Thursday, 11 February 2016

The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield review by Lynda Waterhouse

The cover of this magical picture book shows a large red velvet theatre curtain opening to reveal a bear dressed in an evening suit in the spotlight. He is completely absorbed in playing the piano. As you look closely you notice that there is a forest in the background. This is the story of the Bear and the Piano.
One day in the forest a young bear cub finds a mysterious object. It is a piano and at first it makes an awful noise. As he grows big and strong and grizzly so his playing develops. Every night a crowd of bears gathers to listen to the wonderful sound.
A girl and her father discover bear and tell him about the city where, ‘You can play grand pianos in front of hundreds of people and hear sounds so beautiful they will make your fur stand on end.’
Bear wants to explore the world and to play better so he leaves. In the city he is a huge success and becomes famous. Something tugs at his heart. He misses his friends and his home. But will his friends have forgotten him? Or are they angry with him for leaving them behind?
This is David Litchfield’s first picture book and I’m pretty sure it won’t be his last. The artwork is a delight. Each page is infused with light. Bear is a gentle creature who is transformed by his creativity and talent. I loved the slightly muted colour palate that fills the story with atmosphere and warmth.
The moment when bear realises that he has not been forgotten is really moving; ‘the bear realised that no matter where he went, or what he did, they would always be there, watching from afar.’
ISBN 978-1-84780-718-2 published by Francis Lincoln


Sunday, 7 February 2016

PRINCE OF WOLVES - Book 1 of The Legend of Genghis Khan - by Katherine A Roberts. Reviewed by Ann Turnbull.

Any new book by Katherine Roberts is a cause for celebration, and this one is extra special because Katherine has written, designed and published the entire three-book project herself. Prince of Wolves is the first of three novellas, each narrated by a different character: Temujin (the man who became known as Genghis Khan), his wife Borta and his blood brother Jamukha.

Based on Mongol legends, this is a story of rival clans battling for power. Nine-year-old Temujin is betrothed to Borta, the daughter of a neighbouring chief, in fulfilment of what their fathers believe to be a prophecy in which a wolf will mate with a deer and create a great nation. The two children seem to be the pair in the prophecy - but are they? Someone throws a stone during the betrothal ceremony and, soon after, Temujin's father is murdered by rival tribes and his wives and children forced to flee to the mountains. There Temujin meets Jamukha, who becomes his blood brother.

Many trials await Temujin in the years to come before the Mongol Alliance calls him Khan and his enemies are reduced to "ashes blowing in the wind". He knows he must find followers and raise an army if he is to avenge his father and keep his family safe. But who can he trust?

This is a short, action-packed story that is hard to put down. Told in Temujin's first-person narrative, it's full of images that conjure up the landscape and people: the horse-skull violins carved and played by the shamans; the beautiful sable fur that Borta brings as her dowry; the "trembling silence" that stretches between Temujin and Borta "like the rope on a wild horse". Temujin is as violent and ruthless as a Mongol leader needs to be, and yet he remains a sympathetic character, vulnerable in his relationships with those he loves.

Anyone who liked I am the Great Horse would enjoy this book, though it's for a slightly older readership. Book 2, out soon, is Borta's story, and Book 3 Jamukha's. Available now as a Kindle e-book, Prince of Wolves will shortly be available to read on all devices, and a POD paperback may follow.


Wednesday, 3 February 2016

QUEEN OF THE SILVER ARROW, by Caroline Lawrence. Reviewed by Saviour Pirotta

Title: Queen of the Silver Arrow
Author: Caroline Lawrence
Publisher: Barrington Stoke
Publication Date: 15 January 2016
Format: paperback

Caroline Lawrence has probably done more than any other living author to popularise ancient Rome in children's fiction. Her Roman Mysteries series starring the indefatigable Flavia Gemina needs no introduction.  It sold over a millions copies, was turned into a television series for the BBC and spawned a second series for younger readers called The Roman Mysteries Scrolls.

Her latest historical adventure goes back in time to the founding days of Rome and is based on sections from Virgil's Aeneid. It's the story of Camilla, a princess of the Volsci tribe. According to legend, and Virgil, her father Metabus was hounded out of his realm by his own people who were angered by his continous taxation. Coming to the banks of the Amasenus with the infant princess in his arms, he binds her to a spear and hurls her across the river. The baby Camilla lands safely on the opposite bank but must remain faithful to the goddess Diana for the rest of her life.

When the king dies, the growing child has to fend for herself in the forest, becoming a fearless hunter. Until one day she is befriended by a group of girls from the nearby city of Laurentum who treat her as a living legend and draw her out of the forest and on to the battlefield...

Lawrence can always be relied on to bring ancient history to life and this book hums with excitement. The authentic details of life in the ancient world, the bonding among the girls and the battles scenes with the invading Trojans are all brought brilliantly to life. This is great, fast-paced stuff that will leave the reader breathless for more.

Barrington Stoke specialises in dyslexia friendly books which also appeal to reluctant readers aged 12+. But Queen of the Silver Arrow will also find favour with more able readers of any age.  Princess Camilla forever!

