Wednesday, 1 October 2014

ROBIN HOOD by David Calcutt and Grahame Baker-Smith. Reviewed by Ann Turnbull.

"Robin was out hunting in the forest. It was a morning early in the year, cold and still, with frost on the ground and a freezing mist in the air. He was wearing a thick woollen cloak wrapped tightly around his body, its hood pulled down low over his face. The branches were bare and last year's leaves lay thick and deep on the forest floor. They crackled softly beneath his feet as he made his way through the trees."

The first thing to say about this book is that it's a work of art - beautifully written by David Calcutt, and decorated on almost every page with stylish, dramatic illustrations by Grahame Baker-Smith. As well as some terrific double-spread battle scenes (my favourite is the one of Robin Hood and Little John fighting on a bridge) there are decorative borders and leafy overlays and small pictures of woodland animals on nearly every page.

Author David Calcutt's greenwood was inspired by the forests near his home in the West Midlands, and there is a strong sense of place and weather throughout that adds realism and strength to the stories. From the many ballads of Robin Hood he has drawn a selection that makes up a narrative of the outlaw's adventures and life in the greenwood. Each chapter tells a different story and each begins with verses from a traditional ballad. The stories are told simply and the characters use modern speech. There is plenty of action, and a lot of killing of both men and deer. This is true to the original tales, and Robin comes across as a typical folk-hero - bold, boastful and ready for anything, but always on the side of the underdog. All the familiar characters are there: Will Scarlet, Friar Tuck, Maid Marian and, of course, Robin's arch-enemy, the Sheriff of Nottingham.

In the last chapter, Robin is allowed to disappear into the greenwood, and into legend, keeping the mystery of his end uncertain - though the author hints at a few different versions of his death.

This book is available in paperback and also in a hardback edition. I have not seen the hardback but it is apparently larger and no doubt even more desirable. Either would make a lovely gift for a wide age-range - I'd say around 7-13.

Barefoot Books, 2012.
Paperback ISBN 978-1846867989
Hardback ISBN 978-1846863578


Saturday, 27 September 2014

My Ocean, by Enrique Perez Diaz. Reviewed by Saviour Pirotta

Title: My Ocean
Author Enrique Perez Diaz
Translator: Trudy Balch
Publisher Groundwood Books, October 2008

Enrqiue Perez Diaz is an award-winning Cuban author whose work, sadly, seems to be mosly unkown on our side of the pond.
His books include The Golden Age, New Pines, Ismaelillo and 

My Ocean was published in 2008. It is a long, introspective and semi-autobiographical letter to the sea that surrounds Perez Diaz's native island. Growing up in a time when everyone around him - friends, family, neighbours - seems to be emigrating illegally to El Norte, the US, Enrique seems to be left alone to make his was in a fast-chaning world.  And this world is not changing only because of the political situation in Cuba but also because Enrique is growing up. He is altering from a boy to a man and this forces him to change his perspective on life.

In this world of turmoil, but also of triumphs and hope, Enrique returns continually to the sea, to talk to it and listen out for its answers.  The sea is his sanctuary, reassuringly unchanging, the magic mirror that reflcts back only the truth.

The vignettes that spark the conversations with the sea are beautifully drawn: a terrifying encounter with sharks; a first date; an invitation to become a 'pioneer', a young communist; realistation that he can never read the letters from his unpatriotic grandparents now propsering in the US.

The book was originally written in Spanish and the translation does sometimes feel a bit stilted. Nevertheless this is a book I would recommend highly, if only for its insight into life for teenagers in Cuba.

Saviour Pirotta

Follow me on twitter @spirotta
Like me on facebook


Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face and the Quest for the Magic Porcupine, written by John Dougherty and illustrated by David Tazzyman: published by OUP

First of all, I have a complaint to make. This is the second book in the Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face series, and the next one isn't out till JANUARY! My grandson whisked the first one away before I got chance to review it. Now we’ve just read this one together – but we’ve got MONTHS to wait before the next. John Dougherty, I hope you’re hard at work on the fourth. And fifth, and sixth…

I had actually read the first one, Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face and the Badness of Badgers, before it disappeared, but that was several months ago and I've read a lot of books since and, in all honesty, I couldn’t remember all that much about it. But there was no need to worry. Oskar had loved it, and he remembered everything. So here goes. 

