bird looks looks weak, feeble and deformed but when he gently opens it wings he sees that it's perfect after all. The bird silently looks at him with its dark eyes and the boy thinks that perhaps it just needs a little help. Taking the bird up to his sister's room at the top of the house, the bird grips his finger tightly before finally spreading it's wings and flying from the window ledge.

When the little boy turns to his sister, she too grips his finger in her tiny hand and smiles up at him - "a perfect, perfect, perfect smile."  Perhaps, he thinks, "she only needs a little help."

Nicola Davies' text and Cathy Fisher's artwork are gentle, atmospheric and beautifully compliment each other in this delightful and powerful story that encapsulates life, family, and love. Perfect for sharing.

Find out more about Damian Harvey on his website and follow him on Twitter @damianjharvey


Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke, illustrated by Lauren Tobia, reviewed by Sarah Hammond

Anna Hibiscus is an engaging chapter book for readers aged 6 and upwards, and charts the adventures of the eponymous heroine in her colourful African life. At a time when there is a welcome drive toward diversity in children’s fiction, this is a warm and inviting story for early readers. 

Anna lives with her boisterous, extended family in an ‘old white house’ near an unspecified African city. Her father is African, her mother Canadian, and she has young twin brothers Double and Trouble, together with her grandparents, many aunties and uncles and 'big' and 'little' cousins. The sense of community is strong, and the reader is given a view of a new way of living. Character names are inventive — Chocolate, Auntie Comfort, Uncle Bizi Sunday, Wonderful to name a few — and the vibrant settings, rituals of life, dress codes, manners and expectations are sprinkled throughout the story to give a strong visceral sense of everyday African life. 

In fact, the theme of comparing worlds runs through the whole book. It is not only the reader who learns about another culture: Anna Hibiscus and her family explore these differences, too. Anna’s Canadian mother offers another perspective on everyday choices — should they spend a holiday as an immediate family unit, or with the whole extended family? Is peace and quiet better than noisy hustle and bustle? Similarly, Anna’s Auntie Comfort now lives in America and returns home to visit. We see how she feels about her African heritage, and how her family at home responds to her new life. Likewise, traditional life rubs alongside modern technology and developments. Anna, too, has a lively mind, and she is curious and tests her boundaries, both within the world she knows and by looking to countries beyond.

The illustrator, Lauren Tobia, adds much to the storytelling by giving visual clarification to young readers with her friendly, personable drawings.

This book is divided into four chapters and each tells a self-contained story. The style is simple and evocative. For instance, when Anna's father is faced with a problem, he goes swimming: '[his head] was a black ball in the waves. A black ball getting smaller and smaller. Just before it disappeared, it began to grow big again. Anna's father swum back with an idea.'  Every chapter starts with a similar refrain, inviting us to sink into ‘amazing Africa’, and ends with Anna Hibiscus (and, vicariously, the reader) learning a life lesson. We realise the value of family, of remembering where you come from while also adapting to change, the importance of seeing things from someone else’s perspective, and how great things happen when you use your initiative to follow a dream.   

Most importantly, although the stories describe unfamiliar cultures and places, there is much that a young reader will find to identify with in Anna’s curiosity and liveliness. The tone of the stories is good-natured and speckled with humour. I was left with the impression that there is more that unites those of different cultures than divides them, that the whole world itself is a colourful community to enjoy.


Friday, 14 April 2017

Dragons at Crumbling Castle, by Terry Pratchett: reviewed by Sue Purkiss

If you're looking for a present for a ten year-old grandson - as I was the other day - there are two obvious reasons for choosing this book, instead of one of the many books with 'boy' in the title which seem to be the current 'thing'. (Beetle Boy, Monkey Boy, Ice Cream Boy... at least one of these isn't made-up, but trust me, there are loads more real ones.)

The first is that it's by Terry Pratchett, so it stands a good chance of being funny, fantastical and magical. The second is that it's a collection of short stories - so handy for bed-time reading, when it's been a long day and everyone's sleepy.

