Monday, 25 May 2015

Regatta by Libby Purves reviewed by Julia Jones

May has been a merry month for new books and book reviews. I've been writing for the Bookbag site (unpaid but congenial and another way to feed one's habit) and was somewhat delighted to discover that three books I'd reviewed were all being published on the same day. They were This Is Not A Love Story by Keren David, Liberty's Fire by Lydia Syson and The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards. I also reviewed A War of Flowers by Jane Thynne and The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr. All admirable and enjoyable and highly recommended. If there'd been a maypole handy I'd have gone skipping round it, plaiting many-coloured ribbands. Many books good: more books better. 

However, when a friend insisted that I should read Regatta by Libby Purves, my heart plummeted. I'd just completed a new sailing adventure novel and was feeling thoroughly insecure The central character is a black girl in a competitively white world -- just as iun Regatta. I had wanted feedback on my story but the one thing that I definitely didn't want to hear was that it had  been “done” already – particularly by someone as good as Libby Purves. One Summer's Grace, her non-fiction account of a circumnavigation of Great Britain with her 3 and 5 year old children is a modern classic of sailing literature.

Regatta is fiction. It's set in a Suffolk coastal town named Blythney a thinly disguised version of Aldeburgh – except that the disguise is so thin that it's less than invisible. The peculiar intensification of life and relationships that takes over the Yacht Club set during the regatta month of August is so skilfully observed that it becomes almost more real than the actual. The yummy mummies and the teen drinkers, the businessmen who have swapped their suits for baggy shorts and buffoonery, the racing hearties and the competitive picnic-makers are all there – as they appear to have been from generation unto generation. Then, into this festival of class-based bonhomie, comes a thin black child with a twisted foot and a self-defensive attitude that slips quickly to aggression. I wasn't sure I was going to be able to read it.

Anansi is the unloved child of a drug-dealing mother and an absent father. Her lameness is the result of a deliberately -inflicted injury compounded by neglect. She has been sent to Blythney by a Country Holidays Organisation in order to benefit from the fresh air and organised activity. There's an 'anyone-for-tennis' moment early on when even her relentlessly jolly hostess realises the complete impossibility of Anansi joining in. The novel constantly questions the wisdom, the efficacy – even the kindness – of such summer holiday up-rootings of inner city children while simultaneously allowing full recognition of the genuinely good heart and decency of the Blythney hostess who is struggling to help. It would have been so easy for Regatta to be angry caricature all round.

Casual unkindness provokes Anansi into announcing who she has seen doing what to whom, up against the wall in the damp Martello tower. She consciously intends it as a bomb but has not realised “how long, how slow, how messy and unsatisfying a carnage she had wrought.” Regatta is a novel for adults which is about children – rather than a book for children themselves and the adult mix of shock and comedy is finely observed as the high tide squashes everyone together on the picnic beach as they fail to escape what has been said. The emotional sympathy however flows towards the adulterer's two unattractive teenage sons. One blushes dull red and turns away: the other is pale and pinched, staring into space.

No-one is without fault and for most there is a measure of redemption and relief. Choices and relationships are central – as they would be in any novel but the element that made Regatta outstanding for me – even among such an abundance of reading pleasure – was the portrayal of the river. It's a major catalyst for personality development change as young Anansi learns to sail and individual Blythney children make crucial decisions whether to treat it with respect. They've been protected by safety boats, allowed to treat it as a playground and some have come close to forgetting that it remains an alien element. Human error and the harsh environment precipitate a tense and terrifying crisis with no more props needed than some soft mud, a grounded dinghy and a few strategic planks.

Harry, the old man who has been the first to notice the potential of Anansi, views the river differently. He is knowledgeable, experienced and expert but he is also alive to its beauty and spirituality. “On a morning like this, no problem was insoluble, no grief inconsolable. His eyes misted a little: beyond this view, this dawn and this river, there hung some intangible, enormous truth and illimitable goodness.” My eyes misted a bit at this point. I wouldn't really claim that I am reviewing Regatta. It's not a new book (though it is availableon Kindle) and my copy has the melancholy rubber stamp WITHDRAWN FROM SWINDON PUBLIC LIBRARIES –  I am simply using this space to say that all the books I've read this month are good, but this, for me,  is special.


