Thursday, 16 February 2017

Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans review by Lynda Waterhouse

Wed Wabbit is a classic adventure story about friendship, danger and the terror of never being able to go home again. It combines all these classic ingredients in a fresh and funny way. I read it in one gulp and I find myself talking about it to everyone and I can’t wait to read it to a child.  
The book starts with an illustrated map of Wimbley Land, including a large library and begins with the words, ‘It was such an ordinary evening, but every detail of it would matter; every detail would become vital.’
Fidge (full name Ifhigenia) is ten and a half and she lives with her mum and her four year old sister Minnie (Minerva). Her father, a fireman, died two years ago and her sister had acquired a the maroon velvet stuffed toy, Wed Wabbit, just a week after his death. To Fidge, ‘Wed Wabbit had a horribly smug expression, like a clever child who knows he’s the teacher’s favourite and never, ever gets told off.’
Minnie’s favourite book is The Land of Wimbley Woos and she demands it to be read to her over and over again. Much to the annoyance of Fidge who finds them ‘deeply soppy.’
Graham, her precocious and irritating  cousin, proclaims, ‘My mother says that your mother says that since your father died you won’t give anyone a hug, not even her, and she thinks you’ve become emotionally stunted.’
Fidge is mean to Wed Wabbit, using him to soak up an orange juice spill and more seriously kicking him in the street and so causing Minnie to run into the road with disastrous consequences.
Minnie heads off to hospital and Fidge is packed off to stay with her Aunt and Uncle and Graham.  In a fit of rage Fidge hurls her sister’s toys including Wed Wabbit, The Wimbley story book and Eleanor Elephant down some cellar steps adding for good measure Graham’s ‘transitional object’, a plastic carrot on wheels.
A power cut and a trip on the stairs during an electrical storm sends Fidge and Graham off to Wimbley Land where they have to work together to try save the land from an evil dictator (Wed Wabbit) who is sucking all the colour and joy out of the place. They are assisted by life coach Eleanor Elephant and Doctor Carrot. Will they succeed and find their way home?
The writing is sublime, the characters are believable and funny, and the jeopardy real. A delight from start to finish and a book to keep and read again and again.
ISBN 978-1-910989-43-2


Sunday, 12 February 2017

Warrior King by Sue Purkiss. Reviewed by Ann Turnbull.

     Warrior King tells the story of King Alfred from when he was a child - the youngest of five brothers and therefore never expected to reign - to when he was a fugitive king, driven into hiding on the Isle of Athelney in the Somerset Levels. From there he gathered his army, beat back the Danes, and eventually set up the Danelaw - establishing the eastern side of the country as Danish territory and concluding a wary peace. He even began to envisage a time when England might become one country.

     The story is written in a clear, accessible style, using third person and moving freely between quite a large cast of characters. Most prominent of these are Alfred himself and Fleda, his daughter - a brave and intelligent girl who will appeal to young readers. There are also the voices and thoughts of various loyal followers, some courageous church leaders, and even the leader of the Danes, the dreaded Guthrum himself, so that we see his vulnerable side too.

     One person whose thoughts are unspoken is Cerys, a British wise woman with an extraordinary insight into people's hearts and minds. She is a powerful influence on Alfred, and brings a touch of believable not-quite-magic that fits well with the legend and the times.

     Warrior King draws together what, for me, were half-remembered fragments of Alfred's story, and weaves them into a coherent whole. Alfred was perhaps our greatest king, and yet we don't hear much about him now. His true story is inspiring, and Sue Purkiss has re-imagined it in a tale that keeps up its momentum throughout and builds to an exciting climax. She knows Somerset well, and her descriptions of the landscape through which her characters move add much to the appeal of this book.

Published by Roundhouse Books, 2015.  p/b and e-book.


Saturday, 4 February 2017

SWAN BOY – by Nikki Sheehan

Reviewed by JackieMarchant

This is a story about bullying, about identity, about caring for your little brother, about loss and grief, about a mad but caring teacher – and about some swans.

Still devastated by the sudden loss of his father, Johnny has had to leave his childhood home and move to a tiny high-rise flat with his mother and brother Mojo.  Even worse, he has to start a new school.  All he wants to do is fit in, but he is targeted by a gang of bullies, led by a small, but particularly nasty Liam.  When Liam is attacked by a swan while in the process of tormenting Johnny, a new nick-name is bandied about the school by all those who’d rather it was Johnny being bullied than them – Swan Boy.

But Johnny felt something – a connection with the swan. Yet exploring this further would mean not fitting in, so he tries to deny it.  At the same time, he shuns any attempt at friendship from another boy being bullied.  He even starts being nasty to the little brother he’s supposed to be taking care of – because that is what is expected of teenagers.

