Saturday, 1 August 2015

The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman reviewed by Lynda Waterhouse

I have been spending a lot of time looking at pictorial representations of mazes and labyrinths and so it was the title of this novel that first caught my eye when I was making one of my many trips to Foyles.
The first sentence drew me in,
Sophie Martineau looked out of the window of her mother’s 1954 Ford station wagon and watched her life slide behind her into the past.
From that moment I was transfixed by the story of thirteen year old Sophie Martineau’s summer in Louisiana in the 1960s. Her parents have just divorced and her mother is trying to earn a living and study to become an accountant in the evenings. So Sophie has to stay with her grandmother and her aunt on the dilapidated former sugar plantation.
America in the 1960s is beautifully and uncompromisingly evoked in the novel. Sophia’s beautiful mother has been brought up as a southern belle and who has told Sophie to, ‘never under any circumstances speak to any Negro man she didn’t already know.’
Sophie spends her time reading and sunbathing until an encounter with a mysterious creature in the overgrown maze offers her an opportunity to have the adventure that she craves as well as an escape from the painful feelings she has towards her mother and her father, who has suddenly remarried. Sophie finds herself transported through time to the planation as it was in 1860.
The experience is nothing like the bookish Sophie imagines it is going to be like. Her own ancestors mistake her for a slave and she is made to work in various roles on the plantation.  She slowly begins to realise that she may not be able to return home. There is real jeopardy and pain as Sophie grows and matures and helps others to escape to a freedom that may be denied her.
This is a beautifully written book that took Delia Sherman eighteen years and twenty seven drafts to perfect. It is a master - or should I say mistress - class in how to write a coming of age, a timeslip and a historical novel which highlights race and gender issues that sadly still resonate. Today.

ISBN978-1-4721-1752-6 published by Corsair


Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee - review by Dawn Finch

From the jacket.....
Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch—"Scout"—returns home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise's homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town, and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. 

The publication of this book (and the controversy surrounding both it and Lee's life) can't have escaped anyone's notice. Written in the 1950s, Lee says that she always saw Go Set A Watchman as a companion book to To Kill A Mockingbird. In fact she wrote them both at roughly the same time, but actually submitted Go Set A Watchman to her publishers first. Somehow the manuscript was lost and it was not re-discovered until late 2014 when publication was initiated. The book has been packaged as an adult book but, with To Kill A Mockingbird still firmly on the National Curriculum, I can see how Go Set A Watchman could neatly fit into the shelf of books that are recommended to young adult readers in their later teens. I think they should read it, not because they should study it, but because they should simply read it and make their own decisions.

The language is often shocking (and there is frequent use of the N word) and the issues covered are powerful and controversial (including incest, murder, extreme racism, and gender subjugation) and so I'd recommend that parents and teachers read it first before recommending to younger teens. Over-study can ruin a book, but this could easily be offered to young adults who enjoyed To Kill A Mockingbird and want to know what happened next. I was one of those young readers who was forced to analyse every tiny detail of To Kill A Mockingbird in school, and therefore I had a somewhat jaded image of Lee's writing and I wasn't going to be influenced by the hype and buzz surrounding the publication of Go Set A Watchman. In fact I wasn't prepared to enjoy it, but I did.

The book is actually quite beautiful, but in a deeply sombre way. Jean Louise's story is enigmatically portrayed and the prose draws you in from the start. None of your rigid "show, don't tell" here as we are told of Jean Louise's world and we accompany her on her journey back to her childhood home via highly descriptive flashbacks. Atticus as an old man is not the person we think we knew when we met him back in To Kill A Mockingbird, but it turns out that we only knew him through the eyes of an eight year old. Scout is grown up and now we meet her as Jean Louise, and the rosy-glow of her remembered childhood gets grubbier and more brutal page by page.

She arrives in her home town to visit her elderly father two years on from the death of her brother, and now sees everything through the filter of her adult eyes and perceptions. The truths she uncovers are far from new to a reader with any knowledge of the period and location, and one does wonder how a well educated young woman like Jean Louise has been able to ignore the glaringly obvious up till now. How Jean Louise reacts to these revelations about her home town creates a deeply sad reminder of how we should never go back, and of the dark shadows that can lurk in our history.