Above and beyond this, if you're a Terry Pratchett fan, this book is fascinating. Written by a teenage Terry Pratchett when he was a junior reporter with the Bucks Free Press, the stories for young readers, which appeared each week, foreshadow the ideas and themes of his later work

In the title story, King Arthur receives a report of dragons attacking a castle. Finding that all his knights are engaged elsewhere, and much too busy eating his breakfast egg to go and sort it out himself, he sends young Ralph, who cheerfully trots off on his little donkey to see what's going on. Along the way he encounters various individuals who become companions, including the fearsome Black Knight (who turns out to be just a little man in a big suit of armour), and a wizard called Fossfiddle -: He had the normal wizard's uniform: long white beard, pointed hat, a sort of nightdress covered in signs and spells and long floppy boots, which he had taken off, revealing red socks.

Does he sound familiar? Of course he does. He's clearly an early prototype for all the later wizards of the Unseen University - just as Ralph is the forerunner of heroes to come - unassuming, even a little weedy: but blessed with a combination of good sense, quiet determination, and a clear sense of what's right.

Other stories play with the notion of parallel worlds, which he uses to comment on the vagaries of the dominant species on this one. For instance, The Great Speck concerns the adventures of the inhabitants of a dust mote - one of those tiny specks you see floating in the air. This miniature world has two rival countries, Grabist and Posra. Each has an astronomer, and both of these spot that another, rapidly approaching dust mote shows signs of life. Everyone is astonished - no-one had believed that other dust motes could support life - and the astronomers are fired off in rockets to investigate. They accidentally take with them the rulers of the two countries. What's the first thing the rulers do when they arrive in the new world? They start to squabble over who's going to rule it.

But the collection is not just interesting in relation to Pratchett's later work. Even as a teenager, he knew how to tell a story, and these are funny and entertaining in their own right, and for the audience for which he originally intended them - children.


Monday, 10 April 2017

Gaslight by Eloise Williams review by Lynda Waterhouse

Gaslight is a deliciously dark Victorian tale set in Cardiff in 1899.  The story is told by a feisty fourteen year old foundling who has many parts to play; sometimes she’s thieving Tilly Thomas, or she’s on stage performing as Ruby Radcliffe but mostly she’s Nansi, ‘The Mysterious mermaid.’ Five years earlier Nansi had been found at the docks in Cardiff ‘lying like a gutted fish at the water’s edge’ with no memory and a missing mother.
Nansi had been rescued by Sid and now lives in a dank cellar below the Empire Theatre with her only friend Bee for company. She is desperately searching for clues about her mother but is getting nowhere. Sid is no pantomime villain, when he hits you it hurts and absolutely nothing gets in the way of what he wants.
Everything changes when Constance and Violet join the theatre.  Nansi is forced to be part of Violet’s phony psychic act. Constance, a magician’s assistant shares her cellar and appears to offer Nansi friendship and laughter.  Nansi overhears a conversation between Sid and Constance which has life changing consequences for everyone.
I particularly liked the depiction of the backstage life of a Victorian theatre with its many dark corridors, trap doors and stage hands like Gassy Jack. We also see  Cardiff  docks through Nansi’s eyes and nose, ‘The sun had cooked the smells already and I’m surrounded by smoke and fish, salt and baking, mud, bodies and grime.’
The plot moves along at a cracking pace as Nansi races against time to find her mother. Will she escape the ghosts of her past and be free to write the story of her own life? You’ll have to read it to find out. Anne Glenn’s cover design beautifully captures the essence of the story.
ISBN 9781910080542
Firefly Press


Thursday, 6 April 2017

STRANGE EVIL by Jane Gaskell. Reviewed by Ann Turnbull.

    Strange Evil was written by fourteen-year-old Jane Gaskell in 1955 and published by Hutchinson two years later.

    My own copy of this book has accompanied me from one home to another throughout most of my life. It was given to me by my parents on my fourteenth birthday, along with a second-hand typewriter and a ream of foolscap, in recognition of my determination to become a writer.

    Imagine how inspiring it was, at fourteen, to be given a published hardback book written by a girl of my own age! And the book was amazing: a fantasy of travel between two worlds, of dangerous and beautiful fairies, and an epic struggle for survival. In my teens I read it many times, but until recently I had not re-read it for more than fifty years - though it has remained vivid in my memory.

    So how did it measure up? Well, I could see at once why Hutchinson had felt they must publish it. In doing so they decided to leave the 'youthful sparkle' of Jane's writing largely unchanged. And sparkle it does! Jane had not only the imagination but the verbal power to bring her alien world and characters to life.

