Thursday, 8 October 2015
Iris tries to keep her distance but there's something about Zeke she finds irresistible, in spite of knowing he's only in town for a short while. When he suggests she enters a major surf competition to win sponsorship from a global brand, she's not sure she's good enough. Can she overcome her nerves and her reservations about Zeke to follow her heart? Or does her destiny lie closer to home?
Blue is a heady mix of sun, surf and sand (with the perfect amount of sex thrown in too). It's a perfect summer YA book, one so evocative of the Cornish surf scene that I could almost taste the salt on the wind from Fistral Beach as I read. I loved Iris and fully sympathised with her struggles to come to terms with her past while dealing with a white-hot attraction to someone who could easily break her newly-mended heart. And Zeke was adorable - not quite as perfect as his appearance and lifestyle seem to suggest. His flaws made him even more appealing and a cut above the usual YA hero. There's plenty of drama too, with a climax that had me breathless with anxiety. I can see why the film rights were snapped up - Blue is intoxicating and addictive. I immediately bought the sequel, Air, and binge-read that too. The third book, Ride, is out in 2016. Needless to say, I can't wait.
Blue is a YA title, recommended for 14+. Published by Quercus.
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Wednesday, 30 September 2015
Yesterday I walked into Hatchards at St Pancras Station, walked over to the picture book section and began browsing. I kept returning to this book. The title intrigued me and the clear white spaces on the cover drew me in as did the beguiling child friendly feel of the illustrations.
Then I read the story and I couldn't put it down and have been reading it ever since. It begins with the words; ‘Underneath the cherry tree in our garden there is a little hole. We found it one day when I bounced my ball and it didn't bounce back.’
A child loses their ball down a hole and begins to wonder what is down there. The simplest of story lines and yet so much happens. Everyone has an opinion about what is down the hole. Mum thinks it might be a doorway into a mouse’s house, someone else thinks it could be a troll down there or is it a dragon’s den. Grandma and Grandpa are more realistic in their opinions. They think it might be a mole or a badger. The important thing is that everyone has different ideas about it even the dog.
The mystery of The Something is never solved and the child simply enjoys quietly watching, waiting and imagining what lies beneath.
The text has a lovely lyrical rhythm that is a delight to read aloud. It is full of gentle touches. You are not sure if the child is a boy or a girl – they are just a child. One of the child’s friends is in a wheelchair. The weather and the tree are constantly changing. Each illustration shows what might have happened to the ball down the hole.
This is a story about looking, thinking and asking questions. It is about being happy with not knowing all the answers but keeping watch anyway in the hope that something surprising will appear.
Published by Macmillan
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Saturday, 26 September 2015
My fascination with Pompeii began at school, at about the age of seven. I have a vivid memory of a film show where we sat on benches in what I now realise was probably a converted air-raid shelter. I was near the front, and was hugely impressed by the sight of red molten lava moving relentlessly down the side of the volcano. The recent British Museum exhibition will have brought this ancient catastrophe to the attention of many more children, and Sue Reid's story - exciting, well-researched and written in a lively diary form - will appeal to anyone eager to know what it would have been like to be there.
This story recreates the last fourteen months of the doomed city through the experience of a young teenage girl, Claudia. Her father gives her a spare roll of papyrus, and Claudia decides to write a diary, starting with the day in August AD 78 when earth tremors shake the city and she encounters a slave boy, a Briton, who is to become a secret friend. Claudia's concerns are typical of a girl of her age: making and breaking friendships with other girls, playing with her brothers, looking after the family's dog and trying to avoid the household tasks that her mother says she must learn if she is to become a proper Roman wife with a house and slaves to manage. Throughout Claudia's story is woven that of Aengus, the British boy, and his search for his sister and for freedom.
Sue Reid portrays well the mix of people in Pompeii. Claudia's father is a freed slave, and this gives him and his family an instinctive sympathy for other slaves. Her mother is an Egyptian, a devotee of the goddess Isis, to whom Claudia dedicates her diary. The city of Pompeii is brought to vigorous life: noisy, smelly, crowded, cosmopolitan - its inhabitants so like ourselves and yet so different with their love of gladiatorial combat and their anxious propitiation of the gods, their sacrifices, curses and good luck charms.
The sense of impending doom makes this a compelling read. The reader fears for the characters and wonders what will happen to them all. Wisely, Sue Reid does not tie up too many ends, but the story finishes in a satisfying way.
At the back there is detailed information about the eruption, how the cities were overwhelmed, the archaeological work, and photographs - including a poignant photo of plaster casts of huddled bodies beside a wall.
