Thursday, 24 July 2014

The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters, by Michelle Lovric: reviewed by Sue Purkiss

To begin with, an important note: this is definitely not a children's book!- though Michelle Lovric has written several books for children, at least one of which I've reviewed
on this site. If you've read any of those - a series set in an enchanting alternative Venice, beginning with The Undrowned Child - you will immediately recognise Michelle's very distinctive voice. She rejoices in all the playful possibilities of language - but the lovely words do not hide a sharp wit. Here's an example: 

Mr Rainfleury, in contrast, was in seven separate raptures about his creations. He could not be stopped from fondling their hair, and waltzing them along the top of the mantelpiece... He paid not the slightest attention to our complaints. I flinched at the steel that lined his emollient manners.

The book concerns the seven Swiney sisters from an Irish village, Harristown. Though they don't have enough to eat and live in extreme poverty, they share one extraordinary feature; all of them have hair  which grows so abundantly that, when released, it reaches the ground. Manticory, the red-haired narrator, is one day almost raped by a stranger who has a fetish about long hair. The oldest of the sisters, Darcy - dark-haired, and a very nasty piece of work - sees a way to turn this fetish to the sisters' advantage; she devises a show, in which the sisters sing and dance, and at the end, turn their backs to the audience and let down their hair.

This is the age of the Pre-Raphaelites, whose models always rejoiced in a positive cloud of  hair, and as Michelle explains in her notes, there was a sort of brotherhood of hair-worshippers. So the show goes down a storm, eventually attracting the attention of two entrepreneurs, Rainfleury and Tristan, who offer to manage the girls. What follows is a recognisable arc in these days of reality shows and celebrity worship; the girls make masses of money but see little of it themselves (except for Darcy) and have no idea how to manage it. So their rise is precipitous, but so is their fall.

The Seven Sutherland Sisters

It's a big novel in every way, with a large cast of eccentric and highly individual characters, who rejoice in a larger-than-life grasp of language and have in particular a tremendous talent for insults - the exchanges between Darcy and her arch-enemy, the Eilleen O'Reilly, are razor-sharp and full of energy. There's more than a touch of Victorian melodrama, but it's spiced with humour and wit and with a very modern take on the cult of the celebrity and the exploitation of the vulnerable. Almost unbelievably, it's based on a similar set of sisters, the Sutherlands, who were American and had a similar - though not quite as extreme - career path.

I guess you might put it in vaguely the same area as some of Joanne Harris's books, but really, I can't think of anything else like it. A rich and witty read.

(My thanks to the publishers, Bloomsbury, for sending me a copy of this book.)


Sunday, 20 July 2014

Glimpse by Kendra Leighton, Reviewed by Tamsyn Murray

I do love a good ghost story. And Glimpse by Kendra Leighton promises a lot. It's the story of Liz, a girl who has had more than her fair share of troubles in her sixteen years of life, and her battle to overcome the terrifying visions - the Glimpses - that plague her. When Liz and her father inherit The Highwayman Inn and move into its time-worn rooms, she hopes it will be a fresh start - the chance to leave the Glimpses behind and become normal. But it soon becomes obvious that Liz hasn't left anything behind her. The Glimpses have followed her and they are angrier than they have ever been.

Struggling to make sense of what is happening, Liz befriends a boy called Zachary, who tells her he can help her to understand why she is under attack and asks for her help in locating his missing girlfriend, Bess. But the Glimpses don't want her to uncover the truth and they will stop at nothing to ensure Liz stops digging around. Can Liz put the pieces of the puzzle together and help Zachary to find his lost love before the Glimpses manage to silence her forever?

Based on the poem The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, Glimpse is part mystery, part ghost story with more than one haunting tragedy at its heart. It's a clever, modern-day re-imagining of the classic poem, with a twisting plot that will keep readers guessing. I worried for poor Liz, falling head over heels for an unsuitable boy, and wanted to hug her when she thought about her dead mother. Most of all, I wanted her to find happiness and I couldn't for the life of me see how that could happen until the very last pages, when the mystery is finally revealed. Those last few chapters whizzed by and I really couldn't read them fast enough - I had to discover what had happened to Bess, and what would become of Liz and Zachary. I wasn't disappointed.

I found Glimpse to be an accomplished debut and a cracking ghost story. I would recommend it for readers aged 11+


Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Why? by Tracey Corderoy and Tim Warnes - reviewed by Damian Harvey

If you haven't met Archie, the little rhino, before then you've missed a treat. Following on from "No!" this is Archie's second outing, and very welcome it is too.