There are some passages that feel rather tiresome and over-explanatory, and in places the book does feel like it needs a good broom-sweeping editor. I'm not convinced that most readers will enjoy some of the longer chunks of scene-setting explanations about how Alabama and its overlapping families fitted into the Civil Rights Movement. It seems that Jean Louise does need these things pointed out to her (in fact the men around her take a lot of time to patronise her and to point out that she knows nothing). It is possible that teen readers (who may not yet have studied the background of the American Civil Rights Movement and the NAACP) will find these passages more interesting and enlightening, but to me these sections feel as if they hinder the smooth flow of the story. I would have liked the history to trickle out via the plot, and not by long wordy explanations.

All in all I felt drawn in to Jean Louise's world and I wanted to return not to her adulthood, but to her childhood naivety. I suspect we have all had those moments in our lives when we are hit with the reality of something we never noticed before, or perhaps a truth that we never wanted to admit. Even though the experiences that she has are (thankfully) a world away from those most of us will go through, the melancholy remembrance of lost halcyon days is perhaps something we all share.

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee is published by William Heinemann (isbn 9781785150289)
Publication date 14 July 2015

Review by Dawn Finch
Vice President CILIP
CWIG Committee Member
Children's author and librarian


Wednesday, 22 July 2015

LEIF FROND by JOAN LENNON. Reviewed by Ann Turnbull.



"My name is Frond. Leif Frond."

Leif is the youngest and smallest member of a large family of Viking farmers. His ambition is to be a hero - an aim constantly thwarted by others, in particular his elder sister Thorhalla who always needs help with the laundry just when he wants to do something exciting. Leif would much rather spend time with Queue the Artificer, the clan's inventor. And in Quickfingers Leif and the inventor help to outwit and capture a thief and solve a mystery - in a story with a surprisingly complex plot that keeps you guessing right to the end.

In The Viking Games Harald Blogfeld arrives in a longboat with his band of Viking raiders to take part in the Midsummer Games. Harald is looking for a replacement crew member, and all the young men of Frondfell are keen to show off their strength - including Leif. Also on the lookout for a replacement - a husband, in this case - is the formidable Widow Brownhilde, who has her sights on Leif's father. Can Leif see off the widow and win at the Games?

I'd never read one of Joan Lennon's books before, but I always enjoy her blogs and other writings, so when I came across Leif Frond and Quickfingers in my local library I immediately grabbed it. I was not disappointed. These short books are a lot of fun, with nods to James Bond and chapter titles like "Woad Rage". Tucked in amongst the mayhem is quite a lot about life as most Vikings lived it - not longboats and raids, but farming and storytelling and mixing dye. The combination of adventure and word-play will entertain older readers as well as the youngest. And with so many promising characters bumping into each other at every turn, a series must surely be in the offing? Let's hope so.

Illustrated in black and white by Brendan Kearney.
Publisher: A & C Black, 2014.  92pp.
ISBNs:   978-1-4729-0453-9      Quickfingers
               978-1-4729-0462-1      The Viking Games

Reviewed by Ann Turnbull.


Sunday, 12 July 2015

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS by JOHN BOYNE, revisited and reviewed by Pauline Francis

I went to hear John Boyne speak at this year’s Hay Festival because it was a special occasion, chaired by festival director Peter Florence himself, to re-visit this novel on its tenth birthday.

I love this book and I decided that I’d like to re-visit it with them.

The idea came to John one Tuesday and he wrote without stopping for four days and nights – kept awake by coffee - until he was forced out with friends to celebrate his birthday. Those four days gave him the essence of the novel, which he wrote and re-wrote over the next nine months with few changes to the story itself.

He felt that he’d written something very special, which is a wonderful feeling and doesn’t happen with every book, as authors know to their cost.

I didn’t know this, but the first review said that it was a novel of breath-taking vulgarity!

This comment took my breath away. John said he was crushed by it and began to doubt his work.

Usually a book reviewer will sum up the story. I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m quoting the dust jacket on the first hardback copies: “The story is very difficult to describe. Usually we give some clues about the book on the jacket, but in this case we think that would spoil the reading of the book. We think that it is important that you start to read without knowing what it is about. If you do start to read this book, you will go on a journey with a nine-year old boy called Bruno. And sooner or later, you will arrive with Bruno at a fence.”

I know that much of the criticism came from the book’s apparent concentration on a young, blond German boy, who seems to be more important than the thousands of Jews who died in the holocaust.