Then, horror of horrors, Johnny is invited to partake in a dance for the school as a way of getting out of litter duty. Bad enough, without the fact that the whole gang of bullies are involved as well.  Then, he is given the leading role in the production of none other than Swan Lake.

This is where the mad but big-hearted teacher comes in, trying to introduce the ‘hopeless cases’ to something as completely not fitting in as dance.  At the same time, the connection between Johnny and the swan is growing until he feels just like the prince in swan lake – turning into a swan.

As Johnny denies who he is in order to fit, he finds himself hurting others and racked with guilt.  Then his little brother Mojo, having his own problems at junior school, comes out with a devastating secret.

Yet, throughout this journey of self-discovery and confusion, it is obvious that Johnny and his family are close.  He cares deeply for Mojo and his struggling mother obviously cares deeply for them both – she too is coping with grief.  For me this made a refreshing change from the uncaring or absent parent and somehow made Johnny’s plight more profound. 

It’s simply written, easy to read with bursts of unexpected humour.  It’s not a deep and gloomy book, but an uplifting one and I enjoyed it very much.


Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo, reviewed by Pauline Francis

Wednesday, 1 February, 2017

I decided that it was time to leave my comfort zone for this review. I’ve been choosing books that are either the same genre as my own, or books that I wish I’d written because they chime with me. That’s how most people choose their books, isn’t it? When I was a librarian, some pupils went away empty-handed because they wouldn’t choose a new writer or genre. Nothing would persuade them.

Choosing books is like making friends. It needs time and trust – as Raymie Nightingale found out.

I don’t know why I wasn’t initially attracted to this book, although the title intrigued me. I knew that Kate DiCamillo had been the National Ambassador for Young Children’s Literature. I knew that she had been short-listed for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. Yet I did have to persuade myself to choose it.

The first few chapters did not engage me. However, in Chapter Five, a Mrs Borkowski says that most people waste their souls – they let them shrivel up.

I was hooked.

Raymie Clarke, aged ten, has lost her father. Two days before, he had run away with a dental hygienist. Raymie has a plan: she will become the Little Miss Central Florida Tire (baton twirler) so that her father will read about her in the newspaper and come home.

Raymie meets Louisiana and Beverley at her baton classes. The three girls (they call themselves the Three Rancheros) come together in an unlikely friendship, based on loss and loneliness. They search for a lost library book about Florence Nightingale and a lost dog called Archie. They meet compelling older characters along the way, such as the philosophical Mrs Borkowski. There’s a completely clever touch in the telephone calls Raymie makes to her father’s insurance company. She loves hearing the secretary, Mrs Sylvester, say “Clarke Family Insurance. How may we protect you?”

Advice rains down on the girls.  Fear is a waste of time.  The trick is to keep moving. It will all work out right in the end.

Raymie, in time, learns the most valuable lesson of all:  “The world – unbelievably, inexplicably – went on.”

She doesn’t need her baton twirling competition. She makes it into the newspaper for a far more compelling reason, which brings her father to the telephone - but Raymie finds that she has very little to say to him.

This novel is narrated in the third person, in fifty-one short chapters, using simple words to deal very cleverly with complex questions.

I enjoyed the humour and the hope of this book. I enjoyed feeling Raymie’s soul expand and I hope that mine has, too, by leaving my comfort zone.

Isn’t that what reading is all about?

Pauline Francis


Saturday, 28 January 2017

FINGERS IN THE SPARKLE JAR by Chris Packham: reviewed by Sue Purkiss

This isn't a book for children; it's a memoir of what it was like to be a child.

Chris Packham is well-known as a presenter of natural history programmes, notably Springwatch and Autumnwatch. He writes about his childhood in the sixties and early seventies. His story has obvious echoes of Barry Hines' famous book, Kes, about a working class boy who catches and trains a kestrel. Like Billy, Chris as a boy has a profound empathy with the natural world. In Kes there's a bit where Billy describes the sensation of putting his foot into a welly full of tadpoles - the boy Chris does some very similar things: the 'sparkle jar' incident of the title has something in common with that incident.

But this isn't a book 'like' Kes. In fact, it's not a book like any other I've ever read. It is a series of memories, not related chronologically, interspersed with accounts of sessions with a psychiatrist/psychologist whom Chris saw ten or so years ago, when he was suffering from a crippling episode of repression. I don't know how he managed to write in so much detail about these sessions - how did he remember everything they talked about? Or is it an approximation of what they said - a way of exploring his inner being, rather than an accurate representation of what was said? Whatever - these sections cast a light on his
memories of his childhood, and vice versa.

There's just as much detail in his memories of his parents, his early encounters with nature - and of how bewildering it was to be a child who had a different way of relating to the world than most. It's fascinating, and forensically honest.