"Archie [is] a rhino with a LOT of questions," and he's very keen to find out all the answers - much to the exasperation of his parents.

Why do some things smash when you drop them? Why are some things sticky, 'splashy', messy... In his quest to find the answers, Archie makes a lot of mess.

Mum and Dad decide that the best thing for them all would be a trip to the museum. There are so many wonderful things to see at the museum and so many questions to ask - some of which Mum and Dad can answer easily like "why aren't there any dinosaurs now?" Others aren't so easy, like "why does that man have such big ears?" After a long day Archie is worn out and has finally run out of questions. But of course tomorrow's another day...

This is a lovely picture book to read aloud and share. Children will delight in Archie's inquisitive nature and parents will sympathise with Mum and Dad. Tracey Corderoy's text, mostly written as dialogue which perfectly suits the narrative style of this story, is perfectly complimented by Tim Warne's beautiful illustrations. A joy from beginning to end.  

Published by Little Tiger Press


Saturday, 12 July 2014

Dragon Gold by Shoo Rayner, reviewed by Cavan Scott

Harri has a problem. Every time the school runs a competition, his friend Ryan wins. Why? Because Ryan's dad always does the work for him.

So when Harri's teacher sets a challenge to create a flying dragon for St. David's Day, he sets out to beat Ryan no-matter what. He starts sketching designs immediately - and then a real-life witch walks into his mum's shop. She gives Harri a magic egg, that contains a real life dragon!

Shoo Rayner's delightful story of school rivalry and welsh mythology is the first publication from new independent Firefly Press. It's funny, engaging and feels very of the minute. There's also a healthy dollop of Welsh folklore, largely delivered by Harri's teacher and yet avoids any sense of being an infodump thanks to likeable characters and a good sense of humour.

The story is helped along by Shoo's own lively illustrations, including handy little portraits of the POV character whenever the narrative shifts from one viewpoint to the other.

My only gripe would be that Harri's adventures with his new fiery pet end rather abruptly. I can only hope that this means we haven't seen the end of Harri and Tan the red dragon.

Reviewed by Cavan Scott


Friday, 4 July 2014

PLAYING WITH MY HEART by Valerie Wilding. Reviewed by Ann Turnbull.

'I am so angry, and it is all Miranda's fault. She is the most stupid, loose-tongued friend it is possible to have.'

So begins Valerie Wilding's story - a historical romance for young teens, based around the Globe Theatre in 1599.

When Patience's father, a carpenter, starts doing some work for the theatre company, she and her sister Dippity also find employment there - Dippity as a skilled needlewoman and Patience copying scripts for the players. Their father has a new apprentice, Kit - a thoroughly nice, hardworking boy - and soon Patience and Kit become attracted to one another and everyone is pleased.

But the playhouse brings trouble. Patience meets the handsome and seductive Jeremy de la Motte, a boy player who takes female roles. At once she has eyes for no one else. Her risky pursuit of this young man has dangerous repercussions for the whole family.

I liked the way this story showed a real family busy with everyday work, running a home, worrying about money and helping out neighbours and friends in their small riverside community. This close-packed community complicates life for Patience as she is watched by a nosy neighbour and pestered by the devious Miranda. The story is told in first person in diary form. This makes for short sections and lively, natural story-telling.

Patience - wilful, silly, often self-centred but essentially sound - is a heroine that young readers will be able to relate to. The story is easy to read and subtly conveys a lot of information about the Globe Theatre. There is also a historical note and a timeline at the back.

Published by Scholastic, 2014.


Monday, 30 June 2014

Everything is Fine by Cathy Brett reveiw by Lynda Waterhouse

Everything is fine is an illustrated novel as opposed to a novel with illustrations. The visuals give the story the immediacy and intensity of a graphic novel. There is also fluidity to the page layout which perfectly matches the voice of the narrator, fifteen year old Esther Armstrong. Words literally swirl and dance off the page.
Everything is not fine for Esther. She is missing her brother Max, her parents are constantly arguing and money is in short supply. She feels trapped in the small seaside town of Pebbleton.
Things start to change when Esther finds some letters hidden in her room. They have been sent by a soldier, Freddie, to his sweetheart from the trenches of the WW1. Esther is consumed with a desire to find out if Freddie survived.
At the same time a film crew moves in to her home including the handsome and self-centred Byron. As they begin filming a storm is literally brewing and Esther is forced to stop lying to herself and face some painful truths.
This is a powerful novel of love and loss. There are no easy answers, or tidy happy endings, for either Freddie or Esther.
ISBN 9780755379491
Published by Headline


Thursday, 26 June 2014

WILD WOOD by Jan Needle. Reviewed by Dennis Hamley.

