Sunday, 20 September 2020

THE SAGA OF ASLAK SLAVE-BORN by Susan Price. Reviewed by Ann Turnbull

   In this short book, Susan Price has created an engrossing story of loss and adventure. Sixteen-year-old Aslak - born a slave but freed by his father - sets off on a quest to find his sister Astrid. Until their father's death, Astrid and Aslak had lived at home with their father's legitimate children - but when teenage Aslak returns home from his first trading voyage he finds that his father has died and his brothers have sold Astrid into slavery.

  Aslak's journey takes him to Norway and later to Jorvik (Danish York) in England. Aslak is hasty and quick-tempered and often antagonises people, but he has a friend - a shipmate, Thorgeir - who is more diplomatic and who joins him in his search. Later, Aslak is taken under the wing of an elderly woman, whose story reveals much about the lives and beliefs of the people - especially when his bond with her leads to her offering him an unwanted honour.

  The narrative is rich in detail. We learn how people lived, how their houses were constructed, what their clothes and weapons were like. Most importantly, we briefly inhabit the world as they knew it.

  Those who have read any of the Norse sagas will know that they are full of violence and danger but also strict codes of honour and kinship. What Susan Price has done in this short, accessible book is to write Aslak's story in the style of the sagas without any concessions to modern sensibilities. It all rings true.

Detailed historical notes are included at the end of the book.

First published by A&C Black in 1995.

This edition, available as both paperback and e-book, 2015.


Tuesday, 15 September 2020

'A Kind of Spark' by Elle McNicoll, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

This is an important new book, and one that is already proving itself popular.


Bright likeable year 6 girl Addie is autistic, and, like one of her sisters before her, is finds fitting in with school norms hard. This story is written in the first person by Addie, and she explains how it feels to be here when others get loud, when a need to know something grabs and excites her, and when others pick on her for being different.


When a school topic is about those accused and killed as witches in her Scottish home village hundreds of years ago, Addie feels so strongly for them that she determines to see a monument put in place for those women. She has to battle towards that goal, supported by a good friend, an understanding school librarian, and her lovely, if fraught, family.


This is quite a short novel, very accessible and a compelling read, fresh with interest and an unusual main character viewpoint. 

Elle McNicoll’s is an exciting new authorial voice. Congratulations to new publisher Knighs Of for this book. It’s just the kind of book needed to help children develop empathy and to find themselves within a good story. 


Saturday, 5 September 2020

Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault - Reviewed by Kelly McCaughrain

I don’t read a lot of graphic novels, mainly because they’re hard to find and seem to be mostly about superheroes, sci-fi, horror or fantasy, which I’m not really into. So when I saw Jane, the Fox and Me, I grabbed it. 

This is a Middle Grade/YA story and, as with all Walker books, beautifully produced. It’s a lovely physical object, and it’s a treat to turn the pages. And the story is completely charming.

Helene is bullied by the Mean Girls at her school, who comment on her weight and ostracise her. When she has to go to nature camp with them, things just get worse. Her only solace is reading Jane Eyre, which is about a girl who is also alone, unloved, sent to a horrible school, and yet grows up to be ‘clever, slender and wise’ and loved by Mr Rochester.

It’s a simple story, with zero superheroes, but one of the things I like about graphic novels is that there are so few words that the writing has to be incredibly beautiful and efficient, and this is both.

The illustrations are just as essential to the story as the words, and they’re beautiful to look at. The use of colour is really effective, with Helene’s world rendered in greys and browns, while the world of Jane Eyre has strong reds and blues and black.

But little touches of colour start to bleed into Helene’s life, beginning with a red fox she encounters at camp, and suggest that there might be hope after all. 

I think this is a story that lots of kids (and probably lots of adults) will relate to, and its simple realism is made magical by the Jane Eyre references and the encounter with the fox. I loved that the ending is quiet, subtle and undramatic. There’s no big finale or showdown. The trees simply start to turn green, a Mean Girl waves as Helene passes, and we know that she’s going to be OK.

Based on this one, I’m definitely going to read Britt and Arsenault’s other collaboration, Louis Undercover. If you like graphic novels, you should check out Jane, the Fox and Me. Or if you’ve never read one before, this is a lovely place to start.

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the Children's Books Ireland Book of the Year,
Flying Tips for Flightless Birds

She is the Children's Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland #CWFNI

She also blogs at The Blank Page



Sunday, 30 August 2020

The Monsters of Rookhaven by Pádraig Kenny - Reviewed by Kelly McCaughrain

I was already a fan of Pádraig Kenny, I loved his first two MG novels, Tin and Pog, so I was really looking forward to his third. I was lucky enough to get hold of a proof of The Monsters of Rookhaven, and it didn’t disappoint. 

Like his first two, this book is full of heart. Just as Tin asked what it really means to be human, The Monsters of Rookhaven asks, who are the true monsters in this world?

(It's also continued Kenny's tradition of having the BEST covers ever.)


