Friday, 1 August 2014

THE ROMAN BEANFEAST by Gillian Cross. Reviewed by Ann Turnbull.

Davey has problems. His dad is in the Far East and the phone lines are crackly. His mum has her hands full - literally - with the toddler twins. And next door lives Molly, who is clean, organised and good at everything. Molly is in Davey's class at school, and she enjoys making him feel stupid.

The class is studying the Romans, and everyone has been asked to make something for the Roman Prize at the end of term. Davey tries hard, but every time he makes something Molly copies his idea and makes a better one. Davey tosses all his failed projects into his wardrobe - and then he has a brilliant idea! But can he keep it a secret from Molly?

This is a delightful story for children aged around seven to ten - a reissue of a book first published in 1996. The plot is satisfyingly clever, but it's the characters and the mayhem of everyday life that makes the story so entertaining. There's Davey's harassed mum doing up the baby buggy straps with one hand while holding a wriggling twin in her other arm. There's the constant messiness and zest for life of the twins (including a hilarious scene in the library). And there's Davey himself, not stupid at all, but inventive, determined - and kind-hearted. Ros Asquith's witty illustrations add to the fun.

And the reader learns a new word: onager. (Well, it was new to this reader, anyway.)

Published by Frances Lincoln, 2013.


Monday, 28 July 2014

THE RIVER AT GREEN KNOWE, by Lucy M. Boston. Reviewed by Saviour Pirotta

Author: Lucy M. Boston
Publisher: Faber & Faber, 1959

Although I am a huge fan of low fantasy, the Green Knowe franchise had somehow passed me by. I was aware that the author, Lucy M Boston had won the carnegie medal  in the early sixties and that one of the books had been made into a film.

A few weeks ago I chanced upon a 1980 edition of THE RIVER AT GREEN KNOWE in a charity shop.  A few pages into it I was completely hooked.  It is the best of fantasy, written in a languid, poetic style that weaves a powerful spell on the reader.

The plot is very loose. Two women rent the house at Green Knowe for the summer and invite three children to share it with them: a niece, a vaguely Eastern European boy and a Chinese refugee.  Left to their own devices, the children explore the local river in a canoe, mapping the islands they encounter.

During their explorations, the most magical of which happen by moonlight, the children encounter a modern-day Robinson Crusoe, a giant who is scared of laughter and a flock of winged horses.  On a windy night, they eavesdrop on a Bronze Age initiation ceremony full of dancing, ululating men.

The underlying theme is one of displacement.  Everyone and everything is on a journey – the river, the

people, the boats, the magical creatures.  And the final message – that the greatest journey of all ends with an inevitable loss of faith and imagination is truly resonant.

Ida said, "I'm sorry, Ping. One can't do anything for grownups. They're hopeless."

Ping sighed. "I can't understand, when it's the thing they most want in the world, and it's there before their eyes, why they won't see it."

"They are often like that," said Oskar wisely. "They don't like NOW. If it's really interesting, it has to be THEN."

Hasty research on google tells me that a lot of readers where disappointed when this book was first published. It doesn’t feature the usual cast from the other books.  For me, not being familiar with those other children, this was not a hurdle. I adored the fearless Ida, the philosophical Oskar and the irrascable Ping.  I only wish Lucy M. Boston had written more adventures about them.  I would have gone along for the ride anytime.

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Thursday, 24 July 2014

The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters, by Michelle Lovric: reviewed by Sue Purkiss

To begin with, an important note: this is definitely not a children's book!- though Michelle Lovric has written several books for children, at least one of which I've reviewed
on this site. If you've read any of those - a series set in an enchanting alternative Venice, beginning with The Undrowned Child - you will immediately recognise Michelle's very distinctive voice. She rejoices in all the playful possibilities of language - but the lovely words do not hide a sharp wit. Here's an example: 

Mr Rainfleury, in contrast, was in seven separate raptures about his creations. He could not be stopped from fondling their hair, and waltzing them along the top of the mantelpiece... He paid not the slightest attention to our complaints. I flinched at the steel that lined his emollient manners.

The book concerns the seven Swiney sisters from an Irish village, Harristown. Though they don't have enough to eat and live in extreme poverty, they share one extraordinary feature; all of them have hair  which grows so abundantly that, when released, it reaches the ground. Manticory, the red-haired narrator, is one day almost raped by a stranger who has a fetish about long hair. The oldest of the sisters, Darcy - dark-haired, and a very nasty piece of work - sees a way to turn this fetish to the sisters' advantage; she devises a show, in which the sisters sing and dance, and at the end, turn their backs to the audience and let down their hair.

This is the age of the Pre-Raphaelites, whose models always rejoiced in a positive cloud of  hair, and as Michelle explains in her notes, there was a sort of brotherhood of hair-worshippers. So the show goes down a storm, eventually attracting the attention of two entrepreneurs, Rainfleury and Tristan, who offer to manage the girls. What follows is a recognisable arc in these days of reality shows and celebrity worship; the girls make masses of money but see little of it themselves (except for Darcy) and have no idea how to manage it. So their rise is precipitous, but so is their fall.

The Seven Sutherland Sisters

It's a big novel in every way, with a large cast of eccentric and highly individual characters, who rejoice in a larger-than-life grasp of language and have in particular a tremendous talent for insults - the exchanges between Darcy and her arch-enemy, the Eilleen O'Reilly, are razor-sharp and full of energy. There's more than a touch of Victorian melodrama, but it's spiced with humour and wit and with a very modern take on the cult of the celebrity and the exploitation of the vulnerable. Almost unbelievably, it's based on a similar set of sisters, the Sutherlands, who were American and had a similar - though not quite as extreme - career path.

