Friday, 19 September 2014

The Diamond Thief by Sharon Gosling - reviewed by Tamsyn Murray

Rémy Brunel is a bird of paradise, flying on a trapeze above the ring in Le Cirque de la Lune in an exquisite pink and black feathered costume. That's her day job. She's also a jewel thief, one of the best in the business, and the circus gives her the perfect cover, taking her orders from Gustave, the circus owner. Rémy doesn't plan to be a thief forever, just long enough to get herself and her best friend Claudette enough money to make a life for themselves away from the circus. Gustave has other ideas...

When the circus arrives in London, it's not long before Gustave has his eye on a glittering prize - the Darya-ye Noor diamond - the Ocean of Light - which is on display at the Tower of London. He sends Rémy to steal it but things don't go to plan, especially when she encounters the determined and conscientious Thaddeus Rec, the only policeman to suspect her. At the end of the night, the diamond is in Rémy's hands but nothing is what it seems and she is forced to go on the run in fear of her life and her future.

Featuring a cast of fabulous characters, confounding contraptions and a rip-roaring ride of an adventure that leads us deep under London's Victorian streets, The Diamond Thief is a highly enjoyable, action-packed story. Rémy and Thaddeus in particular stand out  - Rémy shines like the jewels she steals and she is exactly the kind of character I wish I had written. I feared for Thaddeus at first because of his principals but he falls just the right side of immovable and makes the right choices when it comes down to it. I couldn't wait to get back to this book and yet didn't want it to end - thankfully, there's a sequel, The Ruby Airship, so I get to find out what Rémy gets up to next.

I recommend this book for aged 12+ - a great Steampunk adventure with a romantic heart and plenty of thrills and spills along the way.


Friday, 12 September 2014

Corpse Talk Season 1 by Adam Murphy

Fans of Horrible Histories will love the first volume of Corpse Talk, a dead funny comic strip that first appeared in the pages of The Phoenix

The concept is deceptively simple, freakishly funny and wonderfully ghoulish. An interviewer – artist and writer Adam Murphy – digs up the bodies of famous folk from the past, and then quizzes them about their lives, and in many cases, how they shuffled off this mortal coil. 

Kids with a love of the macabre will be suitably grossed out by the historical figures' gaunt mummified looks, while Murphy expertly condenses the main events of 33 notable lives into single or double page strips. 

The author's dry wit transforms potentially dry facts into full-on belly laughs that educate as they entertain. You'll certainly never look at the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst, Dick Turpin and Jane Austin the same way again, while familiar faces like the many wives of Henry VIII, Mahatma Ghandi or Charles Dickens get a fresh approach (well, as fresh as a mouldering cadaver gets anyway).

One to file under 'why has no-one ever done this before' Corpse Talk Season 1 proves that history - and the dead for that matter - needn't be stiff and starchy.

Reviewed by Cavan Scott


Sunday, 7 September 2014

The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones & Ursula Jones; reviewed by Gillian Philip

We’ll never know how it should have ended. At least, we’ll never know how it would have ended, had Diana Wynne Jones not died before completing her last novel. We don’t even know where she stopped writing, because the book doesn’t tell us; we only know that somewhere along the journey, Diana’s sister Ursula took over the story and completed it. When she first read to the end of the existing manuscript: “It was a shock,” says Ursula Jones in her Afterword. “It was like being woken from sleepwalking or nearly running off the edge of a cliff.” But taking as her launch point a clue she spotted in the manuscript, and with her understanding of her sister’s style and writing process, Ursula caught the apprentice Wise Woman Aileen and her friends before they fell, and carried them along to the end of their adventure.

When we meet Aileen, it’s the morning after her abject failure in her initiation as a Wise Woman, and she’s being comforted by her Aunt Beck, a full-fledged Wise Woman (and one Scots would call a nippy sweetie). She’s not unkind, though (well, not deliberately), and her no-nonsense attitude chivvies Aileen along into both adventure and a discovery of her true abilities.
I have no idea, and neither does anyone other reviewer I’ve read, where Ursula Jones took over the story. To me it was a seamless adventure with everything a reader could wish for in a fantasy: quests, danger, transformations and impossible obstacles; quirky friends and loathsome enemies and plenty of human frailty in between. As Aileen travels from her home in Skarr to the isolated kingdom of Logra - via the islands of Bernica and Gallis - she accumulates the kind of friends that every fantasy heroine should have, not all of them human (the best of them is the magically elusive cat, Plug-Ugly). And of course, just as it should be, the stern wisdom and acerbic guidance of Aunt Beck is lost to Aileen through a wicked spell; it’s down to the failed young Wise Woman to save the day and break the spells that bind not only her aunt, but the whole kingdom of Logra.