SB and his little sister KF live on the Isle of Kerfuffle, along with King Toothbrush Weasel and his army, which consists of Malcolm the Cat, and various other eccentric characters. (Their parents conveniently disappear when there’s a story going on.) If you noted the title, you will realise that the villains of the first book are a troop of exceedingly bad badgers. SB and KF triumph over them and they are cast into jail – but at the beginning of the second book, whilst playing Monopoly, the badgers discover a 'Get Out Of Jail' card, which they promptly use – so horrors! Once again, they are free to plan evil and wicked things, to do EVILLY and WICKEDLY.

SB and KF soon realise what has happened and determine that once again, they must defend Kerfuffle against the badgers. Fortunately, they meet a whole bunch of characters, brilliantly illustrated by David Tazzyman, who help them in their task. My favourite is the amazing Ninja Librarian, who has magic powers and also a very sharp sword, which she threatens to use to chop the heads off anyone who misbehaves in her library. She helps SB and KF to research what they must do to defeat the badgers: it involves catching a number 36 bus (which has an amiably dim – but very jolly – driver called Mr Jolly) which will take them on their quest to find the Magic Porcupine.

The story rollicks along – you never have a clue what’s going to happen next. But the best thing about it is that it’s so funny: Oskar was chortling out loud on every page. There are quirky, anarchic characters and excellent baddies. But there’s something else interesting going on: John Dougherty plays about with the conventions of a book. He does interesting things with typefaces. He tells you that SB and KF will have to wait till page 55 to find out what their quest will be – and then has the characters whiling away the time and the pages till they get there. He subverts expectations – notably with the arrival on the scene at the end of a chapter of a fearsome shark - who actually turns out to be a great help. And he reminds you all the time that this isn't real life, but a book. I’m sure there’s a proper term for this (meta-something?) but I don’t know what it is. I thought it might be a bit of a problem for a young reader, but far from it – Oskar was intrigued by and really enjoyed this aspect of the book.

So, a great hit. Right up at the top of Oskar’s personal chart, in fact. We can’t wait for the next one!


Friday, 19 September 2014

The Diamond Thief by Sharon Gosling - reviewed by Tamsyn Murray

Rémy Brunel is a bird of paradise, flying on a trapeze above the ring in Le Cirque de la Lune in an exquisite pink and black feathered costume. That's her day job. She's also a jewel thief, one of the best in the business, and the circus gives her the perfect cover, taking her orders from Gustave, the circus owner. Rémy doesn't plan to be a thief forever, just long enough to get herself and her best friend Claudette enough money to make a life for themselves away from the circus. Gustave has other ideas...

When the circus arrives in London, it's not long before Gustave has his eye on a glittering prize - the Darya-ye Noor diamond - the Ocean of Light - which is on display at the Tower of London. He sends Rémy to steal it but things don't go to plan, especially when she encounters the determined and conscientious Thaddeus Rec, the only policeman to suspect her. At the end of the night, the diamond is in Rémy's hands but nothing is what it seems and she is forced to go on the run in fear of her life and her future.

Featuring a cast of fabulous characters, confounding contraptions and a rip-roaring ride of an adventure that leads us deep under London's Victorian streets, The Diamond Thief is a highly enjoyable, action-packed story. Rémy and Thaddeus in particular stand out  - Rémy shines like the jewels she steals and she is exactly the kind of character I wish I had written. I feared for Thaddeus at first because of his principals but he falls just the right side of immovable and makes the right choices when it comes down to it. I couldn't wait to get back to this book and yet didn't want it to end - thankfully, there's a sequel, The Ruby Airship, so I get to find out what Rémy gets up to next.

I recommend this book for aged 12+ - a great Steampunk adventure with a romantic heart and plenty of thrills and spills along the way.


Friday, 12 September 2014

Corpse Talk Season 1 by Adam Murphy

Fans of Horrible Histories will love the first volume of Corpse Talk, a dead funny comic strip that first appeared in the pages of The Phoenix

The concept is deceptively simple, freakishly funny and wonderfully ghoulish. An interviewer – artist and writer Adam Murphy – digs up the bodies of famous folk from the past, and then quizzes them about their lives, and in many cases, how they shuffled off this mortal coil. 