So beautiful!

Mirabelle knows she is a monster. She lives at Rookhaven house with all her monster relatives, a thin veil of ‘glamour’ separating them from the human world. But who is the glamour meant to be protecting? And what happens when two orphaned humans stumble right through it? 

The Monsters of Rookhaven is a wartime-fantasy-haunted-house-mystery-MG set a Shirley Jackson-esque village. What more could you actually want? It’s got literally everything in there, including some truly great characters (he managed to make a woman made entirely of spiders endearing. How?)

The Monsters of Rookhaven is out on 17th September. I suggest you go preorder a copy for yourself (and the kids if you must) right now!

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the Children's Books Ireland Book of the Year,

Flying Tips for Flightless Birds

She is the Children's Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland #CWFNI

She also blogs at The Blank Page



Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Doomsday Book by Connie WIllis, reviewed by Anne Rooney


"People, mostly wearing masks, were out again, coming back from the grocer's and queuing in front of the chemist's. But the streets seemed hushed, unnaturally silent."
This is not a new book; it was first published in 1992, and it's been very successful so you might have read it already — but it merits re-reading as it's become so topical. 
The novel is set in both the future and the past, though the future is now a good deal closer than it was in 1992. The world of 2054 is remarkably like 2020 in many regards, though there are a few amusing archaisms alongside rather astonishingly prescient details. Britain, or specifically, Oxford, of 2054 is in the grip of a pandemic. Simultaneously, the medieval history department of the university has dispatched a young historian, Kivrin, to the Middle Ages, intending to get her there in 1320. The rising panic of the modern pandemic is played out against the fears of  Kivrin's paternalistic and protective tutor Dunworthy that she might have been accidentally sent into the Black Death, 28 years later. By a strange coincidence, our own pandemic has come 24 years too early. Some of the technology, apart from the time travel, is plausible: the implanted recorder that lets Kivrin dictate her notes to her hand, the extension of the Tube out to Oxford. Other bits are slightly off: the characters use video phones but they are still landlines, remote access to the computer systems is pretty primitive and people walk between venues to pick up information written on pieces of paper. But these are minor points; only the primitive landline-equivalent of Zoom becomes distracting.
In Willis's pandemic, conspiracy theories and misinformation are as rife as they are in our own. People decide that it's a flu from India and so Indian people are stigmatized — even though early evidence suggests it originated in the USA. '"They're saying it's some sort of biological weapon... They're saying it escaped from a laboratory.'" EU sceptics jump on the bandwagon claiming the pandemic is a good reason to leave the EU. (OK, she was out a few years with that one.) People criticise the NHS (which is thankfully still going in 2054), defy the lockdown,  try to work around quarantine rules and struggle with their PPE and masks. I suppose the traits of exceptionalism and defiance are basic human characteristics that any good novelist would pick up on and corral into service in a situation like this, but it's rather satisfying to see them here. A priest comments that people will initially have a burst of enthusiasm for religion and will then take shelter and hide away. Medical refusniks are the anti-vaxxers of 2054; they refuse to comply with safety measures, many of them belonging to fringe religions. The disease spreads as easily as covid-19, with people contracting it after attending a dance, or bumping into an infected person in the street. There is even a shortage of eggs, masks and toilet paper. "'Why aren't you wearing your mask?'/'It causes my spectacles to steam up.'" Even the cock-ups are the same: "Colin brought the contacts charts. They were a disaster. No attempt had been made to correlate any of the information..."  It all looks horribly familiar.

While modern Oxford struggles with its pandemic, Kivrin has her own battles in the Middle Ages, with little going according to plan. Despite all the careful preparations by the history department, her knowledge of the period is far from perfect. She struggles when the small child she becomes increasingly attached to is injured and she recognises that contemporary medicine can do little for her. Knowledge, truth and misinformation are major themes in the novel. Kivrin's academic knowledge of Middle English and the Middle Ages, considered rock-solid fact in the world she left, turns out to be distorted and incomplete, arousing suspicion and causing her problems. How much of what we 'know' is not actually true? The science might, as in the case of the pandemic, reveal its errors in the end, but without time travel we will never know whether we have got history right. This concern with the contingency and elusiveness of truth is as modern a theme as the pandemic around which the book is built. And it's beautifully if accidentally illustrated in the edition shown here: the iconic plague-doctor mask used to conjur up the Black Death on the cover is anachronistic as it wasn't developed until the sixteenth century. I'd like to think that was deliberate, but it's probably just incompetence. Really, if you can face another pandemic or two this is worth a read or re-read.

Anne Rooney


Thursday, 20 August 2020

SOME KIDS I TAUGHT AND WHAT THEY TAUGHT ME by Kate Clanchy. Review by Penny Dolan

 Buy Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me ...

Dear Reader, 

I chose this title before the news that poetry could be dropped form the 2021 GCSE syllabus, and before the announcement of the current A level exam grades in Scotland and England. The book seems even more of a necessary read to me right now.