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Saturday, 30 January 2016

MORE OF ME - by Kathryn Evans

Reviewed by Jackie Marchant

First of all, a confession.  The author is a good friend of mine, and this review may well be thoroughly biased.  But I am being absolutely honest when I say I love this book, because I’ve been with it for such a long time, since Kathryn first tentatively asked her writing buddies (of which I am very glad to be one) to have a look at this mad idea she had for a novel.  I’ve been with it since I suggested that it was indeed mad but, if she could pull it off, it would be brilliant.  Of course, I didn’t doubt her for one moment . . .

And now I have the wonderful joy of reviewing the actual, published, much talked-about brilliant debut book! 

More of Me is about Teva, a sixteen year old girl with a very unique condition – every year she splits from herself and a new Teva emerges. That is, a whole new person, while the old one is left behind – whole.  While the new Teva goes out into the world to lead the life, the old one is left behind at home with all the other Tevas, shut away with their mother, who will do all she can to keep their secret hidden from the world.

If that wasn’t enough, the new Teva is faced with a couple of problems.  One is that her old self, now called Fifteen, does not want her near Ollie, the boy she began a relationship with, while the new Teva has her own inherited feelings for Ollie.  Then there is this constant feeling that there is a new Teva waiting to emerge, one that will confine existing Teva to the prison of home while living the life she should be leading. 

The conflict between Fifteen and Teva drives the narrative along with a conflict like nothing else I’ve come across.  At the same time, the real living younger versions of herself are perfectly portrayed, a bunch of identical siblings, each a year apart.  Then there is the mystery of how they came to be like that, and the dark secret that their mother is hiding.  But, as the Tevas grow older, the questions start demanding attention.

Along with shades of gruesomeness about splitting from your own self, there are moments of great warmth and humour in this book.  Teva is/are immensely likeable, which makes their situation all the more difficult to bear, until the dramatic ending when the truth is revealed. 

I don’t think I’m being biased when I say this is a witty, original, refreshing read – but you could always grab a copy to find out.  You won’t be the only one – I think this book is going to be hugely popular.


Tuesday, 26 January 2016

A SONG FOR ELLA GREY reviewed by Pauline Francis.

A Song for Ella Grey by David Almond, reviewed by Pauline Francis.

There was an interesting flurry of letters in the Guardian recently and cover on Radio 4 of the comments by Lynne Reid Banks on this novel, which won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize in 2015. Lynne Reid Banks bought the book for her twelve year old grandson, feeling that “she could trust a David Almond book and a children’s fiction prize”, got home and was shocked to find lesbian love and girls in bed on the first page.

I felt sorry for Lynne (although I’m sure she doesn’t need my pity) because she made herself seem out of touch, when she really meant that a children’s fiction prize should be that – for children - and the readers of this book wouldn’t be children (or would they?). The Carnegie prize has a similar problem. Schools often have had to send out letters to parents to ask permission for some books to be shadowed. Do we need to split children’s fiction awards into age groups?

Well, I’m here to review the book…but it’s a relevant diversion.

A Song for Ella Grey is a modern retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice legend: Orpheus and Eurydice were blissfully married until Eurydice was bitten by a snake and died. Protected by the gods, Orpheus descended into the Underworld (Hades) to find his wife. He charmed everyone with his lyre music and song, and she was allowed to leave with Orpheus on condition that he did not look at her.

This novel has a wonderful sense of place, set in Almond’s own back yard – Northumberland – but he cleverly reminds us of the tale’s Greek origins as his group of teenagers eat and drink and fall in love on the beach, pretending that they are on holiday in Greece.

Ella Grey and Orpheus fall in love. It is a clever device to use Ella Grey’s friend, Claire, as the narrator because she sees their love story unfold from the inside.  She tells Ella about Orpheus. She watches Ella fall in love with him – and this love is further complicated because Claire is in love with Ella. I liked the fact that these aren’t troublesome teenagers. It’s so refreshing to read about young people who take their school work and their futures as seriously as falling in love.

The love story is joyful and uplifting – and so intense that I felt the characters were real and I wanted to warn them not to fall in love. Of course the intensity is increased because the reader knows that their love is doomed (well, some of them will know).

The second half of the story – Ella’s death and Orpheus’ descent into the Underworld is harrowing and original. Claire puts on a masque and speaks through it as Orpheus.
The pages are black, with some hand-written sentences spoken by its unknown dwellers, who continually mock Orpheus: “Ye lost yer love! Oh poor thing!”

Orpheus’ song for Ella Grey is unforgettable. He sings it to the guardian of the Underworld itself, begging to be allowed to take his beloved Ella back to the light – which he does. Their love and closeness during this journey are almost unbearable.

The, suddenly, one desperate sentence spoken by Claire says it all: “She was almost here again. But Orpheus looked back. Thud.”

The prose of this book is lyrical and intense. It is like the very music that makes Ella fall in love with Orpheus before she even sees him. Reading this novel is like listening to a love song.

However, I’d like to know how this novel might be enjoyed by a reader who does not know the legend behind it. It would be like reading Romeo and Juliet without knowing the ending. It shouldn’t make any difference, should it?