Friday, 22 May 2015

SECRETS AND DREAMS by Jean Ure. Reviewed by Adèle Geras

Anyone who reads my reviews regularly knows that I have no  shame when it comes to writing about books by my friends. My feeling is:  reviews  for most children's books are few and far between and anything I can do to draw people's attention to something they might enjoy, I try to do. And as I've said many times, it's not my fault that many of my chums are good writers. 

Jean Ure has written every kind of book in her time. In the last while, she's concentrated on a certain kind of story. To quote Jacqueline Wilson on the cover: "Fun, funky, feisty...and fantastic reads."

That is all true, but it's worth saying something more about Ure's books. The thing about them is: they're  well-written (not a given in books of this kind!) and even though they are decked in flowery, brightly coloured, girl-oriented covers they are never soppy, or silly and they never talk down. They are also almost always funny at least in the way they are written, if not always in their subject matter.

This story is about Zoe, whose family has won a large sum of money on the lottery. Each member of the family can choose to do something they really, really want and what Zoe wants is to go to boarding school. She has been influenced by Enid Blyton of course...and St Withburga's ( Cheeseburga of course!) is where she ends up.

The rest of the novel is about how she adjusts to being at school and how she negotiates the various friendship groups. Ure discusses how they change,  how they affect different  girls. She deals well with the day to day stuff of boarding school: the importance of nicknames, the status you get from having a boyfriend, the longing to be included, and accepted. I know from having a 12 year old granddaughter that her friends are a tremendously important aspect of her life, and I can even remember, across a distance of more than half a century, how painful and hideous any kind of exclusion can be when you're at boarding school...which I was, for eight years. 

Jean Ure's books are easy to read.  This one is in the first person. There's lots of dialogue and the characters are skilfully drawn and well differentiated.  They should not therefore be dismissed as frivolous. She deals with real issues, and in a light and interesting way. The books are nicely produced, and not very long. They are just the thing for the summer holidays, if you have young teenagers looking for a pleasant way to pass the time. Read this one and there are many others by Ure that you can go on to. I do like a writer who's got a long backlist! A very enjoyable book indeed.

Published by Harper Collins in pbk. £6.99
ISBN: 9780007553952


Sunday, 17 May 2015


Reviewed by Jackie Marchant

I’ve read many books with ‘daughter’ in the title.  The such and such’s daughter, struggling not to be defined by their parent.  But I’ve never come across a book where the daughter is expected to catch heads as they roll off the executioner’s block.  For this is Tudor England and Moss’s dad is the Tower of London’s most skilled executioner.

Moss doesn’t like her job.  She doesn’t like her dad’s job either, can’t understand why he sits and polishes his axe like his most prized possession.  But life behind the walls of The Tower is all she’s known – a life brought vividly to life with its ingenious cussing and personal hygiene we’d rather not think about

Now that Moss is nearly twelve, the life she has is no longer enough.  She wants out of the Tower, to wander along the river Thames, be part of the hustle and bustle.  But, what she doesn’t know, is that her father has a good reason for keeping her there and, more importantly, away from the river.  For children have been disappearing and there is rumour of a riverwitch . .
Set around the background of King Henry VIII and his dissatisfaction with Anne Boleyn, there is plenty of rich historical reference here as well, with historical characters coming to life as much as the river Thames.

Despite the cover, which looks very YA to me, I’d put this firmly in the middle grade category.   I’ve read some negative reviews from those expecting a YA title and I think this is unfair.  Now, I’m not in favour of age-banding titles, but I do think this one should be marketed as middle grade – the language and the humour is perfect for that age group.  So I’m going to judge it as a book suitable for readers of 9+ and, as such, say that it is a cracking read.  But, if you’re looking for a gritty YA read, this is not it.