But I think that this is missing the point. So I’m going to applaud the book jacket again. It ends: “Fences like this exist all over the world. We hope you never have to encounter such a fence.”


This book’s importance is in no doubt. At the end of the session, Peter Florence presented John with a special award: the novel has sold one million copies in the UK.

Well done, John Boyne. Your novel is on its way to becoming a classic in a world where fences such as the one that Bruno met are still being built, rather than being torn down.

Let us hope that if it is being read in a hundred years time – as a true classic – that readers will shake their heads in disbelief that such fences ever existed.

That is the true legacy of this wonderful book.

Pauline Francis


Wednesday, 8 July 2015

A TIME FOR TREASON: the Gunpowder Plot by ANN TURNBULL. Reviewed by Adèle Geras

As ever when I'm reviewing, I have to start with full disclosure. Ann Turnbull is a friend of mine and moreover we have both contributed books to the Historical House series published by Usborne.

As well as being my friend, though, Ann is undoubtedly one of the very best historical novelists around and her books should be much better known and much more admired. She is one of those writers who is under publicised and under appreciated and there are a lot of them about. Anything I can do to highlight work by such writers, I will do and if I'm perceived as biased, then so be it. I urge anyone to try books like  NO SHAME, NO FEAR and ALICE IN LOVE AND WAR  and  you will, I'm sure, agree with me and start spreading the word about Ann's novels. 

A TIME FOR TREASON  is for much younger readers than the titles mentioned above which are YA and would be suitable for adults too. The National Archives series is a clever initiative which aims to introduce readers to the main 'stories' in the history of our country. Ann has already written two titles (A CROSS ON THE DOOR: about the Plague and A CITY IN FLAMES: about the Great Fire of London) in the series and this one is about the plot by Guy Fawkes and his cronies to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

So far, so familiar. What Turnbull does most adroitly is bring a very complicated story of religious fervour, discrimination, turbulence and violence into a scope that an eight- year -old will understand. She does this by telling the tale through the eyes of a young girl, Eliza and her cousin Lucy who comes to visit London during these dangerous times. Lucy has a taste for intrigue of all kinds and she draws Eliza into exploring sinister goings - on in a neighbouring house. The historical detail is there, but gently and delicately sketched in, so that the young reader is not burdened by dates and accounts of conflicts in the past, but drawn into a tale of day- to -day adventure which culminates in the arrest of Guy Fawkes.

A cat plays a major part in the action, and animals are always a good way to hook very young readers into the plot. The relationship between Eliza and Lucy is both touching and humorous and enlivened by letters and inner thoughts as well as dialogue. The book is very short and easy to read but within those limits, Turnbull's prose is lucid and in period without being olde-worlde in an off-putting way. This is how the book begins and it's a master class in how to convey a lot of information elegantly and in very few words: 

"'Nothing ever happens in London,' sighed Eliza.
She put down her needlework and looked out of the window at the wet, wind-shaken garden, where yellow leaves were swirling.
'You're missing your cousin, aren't you?' her governess, Miss Perks said. She frowned at Eliza's crossed threads. 'Unpick that and do it again.'" 

I do urge  teachers to buy a copy of this and its companion books by Turnbull in the National Archives series for their classroom bookshelf. Reading historical fiction is the best possible way to enthuse pupils about the past and you can't do better than stocking up with Ann Turnbull novels.

published in pbk by A&C Black (£4.99)
ISBN: 9781472908476


Saturday, 4 July 2015

IMPOSSIBLE! by Michelle Magorian, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

Most of us know Michelle Magorian best for her very first book, 'Goodnight Mr Tom', winner of the Guardian Children's Book Prize, and a story that has gone beyond book form into the theatre and as a film.  It's a wonderful book about a boy, a dog, and an old man, brought together by the evacuation of children during the Second World War. 

I've also loved Magorian's 'Back Home', 'A Little Love Song', and 'A Spoonful of Jam', and there are more books which I must read.  But the very latest to be published is 'Impossible!', which I've just finished reading.  I've thoroughly enjoyed it, partly because you feel Michelle Magorian so very thoroughly enjoying herself so much as she wrote it!

