Friday, 6 March 2015

BLUE MOON DAY by Anne Fine Reviewed by Adèle Geras

Yet again, I confess, I am reviewing a book by a friend of mine. This time I have a good excuse. It gives me a chance to highlight the many things about short stories which make them an excellent choice of reading matter for young people. For older people too,  if it comes to that, but by the time you've left school, you'll probably have decided whether it's a form you can cope with or not.

Many people are annoyed by short stories. They feel somehow let down by brevity. They think that there's no way that a short story can satisfy in the way a novel can. I think they're wrong, but then I've always loved short stories, both to read and to write.

The best examples are like small stones thrown into a pond. They strike the water and then the rings spread out and out. So you read something by Chekov, or Somerset Maugham, or Raymond Carver, or   MR James or a host of other writers and the echoes and possibilities and resonances fill your head and go on  reverberating in your mind for a long time after you've finished reading.
Fine has chosen a framing device for her stories, which are all about children in institutions:  various sorts of boarding school, a school for the blind and visually impaired, and even an educational unit for young offenders. It starts with a girl who really, really does not want to go to her own day school that morning having what she calls a Blue Moon Day (because it happens so rarely) and bunking off. However a condition of not going is that she has to go about in the car while her mother, a caregiver, goes from house to house seeing many different kinds of people. To pass the time while she's waiting, she reads the stories in a book called Away from Homeand we read the tales with her, one after another.

I speak as someone who was very happy indeed at my boarding school,  (Roedean School in Brighton) for eight years. And though I wouldn't dream of sending any child of mine to one, I can see several advantages. The most important of these, for me at any rate, was the extraordinarily high standard of the actual education. I am still enormously grateful to my teachers. I also made friends there, and  I'm still in touch with some of them. I don't recollect any serious bullying. Maybe I went round with my eyes shut but I don't think so. Girls could be spiteful. I was made miserable by several people on several occasions but nothing too traumatic.  Fine, too, in  depicting such places as they really are NOW does not resort to any of the old boys'  school  clichés of people having their heads stuck down a lavatory, and other such horrors. Her stories are much more modern than that, and even children who go to day school will recognise that they have a great deal in common with Fine's protagonists.

But this framing story does have its bleak moments, not only when we learn about the people being cared for, but also in our heroine's recounting of her family circumstances. The ending is hopeful, however, and along the way the  young reader will have been introduced to institutions and teachers that might very well make him or her look at their own school with fresh eyes.

The eccentricity of teachers is on display throughout and makes for a good deal of comedy along the way. The writing is elegant and crisp throughout. Heartstrings are pulled with no trace of sentimentality. I think readers of this book, whether they go to boarding school or not, will love it for the light it sheds on an experience which can be painful for many children.  If you're a teacher,  buy a copy for your class library and if you have a school -age child, it's required reading which you as an adult will also enjoy.

A final sad note:  the book is dedicated to Frances, whom I also knew and who used to teach at Roedean, long after I left it. She  died recently and this book would have made her very proud and happy.


Monday, 2 March 2015

ONE OF US by Jeannie Waudby

Reviewed by Jackie Marchant

This is a timely book, about terrorism and taking sides.  It’s about prejudice and the danger of judging a whole section of society by the actions of a few.   And what it’s like to be hated because of who you are.

After surviving a terrorist bombing, K Child is full of antagonism towards those who carried out the attack – the Brotherhood.  When the enigmatic Oskar asks her to infiltrate the Brotherhood by attending their top boarding school to seek out extremists, she finds herself agreeing.  After winning her trust, Oskar gives her a completely new identity, a new set of Brotherhood clothes – and leaves her alone at the Brotherhood school gates.

At first K is terrified.  She is not only a stranger here, but a spy.  But no one seems to notice and, not only that, the people she meets are friendly.  They’re ordinary, like her.  For the first time in her lonely life, she is surrounded by people who care about her.  More than that, she’s falling in love.

At the same time, she begins to have doubts about Oskar and his true motives.  Then she witnesses the sharp end of the hatred citizens have for the Brotherhood – the same hatred she felt towards them on the day of the bombing.  But they are not all like that.

Can the two sides ever be reconciled?  This is the aim of the government, but, as K is drawn further into a web of deceit and anger, it seems increasingly unlikely – especially as K comes to realise the true horror of what Oskar wants of her. 