The reissue of this marvellous novel must rank as a Literary Event. First published in 1981 by Andre Deutsch with unforgettably brilliant illustrations by Wiiliam Rushton, Wild Wood should have been widely recognised for the classic book it undoubtedly is instead of going out of print early.
Well, to some of us, it always has been a classic and its reissue, revised and even improved, after nearly forty-five years, is an occasion to celebrate.
It’s not a sequel to The Wind in the Willows. It’s not a retelling in any but the vaguest sense. It’s a complete re-imagining, a companion piece, almost a concordance to the original, as Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is to Hamlet

Oh, in Wind in the Willows, how disturbed Ratty, Mole and even Mr Badger are by the Wild Wood. It’s a place of evil, fear, intimidation and danger which we as readers, feel tangibly with Mole as he nervously traverses it. Stoats and weasels are threatening, nightmare creatures who disturb dreams. They are, if you’ll excuse the word, oiks. The privileged upper class Riverbankers never think that the wild Wood may contain a viable, relatively comfortable and unthreatening society – unthreatening unless they themselves feel threatened. Well, they do feel threatened. We’re seeing Wind in the Willows from the Wildwooders’ point of view and it’s not hard to realise that this is a novel about class and revolution and a valuable social document about Edwardian society.

The tale is told by Baxter Ferret, an unassuming animal, a sort of wide-eyed Everyman who stands slightly apart from the main action with an engagingly critical semi-detachment. He loves his cars, his machinery, his family and his beer. Old cars and home brewing are among the novel’s main preoccupations and part of the warm, protective, though often cold and hungry world of the Wood. 

Concealed beer jokes abound. For example, the professional agitator who arrives to spark the Wildwooders into revolution is Boddington Stoat, who is ‘peculiarly yellow, a little lacking in body, extremely bitter but one of the best.’ Anyone who has spent time in a Manchester pub will know exactly what Jan Needle is talking about. Baxter’s first ‘gaffer’ on the farm has a petrol wagon, a Throckmorton Squeezer ‘with …six cylinders each big enough to boil Cider in.” Cedric Willoughby, the ancient journalist, drives an ‘Armstrong Hardcastle Mouton Special Eight. 1907 with the whirling poppets…’ Such madly exaggerated machines populate the story. Yes, it’s full of loving detail of a tightly-knit working class society. Yet the Riverbankers are not entirely excoriated. Baxter may dismiss Ratty as a poetic sort of dreamer but there’s a measure of affection there. 
However, it’s much more than that. As a satire, Wild Wood is on a par with Animal Farm. Both recount flawed revolutions. Yes, the Wildwooders do take over Toad Hall, rename it Brotherhood Hall, and the egregious Toad - a creation as gross as the Toad Grahame creates, still funny but also a symbol of repression - is driven out. But, unlike Orwell’s revolution, this is one is not entirely successful. Grahame’s narrative cannot be tampered with. The revolutionaries settle for less than domination. Boddington’s fanaticism is tempered as he marries Baxter’s sister Dolly. We know that Mr Toad will return. The revolution peters out rather good-naturedly with a sort of rapprochement between Riverbankers and the Wildwooders, the upper class and the working class. We can look round us nowadays and say ‘If only it had lasted!’ 
Funny, profound, superbly written, deeply satisfying: Wild Wood has so many qualities. Perhaps the book didn’t make the impact it should in 1981 because staunch Grahame supporters thought it disrespectful. Far from it. As with all good satires, there is a strong element of homage to the original. The Wind in the Willows is a quintessentially British book. 

Even though it springs from a radically different social and political perspective, so is Wild Wood. Read it, cry with laughter and close it knowing that the two books together have provided you with a conspectus of a whole society in a particular age but still relevant for all of time.

Wild Wood by Jan Needle. Published by Golden Duck 2014. ISBN 978 189926221 2 £9.99

Thanks to Authors Electric for this portrait of Jan Needle. Another excellent blog to visit!