I found this title - "Some kids I taught and what they taught me" - on my local bookshop's non-fiction tables. I opened the pages and could not resist Kate Clanchy's sensible warm voice, nor the content.

It was immediately clear that "Some kids I taught and what they taught me" was not a cosy classroom memoir but a readable book with a kind, strong heart and a passion for education for all pupils. 

(It also won the 2020 Orwell Prize.)

While the current exam fiasco rumbles around like the thunder-storms, this felt the right book to be reading and recommending right now, whether as an ex-teacher, an author who occasionally teaches creative writing, or, simply, as an ordinary, everyday human being.

Clanchy, who taught English within the state system for many years, writes about the children, classes and schools she has known. Over fifteen chapters - some longer than others - Clanchy offers vivid examples and opinions on the teaching of English Literature, education and life in schools today, emphasised through the personalities and the words of the students themselves

Her varied topics cover issues such as sex education with a group of excluded pupils; English studies for migrant and refugee children; working with classes of third, fourth or fifth language learners; the importance of the right papers and unvarying answers: the value of prizes and of valuing the children's own work; the ranking of schools and church schools within an area; the progress of pupils inside a fourth-choice secondary school,  and many more contemporary issues and controversies.

Clanchy's love of poetry and teaching runs through the pages. An established poet, creative writing tutor and journalist herself, she emphasises the practice of poetry writing and reading in schools, and the use of "model "poems as a way of guiding and inspiring the children's responses, and building their knowledge of forms of poetry, including non-English forms, both written and spoken.

Additionally, while teaching within a multi-racial school community, Clanchy noted that the Faber Young Poets Competition favoured traditional poetic subjects and language for their prize entries, and that no state schools were among the winners. Determined that a wider range of voices should be heard,  Clanchy wrote to the organisers and educational press.  She also, as writer-in-residence, set up lunchtime workshops for girls who rarely spoke in class, creating the Very Quiet Foreign Pupils poetry group. Within the pages , the reader meets some of these students, their words and their spirit of co-operation, and how eventually a book of their poems was published.

In conclusion, Clanchy also - pointedly and angrily - laments an English Curriculum based more and more on learned critical study, and rarely on the young readers response to the writing, or to encouraging students to develop their own written voices or find words - when they want to - for their own experiences.

This is a serious book, yet the stories within and the mood of hope and resilience, made reading it a pleasure and an inspiration.

Penny Dolan



Saturday, 15 August 2020

The Water's Daughter, by Michelle Lovric: reviewed by Sue Purkiss

Michelle Lovric writes fiction for adults and children: a common theme of all her novels is a Venetian setting, and it's very clear from a reading of any of her books that she knows Venice very well, and loves it very much - I think it could certainly be argued that Venice is absolutely at the heart of her writing. She also writes non-fiction; most recently she collaborated with Gemma Dowler on a book about her mudered sister, Millie Dowling, which topped the Amazon and Times bestseller charts. She's also compiled numerous anthologies.

(Image taken from Michelle Lovic's website.)

This book, which is for children, follows on from several others set in the past, and in a parallel Venice . Geographically it's remarkably similar to the city we know today, but it also features a whole troupe of magical creatures. I was particularly delighted to meet the mermaids again: charming, beautiful, but very down-to-earth (!) creatures who live underneath the city and are distinctly foul-mouthed, owing to the fact that they learned their language from pirates. But new to this book is a whole palazzo full of magical creatures who have been transported (by mistake) from Arabia - including a beautiful and utterly amoral djinniya, who has great powers - which, fortunately for Venice, she is not very competent at handling. 

Its human heroine is 12 year old Aurelia Bon, the child of appalling parents who at the beginning of the book are planning to force her to marry the unpleasant son of an unpleasant family; her only other option is to be immured in a nunnery. Aurelia is not the kind of girl to put up with this sort of treatment - she has an extraordinary gift (when she touches a building, her fingers sense its history) and with this, and with a naturally strong personality, comes a firm sense of her own importance. She runs away, and encounters all sorts of dangers but also all manner of wonders. 

She has to battle against all sorts of enemies: a jealous historian who envies her ability to pull the crowds, and has designs on her magical fingers; her ghastly suitor and his family; the very creepy priest in charge of the nunnery; a bunch of pirates (who have lots of saving graces); a group of venal politicians/businessmen whose aim is to such Venice dry of her wealth; and the djinniya. The tussle between the latter and Aurelia is positively epic: they're both powerful, both very selfish, and both actually rather likeable - more so as the book goes on and they have to face up to some uncomfortable truths about themselves.

The book is a glorious flight of imagination, with excitement, humour and glamour in shed loads. I would put it at the upper end of middle-grade - particularly near the beginning, there are some quite scary bits, which might be a bit challenging for younger children - but for the right reader, it offers a gorgeously rich reading experience. And there are the other Venetian children's novels to move on to - it's not essential to read them in sequence. So much to enjoy!