Saturday, 20 December 2014

AUNT SASS: Christmas Stories by P.L.Travers reviewed by Adèle Geras

Fans of Mary Poppins, who are still legion, (though maybe not as numerous as the more recent droves of Frozen devotees,) will be thrilled with this little book. It's exactly the sort of thing any one of them would be delighted to find under the tree on Christmas morning but if this review is too late for that treat, then the volume will be equally welcome after the New Year.

This lovely edition comes from Virago as one of their Modern Classics and I'm grateful to them for sending it to me for review. I confess to being a lover of the Julie Andrews movie and also very fond of the more recent Saving Mr Banks, starring Emma Thomson and Tom Hanks. 

These little essays, or snatches of memoir, were given to the author's friends at Christmas time. Now, we can read them too, and they are quite delightful. We meet three characters who were clearly very important to the young Travers: Aunt Sass herself, who has a lot in common with Mary Poppins , a Chinese cook, and a foul-mouthed jockey who worked on the homestead in Australia where the author grew up.

Victoria Coren Mitchell's introduction is exemplary. She tells us just enough about the essays to arouse our interest and also to explain the context in which they were written. This is important because for modern readers, some of the ways Travers refers to Aboriginal Australians, or Chinese servants, or even Irish ones, and some of their reported speech will seem a bit...well, it's not how we refer to minorities these days and children especially need to have such difference in vocabulary and idiom explained to them.

I'm not sure how young the recipients of the original stories were and I'm also not sure how today's children will respond to this book, at least if reading it by themselves. It seems to me perfect for  reading aloud to someone younger while explaining things and interpreting the finer points of historical detail, but as Victoria Coren Mitchell says: "Many of the preoccupations of those wonderful novels appear in these pages: merry-go-rounds, gorgon nurses, small dogs, smart hats, suns and moons and comets and constellations."

I suspect it's a book for older people: an ideal present for a grandmother, say. P.L. Travers is a writer of very elegant and supple prose. She writes at the end of the first story, Aunt Sass:
'We write more than we know we are writing. We do not guess at the roots that made our fruit. I suddenly realise that there is a book through which Aunt Sass, stern and tender, secret and proud, anonymous and loving, stalks with her silent feet. You will find her occasionally in the pages of Mary Poppins.'

Finally, I would like to emphasise what a pleasure it is to read such a beautifully produced book. The paper, the fonts, the illustrations by Gillian Tyler are a pure delight and the shape and size are just right for putting into a handbag....even one much smaller than  the one that accompanied Mary Poppins.

Thank you, Adele,  for this,  which is the last review for 2014.
Like Awfully Big Blog Adventure, ABR is taking a short break over the Christmas holidays.  Many thanks to all our Reviewers for their thoughts and posts during the year - you've chosen some brilliant titles!
Awfully Big Review will be back at the start of January.
Meanwhile, wishing you all the best for the season - and much happy reading in 2015.
Penny Dolan.


Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Jimmy's War by Lynne Benton

Reviewed by Jackie Marchant

Here is a terrific book about World War II – written in the easy to read flowing style perfect for younger readers, yet still able to bring across the terror and heartbreak that children faced during the war.  A book I enjoyed reading and would heartily recommend – as long as you have a kindle.

This is another example of a book that has been self-published because mainstream publishers wouldn’t take a punt on it.  I don’t know why – perhaps it’s because World War II isn’t considered marketable at the moment.  There is absolutely no reason why this should not have been published – it’s as good as any other war-time story I’ve read for that age group.

But back to the book.  Here we have eleven year old Jimmy, whose father told him to do look after his younger sister and do as his mother says – then left to go to war.  That was over a year ago and now his mother’ had the dreaded ‘missing presumed dead’ telegram.  Now the children have the chance to be evacuated to Cornwall but, wracked with grief, his mother can’t bear to let the children go – they are all she has left.

The consequences of her decision are disastrous, leaving Jimmy with the task of taking his young sister Molly away from their bombed out house and finding their way to an aunt in Somerset.  With barely enough money for the fair and their possessions packed into pillowcases, the children set off.  Now the descriptions of two lost children come into their own as we are taken on a gripping, heart-in-your mouth adventure, in which young Jimmy takes on the responsibility of looking after Molly while keeping a terrible secret from her.  As a consequence the lies keep piling up, then the frustration at Molly’s questions turns to guilt at his annoyance with her.  For Molly is an endearing six year old with a furry rabbit she can’t do without. 