One thing we never learn is what the Brotherhood actually believe in.  They have longer names and wear slightly different clothes, but their doctrines remain elusive – they are hated because they are Brotherhood, but no one seems to know why.  As K learns, we are all the same – and there are people on both sides who advocate violence.

This is an exciting read, with romance and danger in equal measure.  It’s part thriller, part love-story, but all page-turner.  I can recommend it for younger teens.


Friday, 27 February 2015

Pioneer Girl, The Annotated Autobiography, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

Laura Ingalls Wilder turned me into a reader.  Her Little House books were worth the effort that reading was to me at that time.  It’s not too strong to say that I loved Laura, and still do. 

So it was with some trepidation that I approached Pioneer Girl because I knew that this book would expose the ‘real’ Laura.  Would that spoil the Laura I thought I knew?  No.  It makes her even more human and fascinating!

Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, was a very well regarded journalist and novelist by 1929 when the economic Crash hit America.  Laura was in her sixties.  It was Rose’s suggestion that her mother should write down memories and stories from her pioneer family past, and that might raise much-needed money.  At that stage, those memories were intended for an adult audience.  So Laura got to work, writing freehand in school exercise books.  She called the work Pioneer Girl, and in the text we get much that is familiar from the fictionalised stories we already know, but more stories, much of it bleak or shocking stuff. 

The Ingalls family had already illegally tried to land-grab territory belonging to Indians before the events of Little House In The Big Woods begins.  There’s a moment when Pa packed them all into the wagon to do a midnight flit from a place where he owed money.  We learn about baby Freddy, born between Carrie and Grace, who died aged nine months.  During the desperate Long Winter when food and fuel was so scarce they burned twisted hay and risked lives in order to get more grain, the Ingalls family had another family living with them.  A young couple, keen to get away because they knew their baby was due rather too soon for decency after their marriage, landed on the Ingalls’ and got snowed in.  Ma acted midwife.  Through those desperate months, the young couple hogged the place by the stove and did nothing to help!  And, would you believe it, it was Cap Garland who Laura fancied more than she did Almanzo for quite some time!  (Actually, I think I’d sensed that all along …!)  There are more surprises to find.

We are treated to photographs of many of the people who appear in the stories, and given brief histories of what happened to them.  Arch enemy Nellie Olsen is actually an amalgamation of three girls who Laura disliked for different reasons over the years! 

We see how the stories were tidied-up and shaped for a child audience.  The back and forth editing process between mother and daughter is alternately funny and heartbreaking. 

But Laura comes through, intact as the Laura we already know, but with added grit and humour and stubbornness, and we find that other members of her family are of course more complex than their fictional counterparts.

This book is a clever production.  It never bores with its footnotes.  It’s a handsome big book, and a great treat to read … and I know that I’ll re-read it before too long.  Thank you, Laura!


Monday, 23 February 2015

"Succession" by Livi Michael reviewed by Pauline Chandler

Set during the tumultuous Wars of the Roses, “Succession” combines the stories of two Tudor women, royal wives and mothers, two Margarets, both used
as pawns by powerful marriage brokers, in the intricate game of politics around the English throne.

The prologue of the novel prefaces much of what is to come, touching on several of its themes. Margaret Beaufort is remembering a time, when as a four-year old child, she wandered, lost and terrified, down the long corridors of the strange house she has been brought to, the home of her new guardian, the Duke of Suffolk, and meets him by chance for the first time.  She already knows it is shameful to cry, except in penitence, and that she is female and therefore subject to a man’s control, but what she also remembers is that the Duke spoke to her about the courage and determination of a woman, the warrior Joan of Arc, whom he greatly admired.  She remembers too how the Duke met a terrible end, condemned as a traitor and savagely beheaded.  She herself is a rich heiress and mother to the future king, Henry VII.

We next meet Margaret of Anjou, the French king’s niece, who has been brought to England to marry Henry VI, in a union that should ensure closer links with France, but, as Suffolk knows, the bride brings no dowry and the match has cost England valuable French territories.  Henry himself has insisted on the match. He is weak and malleable, and as Margaret soon discovers, he is not inclined to consummate the marriage. To the earls and power brokers of the English court, a secure and stable succession is paramount. If Henry has no children, who will succeed him?  The stage is set for fascinating but terrible power games, in violent times, where torture and death are commonplace.     