That’s another question.

A Song for Ella Grey is an unforgettable read, whatever the answer.

Pauline Francis 


Friday, 22 January 2016

THE ICARUS SHOW by Sally Christie Reviewed by Adèle Geras

We know what happened to Icarus. He put on  a pair of wings made by his father, flew too near the sun and fell to his death. The  striking cover of Sally Christie's new novel  has chosen to emphasise the myth and at first sight, this doesn't look like a book set in the present day and in a world we recognise. There's a mythic quality to the image.

The story is about a boy, Alex, and his problems and the way he deals with them but it's also about much more than that.  It shows that even the most ordinary lives can be transformed: by unexpected events and people with whom on the face of it you have little in common. 

Alex has adopted a strategy to avoid being bullied  and picked on at school. He lies low and does not react - not to anything. This is presented  to us matter-of-factly:  it's what you have to do to get by each day, but when the reader pauses to think, it's a heartbreaking way for a young boy to spend his entire school day. His 'trust no one' policy means, of course, that he has no friends. He used to have a friend, who's  moved to another part of the country.  A boy called Dave Marsh, known as Bogsy, lives in the house next door, but Alex misses his old neighbours, Maisie and Don, an elderly couple.  When Don died, Maisie, who was like a granny to Alex,  went to live in a care home called The Laurels. Their son, also called Don, lives in Australia.

Then one day Alex finds a feather in his schoolbag and a note saying "A boy is going to fly. Will you be there?" At first, he thinks he's the only one to get such a message but he later discovers that others have had it too, and he sets out to find out who wrote it and even more importantly to wonder: will it happen? Were such things possible?  Would a boy fly? And what would be the consequences if he did?

Alex visits Maisie every Saturday.  She has Parkinson's and  is sometimes confused but he enjoys talking to her and she still has decided opinions about everything.

Then he discovers that Bogsy is making a pair of wings in the shed next door.  Alex recognises the feathers he's using and the two boys form a relationship as they work on the wings together, and and it's this strange  friendship  that colours the second half of the book. 

I'm not going to spoil the story by telling you any more. You will have to read it to find out about the flying:  about how the wings will  be used, and especially about how Alex's whole outlook on life  is changed by the Icarus Show.

The book is brilliantly written.  Alex tells the story  and he's a sympathetic narrator, and uses simple language very effectively to take us into the classroom, the care home, and especially Bogsy's shed, which becomes a kind of workshop for a modern day Daedalus. 

The Icarus Show tells us, subtly and without  raising its voice,  about the way depression works,  the things that bullies do and perhaps something of why they do them, how quite troubled children can react to their circumstances and the extent to which unhappiness can be hidden or twisted into many different shapes. It also emphasises the importance of communication: between friends, between members of a family and especially between one generation and another.

Full disclosure:  Sally Christie is a friend,  but you will have to believe me when I say, (I've said this in almost every review I've written for this website) that I wouldn't recommend something I didn't love.  I loved this book, and I'm sure that many, many readers are going to agree with me. 

Published in hardback by David Fickling Books £10.99
ISBN: 9781910200483


Monday, 18 January 2016

The Seal's Fate, written by Eoin Colfer and illustrated by Victor Ambrus, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

Full Size CoverThis is a beauty of a book both as a physical object and as a short story with depth and punch.

            Thirteen year old Bobby Parish is faced with a choice, to follow his family and community’s wishes that he kill the baby seal in front of him, or to disappoint them and to follow his conscience and let the seal live.  Set in an Irish fishing village when a ‘plague’ of seals is breaking nets and eating the fish on which the people’s livelihood depends, Bobby’s dilemma is real and urgent, and resonant for all of us facing situations in which right and wrong are not clear to see.  I’m not going to give the story away, but I will say that the end of the book made me cry … in a good way. 
            Eoin Colfer has written this story in bite-sized chapters, but his writing is in no way compromised in order to fit the Barrington Stoke brief of writing for eight to twelve year olds who struggle with reading.  Swearing is there, as in real life, and challenging vocabulary is also there (‘quay’, ‘rapport’, ‘telepathic’, ‘effluent’, for example), but supported by clear context.  Supported too by the design of the book.
            Chunky and handsome, this book feels and looks special.  The good quality (slightly grey rather than the usual Barrington Stoke cream) paper is nicely heavy to hold, and the cover is trimmed with shiny gold.  Victor Ambrus’s illustrations are in full colour throughout, and we’re treated to full colour endpapers that set the fishing village scene before the story even starts.  The whole production is generous, giving plenty of space for the text to be set out clearly, and use is made of page turns to dramatic purpose in the way more commonly seen in picture books. 
            I loved Hester Burton’s historical novels illustrated by Victor Ambrus when I was a child, and my heart flipped when I recognised his style on this book’s cover.  It’s so good to see him illustrating still, and at his very best, into his eighties. 
            This book is one of Barrington Stoke’s new Conkers imprint, bringing top storytellers and illustrators together to create high quality and very readable books.  I look forward to seeing and reading more of them!