Tuesday, 12 May 2015

THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, by Geraldine McCaughrean, reviewed by Pauline Francis

I'm very pleased to welcome Pauling Francis to the Awfully Big Reviews team - especially as her first choice is a title by one of my favourite writers. Thank you for joining us, Pauline!
I’ve always wanted to fly across the Australian outback – but flying isn’t my thing – so this Carnegie short-listed novel, set on an outback telegraph station, caught my imagination straight away. 

This is a story about a young girl called Comity who, after a series of terrible events, is determined to protect her father’s reputation – even if it means telling a lie and – worse – watching that lie grow.

Knowing the author’s talent for rich landscapes and high-speed action – and complete with glossary sensibly at the front of the book – I set off on my journey into the great unknown to drink in all that was on offer in a barren, thirsty outback.

 Comity lives with her mother and father, Mary and Herbert Pinny at Station Four (the Repeater Station of Kinkindele). Apparently, Repeater Stations were there to make sure that the morse telegraph messages weren’t distorted like Chinese whispers. When the novel opens, Comity’s mother is newly dead from a snake bite and her father has plunged into deep grief. Comity has one friend – Fred – an aboriginal, who has also grown up alongside another culture – the ghans – people from Afghanistan or India whose camel trains were invaluable in the barren outback (although real trains also existed). When the evil Quartz Hogg, a new assistant arrives, with his liking for drink and his determination to make sport of Fred, Comity has to leap into action.

A series of unfortunate events follow: Hogg and other men die after a liquor party; not before chasing Fred for sport and shooting him. Herbert Pinny takes to his bed. Comity sends official messages, and others of her own to keep the world at bay (including her ‘posh’ relatives in Adelaide). She messages that war is about to break out among the ghans and the locals - not realising that three hundred soldiers will be sent to keep peace.

Comity survives a time of horror, utterly loyal to her father, and always determined to keep his good name; but she’s consumed with guilt because she has told a lie.

The words morse and remorse kept buzzing through my head, just like those messages.

Like the best stories, the sadness if lifted by comical characters such as Lulu, the laundress, by Fred’s wonderful sense of humour, and by Comity’s badly spelled letters describing her ‘wonderful’ life to her relatives.

Of course, lies grow, Comity knows that. And everything crashes - along with the army train, hit by a gum tree in a great storm and – like Comity – stranded in the middle of nowhere.

All ends well – with Fred’s help. He didn’t die, although he was badly injured. Herbert Pinny’s reputation is intact and he and Comity stay on at Station Four.


What a roller-coaster of events and emotions in an amazing location. You can smell the heat, the dust and the rain. You can feel Fred’s ancestors around you. You have to admire Comity’s efforts in this classic, child against the world, furiously fast, and funny-sad novel.

The Middle of Nowhere thoroughly deserves its place on the Carnegie short-list.

 Pauline Francis


Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Head Over Heart, by Colette Victor, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

This story is about a teenage girl caught between cultures.  Should Zeyneb abide by the Muslim standards taught by her parents, meaning never developing a romantic relationship with a boy until she’s married?  Or should she go on the barbeque and funfair and cinema outings with school friends, knowing that Alex who fancies her will be there?  She’s just begun her periods, so there’s pressure from home to put on a hijab and play the part of an unmarried Muslim woman.  On the other hand, none of her friends wear headscarves, and some are wary of those who do.  And Alex isn’t just good looking; he’s kind and understanding too.  Zeyneb is torn between fitting in and pleasing those she loves on either side of that divide, as well as being her own individual person.

This is a very accessible read, told in the first person and full of dialogue.  It’s interesting and romantic and touching, and, goodness me, it’s a story about a teenage girl falling in love but has a beautiful cover that is NOT pink (well done, Chicken House)!  I would have liked to learn a bit more about quite what Zeyneb’s faith is when she decides that she ‘wants to show her faith’, but maybe that would have made for a heavier sort of read. 