Kids with a love of the macabre will be suitably grossed out by the historical figures' gaunt mummified looks, while Murphy expertly condenses the main events of 33 notable lives into single or double page strips. 

The author's dry wit transforms potentially dry facts into full-on belly laughs that educate as they entertain. You'll certainly never look at the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst, Dick Turpin and Jane Austin the same way again, while familiar faces like the many wives of Henry VIII, Mahatma Ghandi or Charles Dickens get a fresh approach (well, as fresh as a mouldering cadaver gets anyway).

One to file under 'why has no-one ever done this before' Corpse Talk Season 1 proves that history - and the dead for that matter - needn't be stiff and starchy.

Reviewed by Cavan Scott


Sunday, 7 September 2014

The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones & Ursula Jones; reviewed by Gillian Philip

We’ll never know how it should have ended. At least, we’ll never know how it would have ended, had Diana Wynne Jones not died before completing her last novel. We don’t even know where she stopped writing, because the book doesn’t tell us; we only know that somewhere along the journey, Diana’s sister Ursula took over the story and completed it. When she first read to the end of the existing manuscript: “It was a shock,” says Ursula Jones in her Afterword. “It was like being woken from sleepwalking or nearly running off the edge of a cliff.” But taking as her launch point a clue she spotted in the manuscript, and with her understanding of her sister’s style and writing process, Ursula caught the apprentice Wise Woman Aileen and her friends before they fell, and carried them along to the end of their adventure.

When we meet Aileen, it’s the morning after her abject failure in her initiation as a Wise Woman, and she’s being comforted by her Aunt Beck, a full-fledged Wise Woman (and one Scots would call a nippy sweetie). She’s not unkind, though (well, not deliberately), and her no-nonsense attitude chivvies Aileen along into both adventure and a discovery of her true abilities.
I have no idea, and neither does anyone other reviewer I’ve read, where Ursula Jones took over the story. To me it was a seamless adventure with everything a reader could wish for in a fantasy: quests, danger, transformations and impossible obstacles; quirky friends and loathsome enemies and plenty of human frailty in between. As Aileen travels from her home in Skarr to the isolated kingdom of Logra - via the islands of Bernica and Gallis - she accumulates the kind of friends that every fantasy heroine should have, not all of them human (the best of them is the magically elusive cat, Plug-Ugly). And of course, just as it should be, the stern wisdom and acerbic guidance of Aunt Beck is lost to Aileen through a wicked spell; it’s down to the failed young Wise Woman to save the day and break the spells that bind not only her aunt, but the whole kingdom of Logra.

It’s never openly stated but the four islands are very much inspired by the four nations of the British Isles, with Skarr loosely based on Scotland, Bernica on Ireland, Gallis on Wales, and Logra on England. The languages, the peoples and even the living emblems of each island are reminiscent of the respective countries; it’s a rather lovely concept in the islands' links that might soon have an elegiac tone.

Even as you read, there’s a sense of sadness that this was Diana Wynne Jones’s last book. But it’s a lovely coda to a wonderful body of work. I’m just glad Ursula Jones seems to have shared such a telepathic empathy with her sister.

The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones (completed by Ursula Jones) (Harper Collins, £12.99 hb)


Saturday, 6 September 2014

Captain Beastlie's Pirate Party by Lucy Coats and Chris Mould - reviewed by Damian Harvey

Captain Beastlie is a dirty, smelly pirate but his ship is smart and his crew are clean. The filthy captain shouts and bellows, stamps and stomps around his ship as he counts down the days left until his birthday - just in case his crew should have forgotten.

Children will delight in Beastlie's dirty habits - 'picking a bogey out of his nose and licking it', then 'rootling a glob of peanut butter out of his ear', and much more besides. They will also love seeing his crew as they busily prepare a birthday surprise for their bellowing captain. But what is it they are preparing?

Lucy's text is a joy to read with its rhythms, pirate language and expressive dialogue. A great book to share and a real must to read aloud to a bunch of lily-livered limpets ahar! But please beware! It's impossible to read in anything other than a traditional pirate voice... And quite right too.

Chris Mould's artwork is always a joy to see and here he brings Lucy's characters to life with lots of fun and added detail in his own inimitable style giving the readers so much to look at.