Thursday, 22 January 2015

Outlaw Pete by Bruce Springsteen and Frank Caruso reviewed by Lynda Waterhouse

THIS IS NOT A CHILDREN’S BOOK! Although you will probably find it as I did on the shelves in the children’s section. Be warned that it contains violent images that are not aimed at very young children. Inside it describes itself as an adult book and as Bruce Springsteen says in the Afterword it is partly inspired by a bedtime story ‘Brave Cowboy Bill’ that his Mom used to tell him. He also says ‘I’m not sure this is a children’s book, though I believe children instinctively understand passion and tragedy. And, a six- month-old bank-robbing baby is a pretty good protagonist.’ Frank Caruso’s cartoon style illustration of baby Pete is indeed appealing to young children but in later spreads Pete grows up and the mood shifts making it more appropriate for young adults.
I was initially drawn to this book because I am a fan of Bruce Springsteen. Although my heart did sink as I thought ‘not another celebrity doing the children’s book thang.’ This is not the case here.
The story began as a song on The Working on a Dream album. This song inspired the illustrator Frank Caruso. He was drawn to the character of Outlaw Pete and the deeper meaning that lay beneath the story of the little baby born on the Appalachian Trail who robs a bank in his diapers and goes on to cut ‘a trail of tears across the countryside.’ One night he wakes from a vison of his own death and rides off deep into the West where he marries and has a child. However Bounty Hunter Dan is on his tail. There is a tragic showdown and Dan’s last words are ‘We cannot undo these things we’ve done.’
Pete rides for forty days and forty nights until he reaches the edge of a cliff…

As Springsteen says ‘Outlaw Pete is essentially the story of a man trying to outlive and outlast his sins. He’s challenging fate by trying to outrun his poisons, his toxicity. Of course you can’t do that. Where we go, they go. You can only learn to live with it. How well or poorly we do that gauges how much grace we can bring into our lives along with our level of fortitude in body and soul.’ That surely is a story worth the telling.
ISBN 978-1-47-114279-6 published by Simon and Schuster


Wednesday, 14 January 2015

THE FROZEN THAMES by Helen Humphreys. Reviewed by Ann Turnbull

"The hare is set upon the ice. Here, it does not have the shelter of the field, cannot dash between furrow and stubble, use its colours to try to match the colours of the earth. Here, it is quick brown against this long, white river. There is nowhere for it to hide or escape."

This beautiful book is a collection of vignettes about people - both royal and commoners - who lived near the Thames during the forty times that it froze between 1142 and 1895.

These are mostly glimpses of everyday life: of icy bedrooms, frozen ale, ink frozen in inkwells. A young couple become aware of how their living space has shrunk to a huddle around the fireplace. A carter gently and patiently persuades his reluctant pair of oxen to venture onto the ice. There are frost fairs and skating contests. Watermen lose their livelihoods. A boy and his mother attempt a perilous crossing on melting ice. And birds fall frozen from the sky. My favourite story is one about a miller's son who comes upon a field full of frozen birds and revives them by warming them with his hands and breath.

This is an appropriate seasonal read: a small hardback book, beautifully written and produced, and illustrated with reproductions of old paintings. The scenes of activity on the frozen river are fascinating in their detail.

It's not a children's book, though some older children and teens might enjoy it. It is a rich source of information about life in the past during periods of extreme cold. The author has drawn on many contemporary accounts, and most of the stories are based on documented events.

The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys, Union Books, h/b, 2007.


Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick - review by Dawn Finch

The spiral has existed as long as time has existed.
It's there when a girl walks through the forest, the moist green air clinging to her skin. There centuries later in a pleasant greendale, hiding the treacherous waters of Golden Beck that take Anna, who they call a witch. There on the other side of the world as a mad poet watches the waves and knows the horrors the hide, and far into the future as Keir Bowman realises his destiny.
Each takes their next step in life. None will ever go back to the same place. And so, their journeys begin...

I should declare a bias before you read the rest of this review - I'm a massive fan of Sedgwick's work and have read all of his books and so I was looking forward to reading Ghosts very much. I was aware that it was a different format to his other books and I was looking forward to something new. I was not disappointed.