I guess you might put it in vaguely the same area as some of Joanne Harris's books, but really, I can't think of anything else like it. A rich and witty read.

(My thanks to the publishers, Bloomsbury, for sending me a copy of this book.)


Sunday, 20 July 2014

Glimpse by Kendra Leighton, Reviewed by Tamsyn Murray

I do love a good ghost story. And Glimpse by Kendra Leighton promises a lot. It's the story of Liz, a girl who has had more than her fair share of troubles in her sixteen years of life, and her battle to overcome the terrifying visions - the Glimpses - that plague her. When Liz and her father inherit The Highwayman Inn and move into its time-worn rooms, she hopes it will be a fresh start - the chance to leave the Glimpses behind and become normal. But it soon becomes obvious that Liz hasn't left anything behind her. The Glimpses have followed her and they are angrier than they have ever been.

Struggling to make sense of what is happening, Liz befriends a boy called Zachary, who tells her he can help her to understand why she is under attack and asks for her help in locating his missing girlfriend, Bess. But the Glimpses don't want her to uncover the truth and they will stop at nothing to ensure Liz stops digging around. Can Liz put the pieces of the puzzle together and help Zachary to find his lost love before the Glimpses manage to silence her forever?

Based on the poem The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, Glimpse is part mystery, part ghost story with more than one haunting tragedy at its heart. It's a clever, modern-day re-imagining of the classic poem, with a twisting plot that will keep readers guessing. I worried for poor Liz, falling head over heels for an unsuitable boy, and wanted to hug her when she thought about her dead mother. Most of all, I wanted her to find happiness and I couldn't for the life of me see how that could happen until the very last pages, when the mystery is finally revealed. Those last few chapters whizzed by and I really couldn't read them fast enough - I had to discover what had happened to Bess, and what would become of Liz and Zachary. I wasn't disappointed.

I found Glimpse to be an accomplished debut and a cracking ghost story. I would recommend it for readers aged 11+


Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Why? by Tracey Corderoy and Tim Warnes - reviewed by Damian Harvey

If you haven't met Archie, the little rhino, before then you've missed a treat. Following on from "No!" this is Archie's second outing, and very welcome it is too.

"Archie [is] a rhino with a LOT of questions," and he's very keen to find out all the answers - much to the exasperation of his parents.

Why do some things smash when you drop them? Why are some things sticky, 'splashy', messy... In his quest to find the answers, Archie makes a lot of mess.

Mum and Dad decide that the best thing for them all would be a trip to the museum. There are so many wonderful things to see at the museum and so many questions to ask - some of which Mum and Dad can answer easily like "why aren't there any dinosaurs now?" Others aren't so easy, like "why does that man have such big ears?" After a long day Archie is worn out and has finally run out of questions. But of course tomorrow's another day...

This is a lovely picture book to read aloud and share. Children will delight in Archie's inquisitive nature and parents will sympathise with Mum and Dad. Tracey Corderoy's text, mostly written as dialogue which perfectly suits the narrative style of this story, is perfectly complimented by Tim Warne's beautiful illustrations. A joy from beginning to end.  

Published by Little Tiger Press


Saturday, 12 July 2014

Dragon Gold by Shoo Rayner, reviewed by Cavan Scott

Harri has a problem. Every time the school runs a competition, his friend Ryan wins. Why? Because Ryan's dad always does the work for him.

So when Harri's teacher sets a challenge to create a flying dragon for St. David's Day, he sets out to beat Ryan no-matter what. He starts sketching designs immediately - and then a real-life witch walks into his mum's shop. She gives Harri a magic egg, that contains a real life dragon!

Shoo Rayner's delightful story of school rivalry and welsh mythology is the first publication from new independent Firefly Press. It's funny, engaging and feels very of the minute. There's also a healthy dollop of Welsh folklore, largely delivered by Harri's teacher and yet avoids any sense of being an infodump thanks to likeable characters and a good sense of humour.

The story is helped along by Shoo's own lively illustrations, including handy little portraits of the POV character whenever the narrative shifts from one viewpoint to the other.

My only gripe would be that Harri's adventures with his new fiery pet end rather abruptly. I can only hope that this means we haven't seen the end of Harri and Tan the red dragon.

Reviewed by Cavan Scott


Friday, 4 July 2014

PLAYING WITH MY HEART by Valerie Wilding. Reviewed by Ann Turnbull.

'I am so angry, and it is all Miranda's fault. She is the most stupid, loose-tongued friend it is possible to have.'

So begins Valerie Wilding's story - a historical romance for young teens, based around the Globe Theatre in 1599.

When Patience's father, a carpenter, starts doing some work for the theatre company, she and her sister Dippity also find employment there - Dippity as a skilled needlewoman and Patience copying scripts for the players. Their father has a new apprentice, Kit - a thoroughly nice, hardworking boy - and soon Patience and Kit become attracted to one another and everyone is pleased.

But the playhouse brings trouble. Patience meets the handsome and seductive Jeremy de la Motte, a boy player who takes female roles. At once she has eyes for no one else. Her risky pursuit of this young man has dangerous repercussions for the whole family.

I liked the way this story showed a real family busy with everyday work, running a home, worrying about money and helping out neighbours and friends in their small riverside community. This close-packed community complicates life for Patience as she is watched by a nosy neighbour and pestered by the devious Miranda. The story is told in first person in diary form. This makes for short sections and lively, natural story-telling.

Patience - wilful, silly, often self-centred but essentially sound - is a heroine that young readers will be able to relate to. The story is easy to read and subtly conveys a lot of information about the Globe Theatre. There is also a historical note and a timeline at the back.

Published by Scholastic, 2014.