There aren’t enough stories which tackle cultural issues of an everyday kind.  Here we have a very likeable girl and her funny nice Turkish background family (her relationship with her father is particularly touching), living the decisions that many of our girls have to face.  And the message is positive.  Choices you make don’t have to be forever.  Try one way, and then change if that doesn’t work happily.  And it’s possible to compromise.  Zeyneb decides that, after all, she will choose to wear the headscarf (for now), but she’s also very determined to become the first person in her family to go to university, to study botany, a passion shared with her allotment-loving gentle father. 

This is a book which should be in all secondary school libraries.




Monday, 27 April 2015

Joe All Alone by Joanna Nadin reviewed by Rhian Ivory



No parents, no rules...No problem?
When 13-year-old Joe is left behind in Peckham while his mum flies to Spain on holiday, he decides to treat it as an adventure, and a welcome break from Dean, her latest boyfriend. Joe begins to explore his neighbourhood, making a tentative friendship with Asha, a fellow fugitive hiding out at her grandfathers’ flat. But the then food and money run out, his mum doesn’t come home, and the local thugs catch up with him. Joe realises time is running out too, and makes a decision that will change his life forever...
Publishing date: May 2015
Cover designer: Helen Crawford-White


Warning - not only will you need tissues when you read this book but you’ll also need to hug someone repeatedly and be hugged yourself. And you’re going to want to talk about it and possibly miss meals. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
As you can guess from the title Joe, the protagonist is indeed going to spend most of the novel alone. Jo Nadin dispenses with the adults very early on in this novel and at first Joe and the reader are both delighted, this is going to be epic! Joe can play on his Xbox all day, watch as much TV as he likes and even eat mars bars for breakfast because there isn’t anyone to stop him but the novelty soon wears off and the loneliness and uncertainty of being entirely alone set in.  Joe is a likeable character in an undesirable setting; his environment is fully realised and brought to life by vivid descriptions so that parts of the novel feel quite filmic in quality. At times I felt as if I were watching the reality show of Joe’s life but without the glamour, glitz and frighteningly applied fake tans, well there are some fake tans but you get the idea.
The story is neatly divided up into days charting Joe’s week of adventure and independence once his mum and her boyfriend, Dean have departed for Spain. But the promise of adventure is soon marred by the reality of almost empty cupboards, the electricity card eating up his last penny and the lack of any family to turn to as the fridge reveals only one last meal – left over lamb curry. Joe thinks about the budgeting lessons he’s had at school and at first deals with his predicament in an impressive fashion but as he so rightly says what they don’t teach you at school is what to do when the money runs out.
Joe’s situation is pitiful and painful until he bumps into the girl across the hall and then (thank goodness because I was getting really worried about him) everything changes but in the most believable and satisfying manner. When Joe meets Asha he finally has someone to talk to and have a laugh with and once he trusts her enough he shares the secret he’s been keeping about what Dean has hidden in the flat. But Asha is more than just a confidant, she’s someone for Joe to impress and the scenes following Joe’s attempt at a makeover are really funny and make you love Joe all the more.
The novel ends in a real adventure, high stakes chases, risk, excitement, tension and fear but most importantly of all HOPE.
About the author

Joanna is the author of more than 30 books for children and young people, including the best-selling Rachel Riley series for teens and the award-winning Penny Dreadful series for younger readers. She has been shortlisted for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, thrice shortlisted for Queen of Teen, while Spies, Dad, Big Lauren and Me (9+) was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick. She is a former broadcast journalist and Special Adviser to the Prime Minister, and also freelances as a speechwriter.
You can follow Jo on twitter - @joannanadin   

About the reviewer
Rhian Ivory has written 4 novels published by Bloomsbury under her
maiden name Rhian Tracey including The Bad Girls Club. Her new novel The Boy who drew the Future comes out this September published by FireFly Press - Firefly Press
You can follow Rhian on twitter - @Rhian_Ivory
The Boy who drew the Future - Pinterest