It’s never openly stated but the four islands are very much inspired by the four nations of the British Isles, with Skarr loosely based on Scotland, Bernica on Ireland, Gallis on Wales, and Logra on England. The languages, the peoples and even the living emblems of each island are reminiscent of the respective countries; it’s a rather lovely concept in the islands' links that might soon have an elegiac tone.

Even as you read, there’s a sense of sadness that this was Diana Wynne Jones’s last book. But it’s a lovely coda to a wonderful body of work. I’m just glad Ursula Jones seems to have shared such a telepathic empathy with her sister.

The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones (completed by Ursula Jones) (Harper Collins, £12.99 hb)


Saturday, 6 September 2014

Captain Beastlie's Pirate Party by Lucy Coats and Chris Mould - reviewed by Damian Harvey

Captain Beastlie is a dirty, smelly pirate but his ship is smart and his crew are clean. The filthy captain shouts and bellows, stamps and stomps around his ship as he counts down the days left until his birthday - just in case his crew should have forgotten.

Children will delight in Beastlie's dirty habits - 'picking a bogey out of his nose and licking it', then 'rootling a glob of peanut butter out of his ear', and much more besides. They will also love seeing his crew as they busily prepare a birthday surprise for their bellowing captain. But what is it they are preparing?

Lucy's text is a joy to read with its rhythms, pirate language and expressive dialogue. A great book to share and a real must to read aloud to a bunch of lily-livered limpets ahar! But please beware! It's impossible to read in anything other than a traditional pirate voice... And quite right too.

Chris Mould's artwork is always a joy to see and here he brings Lucy's characters to life with lots of fun and added detail in his own inimitable style giving the readers so much to look at.


Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Skim words by Mariko Tamaki drawings by Jillian Tamaki review by Lynda Waterhouse

This is a graphic novel based around the diary of sixteen year old goth girl and trainee witch Kimberley Kaiko Cameron aka Skim. At the beginning of the story she has broken her arm. She tells her best friend that she broke it falling off her bike but in reality she ‘tripped on altar getting out of bed and fell on Mum’s candelabra.’
Her parents’ marriage has broken down and her friendship with Lisa is becoming fractured. Popular girl Katie Matthew’s is dumped by her boyfriend and appears with a black broken heart drawn on her hands. There is a hilarious scene in the book where Lisa and Skim attend a coven which turns out to be an AA meeting.
Then Katie’s ex –boyfriend commits suicide and this changes everything at school. Skim is targeted by Miss Hornet, the school counsellor who says ‘students who are members of the ‘’gothic’’ culture are very fragile,’ yet it is Katie who falls off a roof and breaks both her arms.
At the same moment as the suicide Skim falls in love with her drama teacher. Her friendship with Lisa breaks down. Skim is in emotional freefall with no one to talk to. A friendship from an unexpected source brings her joy. There is only one drawing of Skim laughing which is a powerful contrast to how she is portrayed in the rest of the novel.
This novel captures the humour and intensity of Skim’s life and how it is possible to turn a corner in life.
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 978-1-4063-2136-4


Saturday, 30 August 2014

Rose Under Fire, by Elizabeth Wein, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart


Image result for rose under fire imageThis is an exceptional and wonderful book.  I was given it as a prize on the History Girls blog but had resisted reading it for some weeks because the blurb made clear that this was a story that took us into a Second World War concentration camp, and I had a suspicion that it was going to be a harrowing read. 

It is harrowing, but so very rewarding that I urge you all to take a deep breath and read it.  How does it reward?  With wonderful characters one believes in and cares about, and who reflect that war is never a simple matter of goodies versus baddies.  With a plot that surprises even when we already know what happens in the bigger picture.  With detail about life in one corner of one horrific Nazi death camp history that came as news to me (I'd no idea, for example, that manufacturers such as Bosch and Siemens used slave labour in camps to manufacture the very bombs, gas and gas chambers with which that slave labour, and their friends back home, were being killed).  And with beautiful writing that includes some very accessible and moving poetry, along with descriptions of flying by an author who knows about that first hand. 