I don’t want to reveal too much, but I will say that, after a lot of trials and tribulations, the ending of the book is positive.  I won’t say it is happy ever after, because that would be unrealistic – this is a book about war and happy endings were rare.  And this book, despite its gentle tone, deals realistically with the horrors of war.

It’s a good read and I can recommend it.



Friday, 12 December 2014

Gambledad, by Josephine Feeney, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

In the mass of children’s books out there, do you know of any novel for primary age children which deals honestly with the issue of gambling?  Well, here is one, brand new, and it’s a goody. 

Don’t let the ‘issue’ at the heart of the story make you assume that this is a dull story-as-medicine kind of a book, because this isn’t at all.  It’s an instantly engaging and lively story of one family’s struggle through a particular crisis brought-on by Dad’s gambling.  It is mostly told from the point of view of eleven year old Antonio, although we do get Dad’s explanation for his son as well, giving the gambler’s own view. 

Antonio is the rude and difficult boy in the class, but because we know what is happening at home we understand why that is.  Tonio is hurt and scared, and doesn’t know what is to happen to himself, his mother and his little sister when his Dad loses their home in a bet. They set off to Hanstanton for a holiday which isn’t really a holiday, with the future very uncertain …

This is a fast-paced lively read through short chapters which will be easily accessible to children of 7-11.  Some children may recognise the problems addressed by this story.  Others may gain insights into possible problems that explain the behaviour of other children they know.  All will enjoy a very engaging story that ends positively, but open enough to show that the problems aren’t all neatly solved and finished with.

This is a book which should be in very primary school library.


Monday, 8 December 2014

‘When It Snows’ by Richard Collingridge reviewed by Pauline Chandler

Browsing in our local book shop (yes, we still have one !) for Christmas picture books for my grandson, my eyes were drawn to the beautiful cover of ‘When It Snows’. Its sombre night time colours really stood out from the rest. There’s that huge reindeer too, towering over a very small child. It looked unusual, if not slightly threatening, but I was attracted to it and intrigued, so I opened this beautiful book. I’m so glad I did. It’s a gem.

The images of giants continue throughout the story.
We have a giant train, enormous snowman, gigantic trees and the towering Queen of the Poles, and there's that reindeer, hung all over with sacks and boxes of presents, its antlers rearing up like huge leafless trees. As I followed the story I realised that the unusual proportions could reflect a small child's point of view, as well as what we might expect from the world of myth. There are small characters too, fairies and elves, and Santa is reassuringly human size. 

These illustrations are all beautifully depicted in the same sombre colours as the cover, dark blues and greys, the shades of a winter’s night in a magical landscape. No Disney glitz here!

Richard Collingridge writes and illustrates his own stories, a skill I’ve always admired, and both aspects of ‘When It Snows’ are outstanding.  It's true that the story follows a traditional pattern, with the boy narrator setting out on a journey, to exciting destinations: ‘the place where the snowmen live’, ‘the gloomy forest, Where I meet the Queen of the Poles’ and finally ‘a secret place’ where he finds Santa Claus. What makes this is story different is the twist the writer puts on these traditional elements. I especially love the idea of Santa having just one giant reindeer! 

There’s a delightful ending too, where the child narrator tells us that he can find these places again, at any time, by opening his favourite book.

This is a story about imagination, fairy tale, myth and magic, just a step away from a child's real world. Recently, there was the case of a vicar who baldly told children that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. How short sighted of him!  How wrong to limit a child’s dreams and imagination!  This lovely book says ‘There might be,’ ‘There could be’, ’Wouldn’t it be wonderful if-‘.  I prefer that approach. It was the one I took with my own children, adding ‘no one’s ever seen him, so we just don’t know.’ I wish I’d been able to share 'When It Snows’ with them. I’m sure it would have become a Christmas favourite.

Highly recommended for age 5+

'When It Snows' by Richard Collingridge, publ. David Fickling Books

Pauline Chandler   



Thursday, 4 December 2014

The Wind Singer by William Nicholson - reviewed by Cecilia Busby

"I hate school! I hate ratings! I won't strive harder! I won't reach higher! I won't make tomorrow better than today!"