Ghosts of Heaven is split into four parts; four different stories interconnected by various key elements and a theme inspired by the occurrence of the spiral form. The remarkable thing about these stories is that we are encouraged by the author to read them in any order we like. I read them in the order 4, 1, 3, 2 - and was thrilled to find that the seeds of other stories are sewn in each chapter. It really is extraordinarily accomplished to make all of these stories connect in such a subtle and fluid fashion. I've certainly never read anything like it.

But it's not just clever, it's beautiful too. Each section has its own tone and voice, and is written with Sedgwick's usual deft hand. To be honest I could have read a novel based on each and every story and been wholly satisfied. Each chapter represents a very fine piece of writing alone, and the fact that they curve and spiral around each other is utterly fascinating.

However, it did raise an issue with me that I have often been baffled with. This book is listed as a YA title and yet almost all of the central characters are adults facing adult situations. The two younger characters are based in a time period when there are no "young adults" and so they behave as adults to adult situations. I am often puzzled as to why a book is marketed as YA when it is clearly an adult book. Don't get me wrong - I do think that young adults will love this book, but the type of young adult who will enjoy it will also be the type of reader who is already reading adult books. I feel that by listing it as YA there will be a lot of adults who will remain completely unaware of the existence of this book, and they will miss out. I strongly feel that Sedgwick deserves a much wider audience, and this is perfect example of a wonderful book that might not get into mainstream adult reviews and magazines simply because it's marketed as YA. I genuinely don't understand adults who lock themselves into a place where they don't read YA books. That is a great shame because in this case people are missing out on a remarkable reading experience.

Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick is published by Orion - isbn 9781780621982 - £10.99
On Sedgwick's website you can view the atmospheric trailer.

As of December 2014, Ghosts of Heaven has been  shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards as well as the Bookseller YA Fiction Prize
It has also been listed as a Peters Book of the Year and a Lovereading Book of the Year 2014

review written by Dawn Finch - author of Brotherhood of Shades


Friday, 2 January 2015

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande reviewed by Julia Jones

Being Mortal:
 Illness, Medicine
and What Matters in the End
I was deep in the pre-Christmas desk-tidy when I found a slip of paper where I'd written these wise words. “I'm a children's author and I deal with good and bad and is there such a thing as innate evil.”

 I'm ashamed to say that I can't remember who said or wrote this, though I can think of a whole list of likely candidates. I'm also a children's author and I've been surprised to discover how frequently I deal with death -- as well as good and bad and the springs of evil. Not just death as the convenient bumping-off of villains but the deaths of characters who, as an author, I have come to love; deaths that make me cry. This is one of the uses of fiction, enabling us to practise facing the harshest facts of life, yet still with the ability to shut the book and run outside to play.

Death is not something that most of us see very frequently in this country, whether we are children or adults. Our life expectancy is longer, our healthcare aspirations higher. Death happens, as inevitably as ever, but increasingly it's something that happens off-stage. With the recent death of right-to-die campaigner, Debbie Purdy, and the End of Life (Assistance) Bill going through the Scottish Parliament,  2015 may be a year that we collectively think more deeply about mortality and end-of-life care. So I hope that you will forgive the fact that this first review of the new year is not of a story for young people but a non-fiction work whose subject affects us all.

Atul Gawande is a surgeon. He lives and works in Massachusetts, keeps in close touch with his family roots in India (where he is running a large research and teaching project) and was the BBC Radio 4 Reith lecturer in December 2014. The four Reith Lectures were titled “Why do Doctors Fail?”, “The Century of the System”, “The Problem of Hubris” and “The Idea of Well-Being”. All are available to listen to on-line or print out for free – so why did I buy a half-dozen copies of this hardback book to give family and friends for Christmas? 