The writing is extraordinary, rich and lyrical and full of a 'passionate intensity', to lift from Yeats, who, like Bruce Springsteen and Shakespeare, seems to provide a quote for almost every occasion. Here, for example, is his summation of an incident where he came across a cloud of moths in a wood.

Without the restless insects the place seemed stunned, stupefied, shocked by that ballet of gossamer violence, the wonder of plain and simple things drawn together to conjure such beauty, transforming that bubble of urban air into a theatre where an astonishing performance was fleetingly played to an awed audience of one, the memory of which would sparkle for a lifetime. And he knew it then, in that moment of dazed happiness, what a gift, what a thing he had seen, what a treasure he held.

It's not the easiest of reads, but it is immensely rewarding, on several different levels: notably in its minute and loving observation of the natural world - but also in its evocation of the world of a sensitive, driven, bemused boy who finds it much easier to relate to creatures than to human beings.

A version of this review has appeared on my own (mostly) reviewing blog. A Fool On A Hill.


Tuesday, 24 January 2017

NEVER TOO MANY CATS by Adèle Geras (T.S. Eliot)

Some things have been part of our lives in some form or other for so long that we begin to take them for granted. T.S. Eliot's masterpiece Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats is just such a work. Lots of people only know these poems, and indeed these cats from the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, but the originals are terrific and it behoves every parent to make sure that the next generation gets to know these delightful felines in the best way possible: through the texts themselves.

Children used to meet these animals at about age ten or so, but here is a brilliant initiative from Faber to put them in front of much younger boys and girls and it's an inspired idea. They've taken four of the cat poems (Mr. Mistoffelees and Macavity are also in the same series) and allowed Arther Robins to illustrate each so that it becomes a full-colour picture book. The pictures are glorious: funny, colourful, witty, and also packed with delightful details of the kind that young readers adore. I can't think of anyone who wouldn't like to meet Skimbleshanks, the Railway Cat who is even topical these days: 
Nothing goes wrong with the Northern Mail 
When Skimbleshanks is aboard.

ASLEF and the RMT could do with his services!
The Northern Mail is a Sleeper Express and I'm not sure these still exist but Robins makes it look like a perfect way to travel. The great advantage of these picture books is that you won't get bored reading them aloud night after night. They are, after all, the work of a great poet and they are still fresh after nearly 80 years.

The Jellicle Cats are almost my favourites because they are basically pleasure loving. They have in this version, bubble baths scented with French perfume. You can tell the perfume is French from the sketch of the Eiffel Tower on the bottle. It's details like this that make Robins's pictures so much fun. Every spread is full of movement and jollity and I bet there are lots of children all over the country who will know these books by heart in very short order. 

For all older readers, the edition below is the one to have. It contains all the Old Possum poems illustrated by that master of the spooky/funny/Gothic who was a master of illustration in his own particular style, Edward Gorey.  The black and white illustrations are darker than Robins's vision but very beautiful in their way and just the thing for anyone older than 7 or so. 

I'm going to end this review by urging everyone to welcome a Practical Cat into their life. And by reproducing the drawing of all Edward Gorey's that I've loved best from this book for more years than I care to count: Cat Morgan, door keeper at Faber. Here he is and I wish everyone  lots of happy reading in 2017.

SKIMBLESHANKS     T.S. Eliot ill Arthur Robins
Faber pbks  £6.99
ISBN: 9780571324835

JELLICLE CATS          T.S.Eliot ill Arthur Robins

Faber pbxs £6.99
ISBN: 9780571333417


Faber pbks  £9.99
ISBN: 9780571321261


Friday, 20 January 2017

Rabbit & Bear Rabbit's Bad Habits, written by Julian Gough and illustrated by Jim Field, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

This is a beautifully produced chunky little book of the kind that comes between picture books and chapter books.  It has big clear writing, but would probably need to be read out loud to most children of, say, four to seven sort of age.  As with the all the best of these kinds of stories, this one revolves very much around character.  Two main characters.  Bear and Rabbit.

Bear is a delightfully modest, innocent, kind and simple soul.  And, hooray, she's female!  What is the ratio of female to male bears in children's fiction, I wonder?  Heavily more male, I'd say.  But this is an exception.  And Rabbit?  He's very different from Bear.  Grumpy, knowledgeable, and with an unkind streak that needs a kind bear to charm out of him.

Oh, and there's a baddie.  Look at this for an enjoyably mean wolf that needs a comeuppance!

And this for part two of that very comeuppance!  

The humour in this story is of the sort that small child will find particularly hilarious.  The eating of poos (by a rabbit, and rabbits do do that) is discussed in some depth.  But there is a deeper layer to this story too. Dear Bear decides that Rabbit is a friend because Rabbit gave him something ... even though that 'something' was a rotten black carrot.  And she's proven to be right about that.  
Writing, illustration, and design are all a joy in this action-packed little story.  Recommended.