Rose Justice is a young American woman who has come to England to work in the ATA delivering planes and personnel for the RAF.  Chasing a doodlebug in the hopes of bringing it down before it reaches Britain, she loses her way over France, lands in Germany, and is captured.  She is sent to the Ravensbrook camp for women.  There she meets a range of women from a range of countries who meet a range of fates, but the ones who most stay with us are the Polish 'lapins'; the 'rabbits' that Nazi doctors experimented on.  I'm not going to give away what happens, but promise that we finish the book with damp hankies but feeling energised to make our world better.  I felt uplifted by it. 


Friday, 22 August 2014

Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders reviewed by Julia Jones

“ 'We wish we could go to the future,' Cyril said, 'But somewhere quite near, please.' ” At the beginning of Kate Saunders's heart-wrenching final adventure of Edith Nesbit's Psammead, the four older children – Cyril, Anthea, Robert and Jane – are still living innocently in 1905. The Psammead is the ancient sand-fairy who has been granting them wishes, with varying degrees of success, since they first dug him up in the classic story Five Children and It (1902). Nesbit's children encountered him again in The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) and once more in The Story of the Amulet (1906). The Amulet is a time travel story and includes scenes set in a benign Utopian future which reflects the author's own Fabian aspirations. The real future for those young Edwardians would be cruelly different. In the prologue to Saunders's Five Children on the Western Front the Psammead sends the children forward from 1905 to 1930 to visit their friend, the professor. While they are there Anthea looks at some photographs – but what they show is not the same as the photographs they glimpsed during The Story of the Amulet“ 'I saw a couple of pictures of ladies who looked a bit like Mother and might have been me or Jane but I didn't see any grown up men who looked a bit like you boys. I wonder why not.'
Far away in 1930 in his empty room, the old professor was crying."

And so was I! The current spate of World War 1 remembrances is hard on the emotions and one or twice I've been ashamed to find myself suffering something close to compassion fatigue. I approached Five Children on the Western Front with slight trepidation – was it just going to be a clever idea brought out at an opportune moment? I read it in the happiest of circumstances (lazing in the sunshine down a river on a boat) and was completely unprepared to find myself sobbing helplessly over the final pages. With my head I had guessed what would happen; in my heart I was overwhelmed. I opened that last chapter again just now to check the sequence of events and, dammit, I'm needing to wipe my eyes and blow my nose before I can carry on writing.

How has Kate Saunders managed this? Her novel is far richer and deeper than Nesbit's and, for my taste, funnier as well. This isn't intended to be dismissive of the Founding Mother – Edith Nesbit has a stature and originality that the rest of us will only ever dream of – but rereading her Five Children and It did make me aware of the limitations of the string-of-adventures format. Five Children on the Western Front has several story-lines, a plot, a wider range of tones and characters and the scope to be part of something that is bigger than itself. It's certainly a book which hits that magic, inter-generational space where both adults and children can read with full engagement.

Five Children on the Western Front belongs less to the children than to the Psammead. The sand-fairy is in trouble, deservedly so. “By the sound of it you behaved like an absolute cad,” says the Lamb. “My dear Lamb everyone kills a few slaves.” He is comic, he is nasty and can be seen as the prototype of all fallen emperors. There's a brief chapter where the action fast-forwards to 1938 and he's discovered chatting amiably with Kaiser Bill, with whom he feels much in common.

When the Psammead arrives back in Nesbit's Kentish gravel pit in October 1914, just as Cyril, the oldest boy, is leaving for the war, he's been stripped of his powers. He's confused, vulnerable and furious “A stiff little boulder of crossness” as Saunders memorably describes him. He has been sent down to repent and it's lucky for him that Saunders has added a sixth child, nine-year-old Edie, to the original five. She's the only one who has time to stroke and care for him as her older brothers and sisters cope with the army, university, school and (for the older girls) their first attempts to challenge their parents' pre-war expectations. They are busy and are occasionally exasperated with Sammy's obdurate selfishness and his refusal to acknowledge his past crimes. Edie, however, sees “bewilderment in his eyes and lurking terror”. Her love is constant and undemanding and gives him his best chance to learn the lessons of the universe.

The Psammead does learn and tears are the true response. I've relished all Kate Saunders's books since the day she bought her Belfry Witches series to our children's village primary school but this is The One. Five Children on the Western Front will be published by Faber in October and I want to press it on every reading household. There is an Author's Afterword which reminds us, poignantly, that constant love and premature loss are not confined to 1914-1918. Some of us will still suffer “the worst sorrow there is.”