The answer's obvious. Being Mortal has a range and a coherence, a steady development of argument that's simply not possible in a lecture series where only individual facets of an issue can be reflected. Gawande begins with the long life and traditional old age care of his grandfather Sitaram Gawande, a farmer in a small village 300 miles inland from Mumbai, who rode round his fields every day until he died – at the age of 109. It was not that Sitaram was extraordinarily physically adept. He would have failed most of the eight “Activities of Daily Living” that an American health care professional would have used to assess his ability to live independently and he would therefore have been consigned to a nursing home. But living as the most senior member of a large extended family he was never even required to tie his own shoe laces.

Atul Gawande writes with undisguised dislike of the dreary, regimented, infantilising old people's 'Homes' that are nothing of the sort, and with respect for the foundation of the Assisted Living Movement. These are US examples of course but it's simple enough to make the connections to UK institutions. Again and again he gives examples of actual older people he knows and their struggles to find the right circumstances to enable them to live good lives into old age. He doesn't romanticise the traditional family living that served his grandfather so well. He knows that this is not possible or wanted any more, yet he is certain that there must there must be ways in which people can continue to exercise some choice over the way they live – right until the end.

As a cancer surgeon Gawande is only too aware of the part played by illness in closing down life's possibilities. It is this that troubles him most of all – too many people now die in hospital, too many extensive, painful – and ultimately unnecessary – operations are allowed to blight the last days of life. Should doctors continue to play god – deciding what can be done within the vast possibilities of modern medicine and forging ahead to do it? Should they step back and offer information about all options, however unlikely and experimental, then expect the patient to make an unaided decision? Or could the consultation be something more holistic?  Gawande aspires to a role where he is able to warn someone that they are coming towards the end then ask them what they want from their final days. As a doctor he can then either go for the big operation or for something simpler and temporarily alleviating, before using the resources of the hospice system to make the last wishes happen – ideally in the person's home.

Being Mortal is an expert's reflection on life, rather than death -- making sure that life continues to be satisfying and individual for as long as it lasts. I shall certainly be reading it again in 2015. 

(My particular interest in matters related to age is that I'm currently campaigning with my friend Nicci Gerrard for the rights of carers of dementia patients to remain with them in hospital. It's called John's Campaign, after Nicci's father. Do find us on Facebook or twitter or visit our website )


Saturday, 20 December 2014

AUNT SASS: Christmas Stories by P.L.Travers reviewed by Adèle Geras

Fans of Mary Poppins, who are still legion, (though maybe not as numerous as the more recent droves of Frozen devotees,) will be thrilled with this little book. It's exactly the sort of thing any one of them would be delighted to find under the tree on Christmas morning but if this review is too late for that treat, then the volume will be equally welcome after the New Year.

This lovely edition comes from Virago as one of their Modern Classics and I'm grateful to them for sending it to me for review. I confess to being a lover of the Julie Andrews movie and also very fond of the more recent Saving Mr Banks, starring Emma Thomson and Tom Hanks. 

These little essays, or snatches of memoir, were given to the author's friends at Christmas time. Now, we can read them too, and they are quite delightful. We meet three characters who were clearly very important to the young Travers: Aunt Sass herself, who has a lot in common with Mary Poppins , a Chinese cook, and a foul-mouthed jockey who worked on the homestead in Australia where the author grew up.

Victoria Coren Mitchell's introduction is exemplary. She tells us just enough about the essays to arouse our interest and also to explain the context in which they were written. This is important because for modern readers, some of the ways Travers refers to Aboriginal Australians, or Chinese servants, or even Irish ones, and some of their reported speech will seem a bit...well, it's not how we refer to minorities these days and children especially need to have such difference in vocabulary and idiom explained to them.

I'm not sure how young the recipients of the original stories were and I'm also not sure how today's children will respond to this book, at least if reading it by themselves. It seems to me perfect for  reading aloud to someone younger while explaining things and interpreting the finer points of historical detail, but as Victoria Coren Mitchell says: "Many of the preoccupations of those wonderful novels appear in these pages: merry-go-rounds, gorgon nurses, small dogs, smart hats, suns and moons and comets and constellations."