Scholastic, p/b. First published 2008, this edition 2015.
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Tuesday, 22 September 2015
Electra is eagerly looking forward to her father Agamemnon’s triumphant return to Mycenae after the long war in Troy. But his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus have other plans – Clytemnestra cannot forgive her husband for the sacrifice of her eldest daughter Iphigenia at the start of the war, and Aegisthus covets the kingship. Instead of celebrating his return, they murder him horribly; and suddenly Mycenae isn’t a safe place for Electra or her brother Orestes. Orestes goes into exile, and Electra has to submit to a humiliating fate. When Orestes eventually returns, there is only one word on his mind – revenge!
What part will Electra play in this?
I have a great passion for ancient history and, as a result, I read a lot of fiction based in classical antiquity. Sadly far too many of these books seem only to dwell on the masculine sword-and-sandals stories and females are allocated the usual position of wife or servant. Recently there have been two noticeable novels that put girls right at the heart of the story.
Frances Thomas’ new book, The Silver Handled Knife, is the third in her series The Girls of Troy. In this volume we share the extraordinary story of Electra, daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon as she makes her way to adulthood and independence by way of war, sacrifice and clever wrangling. She is an instantly likeable character and the Classical period is vividly brought to life. Her hardships and suffering are part of the tapestry of her life and, even though it all feels extraordinary to us, Electra regards most of the things that happen to her as an inevitable part of her life. Her struggles become ours and we bear her burdens with her and try to imagine walking in her footsteps. Thomas’ style is to absorb us in the period and yet Electra still feels like someone we know and understand today.
The other book that I have recently enjoyed that is centered on classical history is Lucy Coat’s remarkable book, Cleo. Her description of the life of young Cleopatra is a unique and colourful look into the turbulent path that she lead to achieve her place in history. It is hard writing about a person that everyone thinks they know, but Lucy Coats effortlessly introduces us to a young woman about whom I clearly knew very little. Coat’s style is to bring this to life in a modernistic fashion, but somehow this still works and allows us to see the modern parallels that Cleo shares with teens today.
I have read hundreds of books that base their plot in antiquity, but few writers manage to bring something fresh and new to the tale. I’m very glad to say that these two books are bright and exciting and would make a great addition to any bookshelf.
Cleo by Lucy Coats is published by Orchard Books – May 2015
The Silver Handled Knife by Frances Thomas is published by Silverwood Books – 1 Sept 2015
Review by Dawn Finch
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Friday, 18 September 2015
The Pebble in my Pocket was a bookseller recommendation and one of my most successful presents this year. I gave it to my five year old grandson who’s not yet a great reader but has a real interest in the natural world and a fabulous memory for facts.
The Pebble in my Pocket begins with the most insignificant object; round and smooth and brown, an ordinary pebble. You might be irritated if you found one in your boot, you might pick up a handful and chuck them in a pond, just to hear the spatter. Would you ever look at it and think I’m holding something that is millions of years old: something that could have been on top of mountains and under the sea, covered with ice and stamped on by mammoths? Here’s something that was thrown up from the deep inside the earth, formed in unimaginable heat. This pebble is older than the oldest fossils; three times as old as the oldest dinosaurs. This pebble has a story and its story is the story of our earth.
Never mind the grandchildren, for people like me who get in a muddle with the number of noughts in the millions and are hopelessly uncertain about the correct ordering of their Silurians and Devonians, the layout of this book is the first of its blessings. Each double page spread takes the story gently forward from a volcanic eruption 480 million years ago to a newly built house today. It’s never boring. Great fun to read aloud and with a real sense of story and occasionally drama.“Under the volcano, melted rock shifts like thick treacle […] The ground shakes. Gas hisses […] Columns of purple ash shoot into the sky.”
Big geological events – an eruption, flooding, an ice age, another ice age – are interspersed with small individual happenings. Once each particular pebble has been formed it’s subject to apparently random events. It may be swept down a river, trodden on by diplodocus, chucked at a rat by Neanderthal boy.
“Every pebble in the world is different from every other pebble. Every pebble has its own story. Pick up a pebble and you are holding a little piece of the history of our planet.”
You could see it as emblematic or simply awe-inspiring. My grandchildren responded in various practical ways. First, naturally, they hurried out of doors to collect pebbles of their own, compare them and wonder at them. Then they pestered their mother to make a volcano with vinegar, sodium bicarbonate and orange food colouring. After which they drew and painted and talked about their pebbles and the next time they were playing on their native Welsh beach they felt a real, knowledgeable thrill at the sight of pudding-stone rock.