This story includes familiar Michelle Magorian elements ... the child away from home, surviving in a hostile place, the love of theatre, and a bygone age.  It's set in the late 1950s, and follows twelve year old Josie as she starts at a stuffy drama school.  Josie is from a different background from most of the other children.  Her family have all had to help in order to get her this chance to join the acting profession, so she can't let on to them that she's hating the place.  Josie doesn't fit the mould.  She's a cockney in a place that values RP, and she's a proper tomboy, wanting to play boy's parts, when her teachers are trying to teach her to be ladylike. 

The first hundred or so pages of this long book do sprawl as we meet a huge cast of characters and veer from one bit of story to another.  But then the story gets into its stride, becoming a thriller that takes us into the new alternative theatrical world of Joan Littlewood, and London's docklands (pre-Docklands, of course), in a story of kidnapping, shootings, drugs, bullying, drownings, and good old fashioned come-uppances. 

This is a world of radiograms, Premium Bonds, sputnicks, cruetts, snobbishness about ITV, and more to puzzle modern children but evoke smiles of recognition in older readers.  Its a story about different theories of how to act on stage, making it a fascinating read for any, old or young, who are interested in drama.  And it's a story about a resourceful girl who is different from the rest, and a large cast of larger than life characters amongst whom us older readers will spot familiar names.  It's great fun! 


Monday, 29 June 2015

The Lost and the Found by Cat Clarke

                                       The Lost and the Found by Cat Clarke

When six-year-old Laurel Logan was abducted, the only witness was her younger sister. Faith's childhood was dominated by Laurel's disappearance - from her parents' broken marriage and the constant media attention to dealing with so-called friends who only ever wanted to talk about her sister. 

Thirteen years later, a young woman is found in the garden of the Logans' old house, disorientated and clutching the teddy bear Laurel was last seen with. Laurel is home at last, safe and sound. Faith always dreamed of getting her sister back, without ever truly believing it would happen. But a disturbing series of events leaves Faith increasingly isolated and paranoid, and before long she begins to wonder if everything that's lost can be found again...



This (shockingly) is my first Cat Clarke book but certainly won’t be my last. Now I’ve discovered this talented author I get to work my way through her impressive back catalogue and catch up with the rest of the world.

The Lost and the Found isn't a read you can easily forget, not even when you are asleep. It has been quite a while since I dreamt about characters in a book but Faith and Laurel crept into my subconscious every night until I finished reading.

The story focuses on Faith whose sister Laurel was abducted thirteen years ago. Much of Faith’s childhood has been overshadowed by this tragedy and the following years which have been filled with campaigns for her sister’s return and her mother’s obsession with her missing daughter.
As the only witness to the crime much of Faith’s identity is tied up in her role as Laurel’s sister, rather than being allowed to find out who she is in her own right. When the two sisters are reunited things start to get very interesting as Clarke explores sibling rivalry, relationships, family dynamic and asks some scary questions about trust.

Clarke seamlessly pulls us into the story by peeling back the layers of truth until we get to the heart of the novel which will definitely bring tears to your eyes. This balance of emotion and empathy is often very difficult to get right in books and much easier in film but Clarke pulls it off. Throughout the novel the reader is encouraged to stop and consider how we think about (and forget about) missing children and their families once the media spotlight has moved on. Clarke reminds us that for the families of missing children moving on simply isn't an option.

In The Lost and the Found Clarke explores every parent's worst nightmare  - your child being taken -  then follows this up with the dream come true scenario of that child (now a teenager) returning home but all is not as it seems and to say any more would result in spoilers. All you need to know is this is a compelling story in which you find yourself understanding a range of perspectives conveying the different ways we experience and deal with loss and hope.

About the author

Cat was born in Zambia and brought up in Edinburgh and Yorkshire, which has given her an accent that tends to confuse people.

Cat has written non-fiction books about exciting things like cowboys, sharks and pirates, and now writes YA novels. She lives in Edinburgh with her partner, two ninja cats and two decidedly non-ninja cocker spaniels. Cat is represented by Julia Churchill at A.M.Heath.
Cat's website
You can follow Cat on Twitter and Facebook.

About the reviewer
Rhian was born in Swansea but hasn't stayed put anywhere for very long. She trained as a Drama and English teacher and wrote her first novel during her first few years in teaching.
She got her first publishing deal at 26 and went on to write three more novels for Bloomsbury. 
The Boy who drew the Future is her fifth novel and she’s recently finished writing her sixth.  

 She is a National Trust writer in residence, a WoMentoring mentor and a Patron of Reading.

You can follow Rhian on twitter on Twitter and on Facebook.