So shouts Kestrel Hath, bellowing her rage and frustration from the very top of the highest tower in the exam-obsessed city of Aramanth, near the beginning of William Nicholson's classic fantasy, The Wind Singer. In Aramanth, your family status is judged by the grades each member gets in annual exams, from the age of two upwards - and a strict hierarchy results, with demarcations maintained in the type of housing, clothing and employment granted them by the city administration. Kestrel has finally had enough - of the endless tests, of the fear they produce, of the unfairness of it all. But her defiance will seal the family's fate - they will be sent down to the lowest tier of all, Grey District, and the only way she can hope to change anything is if she sets out with her twin brother Bowman into the wilderness to find the 'voice' of the mysterious Wind Singer, the contraption left in Aramanth by the legendary Singer people, long ago.

This book was a favourite of my eldest daughter, now off at university, and I revisited it recently because my youngest (12) seemed about the right age for it. We listened to the audiobook on a long journey from Devon to East Sussex, and I was struck by the sad fact that the book is even more relevant to children today than it was in 2000, when it was published.

Near the beginning, Kestrel's brother Bowman hugs his other, baby, sister, Pinpin, with a sadness that comes from knowing today is the day of her first test. "She was only two years old, too little to mind how well or badly she did, but from now till the day she died she would have a rating." We are told that in Aramanth "life was measured out in tests. Each test brought with it the possibility of failure, and every test successfully passed led to the next, with its renewed possibility of failure. There was no escape from it, no end." Every day at school, the pupils are ranked in order of their points, and exhorted to "strive harder, and reach higher, to make tomorrow better than today".

Of course, this is a fantasy. Aramanth isn't real. But it's heart-breakingly close to the mark for so many children today, who are (according to OFSTED guidelines) expected to know their national curriculum levels for each subject, whether they are achieving above, below or on 'target' and exactly what must be done to achieve the great leap to the next minor sub-division. Even the motto they chant reminds me of the constant exhortation to strive and do better every day that we see in our current education system - my son's school's (newly coined) motto is "Dream, Believe, Achieve".

Nicholson does a great job of showing us the folly, cruelty and unfairness of such an exam and achievement-based system and the ways it sees only a certain sort of value. Later in the book, Kestrel's father subverts residential retraining classes for those adults who regularly perform badly in the exams by persuading them to write about not what they are asked but about what they know - and they all know some fascinating and valuable things that the rigid exam structure doesn't allow for.

My daughter certainly enjoyed the parallels, and appreciated the efforts of Kestrel, Bowman and their family to revolt against the Examiners, who ruled the city. But the book is about more than just that ratings system. It's about love, loyalty, the power of the imagination, empathy and keeping true to a moral centre. Kestrel and Bowman are helped in their epic journey to find the wind singer's voice by the dunce of their class, Mumpo, a lumpy, inarticulate, dribbling failure, who falls in love with Kestrel because she once sat next to him in class as part of an act of defiance. Kestrel isn't too pleased by his adoration to start with, and Nicholson doesn't spare his readers from just how annoyingly whiny, smelly and greedy the boy can be, but there are hidden depths to Mumpo, and over the course of the book the siblings learn to appreciate and love the apparently unloveable.

My daughter loved it, and I was really taken with it over again. Above all, the book is a great, imaginative and warm-hearted adventure story, which asks you to really think about what is or isn't valuable in life. As such it will live on in the minds of its readers for a long time.


Sunday, 30 November 2014

The Fairytale Hairdresser and Father Christmas, by Abie Longstaff and Lauren Beard. Reviewed by Saviour Pirotta

by Abie Longstaff and Lauren Beard
Published by Picture Corgi
Publication date: 24 September 2014

Abie Longstaff and Lauren Beard's Fairytale Hairdresser series continues with a seasonal instalment that pits Kittie the hairdresser against the infamous Snow Queen.

It's the season to be jolly and Kittie is worked off her feet coiffuring various celebrity customers.  But when she clocks in at Santa's workshop to see to the elves' hair, she discovers that someone has stolen the presents meant for the inhabitants in fairyland.   Who could the culprit be and why would they seek to ruin everyone's Christmas?

Longstaff's adventure moves at a cracking pace, seamlessly binding new plot and fairy tale elements. The story begs to be read again and again while Beard's illustrations yields extra gems. As in the previous books featuring Kittie, there are a lot of visual puns.  The spreads showing Santa's workshops and the ice-skating ring at the end are especially delightful.

A grand pantomime of a book, not to be missed.

Reviewed by Saviour Pirotta

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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.)