I suspect it's a book for older people: an ideal present for a grandmother, say. P.L. Travers is a writer of very elegant and supple prose. She writes at the end of the first story, Aunt Sass:
'We write more than we know we are writing. We do not guess at the roots that made our fruit. I suddenly realise that there is a book through which Aunt Sass, stern and tender, secret and proud, anonymous and loving, stalks with her silent feet. You will find her occasionally in the pages of Mary Poppins.'

Finally, I would like to emphasise what a pleasure it is to read such a beautifully produced book. The paper, the fonts, the illustrations by Gillian Tyler are a pure delight and the shape and size are just right for putting into a handbag....even one much smaller than  the one that accompanied Mary Poppins.

Thank you, Adele,  for this,  which is the last review for 2014.
Like Awfully Big Blog Adventure, ABR is taking a short break over the Christmas holidays.  Many thanks to all our Reviewers for their thoughts and posts during the year - you've chosen some brilliant titles!
Awfully Big Review will be back at the start of January.
Meanwhile, wishing you all the best for the season - and much happy reading in 2015.
Penny Dolan.


Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Jimmy's War by Lynne Benton

Reviewed by Jackie Marchant

Here is a terrific book about World War II – written in the easy to read flowing style perfect for younger readers, yet still able to bring across the terror and heartbreak that children faced during the war.  A book I enjoyed reading and would heartily recommend – as long as you have a kindle.

This is another example of a book that has been self-published because mainstream publishers wouldn’t take a punt on it.  I don’t know why – perhaps it’s because World War II isn’t considered marketable at the moment.  There is absolutely no reason why this should not have been published – it’s as good as any other war-time story I’ve read for that age group.

But back to the book.  Here we have eleven year old Jimmy, whose father told him to do look after his younger sister and do as his mother says – then left to go to war.  That was over a year ago and now his mother’ had the dreaded ‘missing presumed dead’ telegram.  Now the children have the chance to be evacuated to Cornwall but, wracked with grief, his mother can’t bear to let the children go – they are all she has left.

The consequences of her decision are disastrous, leaving Jimmy with the task of taking his young sister Molly away from their bombed out house and finding their way to an aunt in Somerset.  With barely enough money for the fair and their possessions packed into pillowcases, the children set off.  Now the descriptions of two lost children come into their own as we are taken on a gripping, heart-in-your mouth adventure, in which young Jimmy takes on the responsibility of looking after Molly while keeping a terrible secret from her.  As a consequence the lies keep piling up, then the frustration at Molly’s questions turns to guilt at his annoyance with her.  For Molly is an endearing six year old with a furry rabbit she can’t do without. 

I don’t want to reveal too much, but I will say that, after a lot of trials and tribulations, the ending of the book is positive.  I won’t say it is happy ever after, because that would be unrealistic – this is a book about war and happy endings were rare.  And this book, despite its gentle tone, deals realistically with the horrors of war.

It’s a good read and I can recommend it.



Friday, 12 December 2014

Gambledad, by Josephine Feeney, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

In the mass of children’s books out there, do you know of any novel for primary age children which deals honestly with the issue of gambling?  Well, here is one, brand new, and it’s a goody. 

Don’t let the ‘issue’ at the heart of the story make you assume that this is a dull story-as-medicine kind of a book, because this isn’t at all.  It’s an instantly engaging and lively story of one family’s struggle through a particular crisis brought-on by Dad’s gambling.  It is mostly told from the point of view of eleven year old Antonio, although we do get Dad’s explanation for his son as well, giving the gambler’s own view. 

Antonio is the rude and difficult boy in the class, but because we know what is happening at home we understand why that is.  Tonio is hurt and scared, and doesn’t know what is to happen to himself, his mother and his little sister when his Dad loses their home in a bet. They set off to Hanstanton for a holiday which isn’t really a holiday, with the future very uncertain …

This is a fast-paced lively read through short chapters which will be easily accessible to children of 7-11.  Some children may recognise the problems addressed by this story.  Others may gain insights into possible problems that explain the behaviour of other children they know.  All will enjoy a very engaging story that ends positively, but open enough to show that the problems aren’t all neatly solved and finished with.

This is a book which should be in very primary school library.