I bought another copy immediately with the honest intention of passing it to the other grandchild family but I realise I’m not going to be able to let it go. And now I discover that the same author-illustrator team has previously told the story of water in The Drop in my Drink. It's on order.
The Pebble in my Pocket: a History of our Earth
By Meredith Hooper (illustrated by Chris Coady)
Frances Lincoln Children’s Books (1996)
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Monday, 14 September 2015
Reviewed by Jackie Marchant
Anni is a twelve year old carer. After spending every day at school worrying, she rushes home, desperate to be there for her mother, who will go frantic if Anni is more than a second late. As well as debilitating injuries following an old accident and a terror of going beyond the dilapidated front door, Anni’s mother is convinced that every sound she hears comes from intruders who are out to get her. It is Anni’s job to scour the big old tumbledown house to convince her mother that no one is there.
But one day there is . . .
Four people in balaclavas have broken in. It’s obvious they haven’t come to steal – there is nothing worth stealing in the house – they are on a mission. Anni soon realises that their mission has something to do with the fact that the Prime Minister will be driven right by the house in thirteen hours’ time. That means the intruders have thirteen hours to prepare and the last thing they want is a terrified mother and her twelve year old daughter in the house they’d assumed was deserted.
As the thirteen hours unravel, so does Anni’s life – the intruders aren’t what they seem, her mother has secrets and hidden depths she didn’t know about, Anni finds strength she didn’t know she had and she also begins to question her way of life.
The young carer/mother situation is beautifully handled. There is a real conflict between sheer frustration at how a mother could expect so much from her child, Anni’s desperate willingness to keep things as they are or lose her mother, her mother’s guilt – and finally, the real reason behind it all, which also neatly ties in with what the intruders are doing. Very clever.
As you can imagine, by the title and the plotline, this is very much a page-turner. But there are real issues here as well – the motives of the intruders, the issue of young carers and the devastating consequences agoraphobia.
There are notes at the back of the book about agoraphobia and information for young carers – many of whom, as comes across in the book, don’t realise that is what they are.
Definitely worth a read.
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Thursday, 10 September 2015
I’ve been flirting with lots of fun end-of-summer books to use for this review, but as the constant images of mass migrations caught and held my attention, I was desperate to re-read this wonderful and compassionate modern classic, which has been one of my favourite children’s books for years – and one of the novels that made me want to become a writer.
Although this novel was first published in England in translation, in 1965, it has never been out of print and is widely used by Years 6 & 7 in schools.
I am David tells the fictitious story of a young boy, aged nine or ten, who escapes from a concentration camp somewhere in Eastern Europe to find his way back to his family in Denmark. He travels alone, with a bundle of possessions: a pocket knife, a compass, a bottle of water, a large loaf of bread and a box of matches.
Having known no other life but the camp, David knows nothing of the world outside its wire fence. He must learn about good and evil. He must learn about trust. David’s instinct for survival so far has provided him with one rule he must always obey if he’s to survive: he must not think. “Don’t think, don’t think! David clenched his hands, gripping a tuft of grass. He mustn’t think at all, for if he did, there was only one thing to think about – that he would not be able to run any further.”
As in the camp, he can look and listen, and use that information to help him; but those thoughts must go no further. David sticks to this rule throughout his journey, which I think has a devastating effect on the reader. I almost know this story by heart, but I still think for David, and warn him of the possible dangers. Such is the power of this little book (182 pages)!
David sneaks into the back of a van, hides in the hold of ship sailing to Italy, walks, runs and climbs – and even lives with family for some time; but all the time he’s afraid of being captured again, fearing that they will force him back to the camp.
How many times have we seen this played out on our various screens these last weeks?
For me, the most heart-breaking fact in the novel is that David doesn’t know how to smile. This worries the mother of the family who takes him in – she doesn’t want her innocent children to be corrupted by the evil he must have experienced. After over-hearing this, David finds an old mirror and practices smiling, although he isn’t very good at it. He can’t smile with his eyes. When he leaves, he writes a poignant farewell letter to the mother to tell her that children must be taught about good and evil if they’re to find their way through life.
David’s experiences have made him wise beyond his years!
I have no political agenda here; but if you don’t know this little gem, please read it if you can. I guarantee that, whatever your view, you will never regret looking into the heart of one child refugee: David.
Pauline Francis www.paulinefrancis.co.uk
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