    It's a typical fantasy story line: a beautiful unspoilt world - lush vegetation, fairy beings, satyrs and homely rustic folk - erupts into warfare. But the plot is complex, cleverly worked out, and you don't see what is coming. The best thing about the story is that Jane chose to tell it through the eyes of a mortal woman, Judith, who lives in a flat in central London and works as an artist's model. This is where the story begins and where the reader - along with Judith - is gradually drawn in.

    Jane's writing at its best is powerfully visual, at its worst overwritten with strings of adjectives and adverbs and long, repetitive sentences. At times it does feel juvenile - especially where a love story thread is involved. The middle of the book is long, with far too much description and not enough action (though there is a certain cumulative impact, all the same.) But the beginning is well-written and well-paced - and the last few chapters have extraordinary power, with a finale that is impossible to guess.

    Although Jane Gaskell went on to write a series of fantasy novels, she seems to have stopped writing novels after about 1977. According to sources on the internet, she has also worked as a journalist, a screenwriter and a professional astrologer.

    Strange Evil and Jane Gaskell's other books are available on the internet - some with gorgeous covers!


Monday, 3 April 2017

REVOLT AGAINST THE ROMANS, by Tony Bradman. Reviewed by Saviour Pirotta

ISBN-10: 1472929322
Publication date: 6th April 2017

Bestselling author Tony Bradman writes across a range of genres, including picture books and funny stories. I am most enamoured however of his historical fiction which makes history come alive for readers with its fast-paced action sequences and attention to accurate historical detail.  I especially loved Viking Boy and his take on the Titanic story seen from the point of view of a bellboy.

REVOLT AGAINST THE ROMANS, published this month, is also very good read. It's the story of Marcus, a Roman boy who does not get on well with his father, a high-ranking official in the Roman civil service. When Marcus is held hostage by the Catuvellauni in Britannia, his father refuses to pay the ransom. Instead he suggests Marcus kills himself in the manner of Cato the Younger.

Shocked by his father's attitude towards him, Marcus is gradually assimilated into the Britons' tribe and acquires a new family with whom he feels more secure and loved. But soon the Romans are on the march against the Britons and Marcus must face his old enemy again...

This is a page-turner of a story, full of twists, fast-paced battle scenes and a very satisfying ending. The characters come alive on the page and you find yourself rooting for Marcus and his new family, and booing the Romans.  If this site had a star rating, I would give REVOLT AGAINST THE ROMANS five out of five. 

My latest book MARK OF THE CYCLOPS is out now. Visit my website at Follow me on twitter @spirotta. 


Friday, 31 March 2017


Reviewed by Jackie Marchant

I don’t like describing books as ‘bitter sweet’, it reminds me of the cloying fragrance of air conditioners. In any case, although it’s a phrase I’ve seen used to describe this book, I won’t go there because it wouldn’t do it justice.  Instead, I’d describe it as funny and sad, frustrating and satisfying. 

It’s about eleven year old Alex, obsessed with the cosmos and determined to launch his golden iPod into space, by winning a big launch competition for amateur rocket builders.  So off he goes, together with his dog Carl Sagan (named after his hero, the famous astronomer, who launched a golden record into space on the Voyager spacecraft) to the middle of the desert to meet other likeminded people. 

Yet under all his hopes and his joy at what he is doing, there is an undercurrent of something else going on – the mother he has to leave meals for in the microwave, the absent brother and non-existent father.  Yet, he records all of this on his golden iPod, so it can be heard by the alien life-forms who find it after he’s sent it into space. 

But as he meets other members of the amateur rocket community who assumed they were talking online to an adult, we can see, even though Alex appears not to, that there is cause for concern.  We also see that he is so likeable that they are willing to help him.

As Alex sets off to Las Vegas to discover the truth about his father, we are touched by both his innocence and the support he has from this odd bunch of people he’s never met who care about him enough to  help.  At the same time there is the realisation that those who should care most about him, don’t.  Until it becomes a real possibility that Alex will have to go into care.

It’s a book about innocence, love, friendship, support and most of all, hope.  It’s a feel-good read, light-hearted and refreshing and full of characters you’d like to meet in real life.  It’s a book that I suspect will be enjoyed by adults as much as the mid-grade readers it is aimed at.