This is a complex period in history, handled expertly and with conviction by Livi Michael who creates an intensely engaging narrative. The author deals with her subject in an unusual way, by interspersing her fictional scenes with material from contemporary primary sources: eye witness accounts and the testimony of medieval chroniclers. Underpinned by meticulous research, the stories of the two Margarets are vividly brought to life in beautifully described settings. I should like to thank the author for guiding me kindly through this complex period of our history.

Pauline Chandler

Pauline’s latest book, "Warrior Girl", historical fiction for young adults, tells the story of Joan of Arc, alongside that of her cousin, Mariane, who has her own battle to fight. A new edition of “Warrior Girl” is pubished by Cybermouse Books.


Thursday, 19 February 2015

MARS EVACUEES by Sophia McDougal - reviewed by Cecilia Busby

"When the polar ice advanced as far as Nottingham, my school was closed and I was evacuated to Mars."

I'm a great fan of science fiction, and it's cheering to see proper sci fi (as opposed to its disguised cousin 'dystopian fiction') starting to appear once again in children's books. Sophia McDougal's MARS EVACUEES is unquestionably proper science fiction, and what's more it's clearly aimed at pulling a few more girls into the genre, or at least giving those that are there already some decent role models. McDougal's heroine, Alice Dare ('Alistair? Funny name for a girl', is the inevitable comment from anyone who asks her name...) is the daughter of an ace female fighter pilot, whose success rate in the war against the invisible aliens who have invaded Earth is legendary. The aliens - the Morror - are using technology to alter the earth's temperature so it becomes more suited to their physiology: hence the encroaching ice sheet that causes Alice, and 300 other children from important families, to be sent to Mars. But Mars is only in the early stages of being terraformed and the station where they arrive is in the middle of a dangerous wilderness.

Alice rapidly makes friends with a rather odd-ball girl called Josephine. Clever, musical, unconventional, she is the target of bullying from some of the more preppy kids and the two form an alliance, which becomes even more important when the adults disappear and the children have to fend for themselves, along with some cheerful robots who zip around after them and continue to insist that the kids learn English grammar and quadratic equations while they hunt each other, 'Lord of the Flies'-style, around the station. Eventually, Alice, Josephine and two Philippino-Australian brothers, Carl and Noel, escape, but heading out in the wilds of Mars with only a fish-shaped educational robot to help them may not be the smartest move they could have made, and the Mars wilderness turns out to be not so devoid of life as the human colonists had supposed....

I really enjoyed this book - it has fabulous characters, edge-of-the-seat suspense, and some big themes - family, friendship, love, betrayal, war, forgiveness, aliens and the importance of duct tape. Thoroughly recommended for boys and girls in the classic 9-12 bracket, and fun for older readers too!

(And for those among you with access to technological wizardry, there's even a space-fighter training app to go with the book, which you can download free from i-tunes here or Play here). 

Cecilia Busby writes fantasy adventures for children aged 7-12 as C.J. Busby. Her latest book, Dragon Amber, was published in September by Templar.

"Great fun - made me chortle!" (Diana Wynne Jones on Frogspell)

"A rift-hoping romp with great wit, charm and pace" (Frances Hardinge on Deep Amber)


Sunday, 15 February 2015

Marsh Road Mysteries: Diamonds And Daggers, by Elen Caldecott. Reviewed by Saviour Pirotta

Title: Marsh Road Mysteries: Diamonds And Daggers
Author: Elen Caldecott
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication date: 5 February 2015

I have always loved a good detective story and, as a child, read Enid Blyton and Malcolm Saville's various whodunnits several times over. It wasn't just the sleuthing that attracted me to these books but also the caramaderie of the participants and the feeling that, by reading the stories, I became an unofficial member of the club.

Elen Caldecott's first book in The Marsh Road Mysteries series evokes the same strong feelings but brings a sassy and urban vibe to the genre. Here are five juvenile detectives that reflect the socio-cultural zeitgeist: Piotr, Minnie, Flora, Andrew and Sylvie.  They live in an inncer-city environment of shops, cafes, markets stalls, lock-ups  - and a theatre.  It's the theatre that provides the backdrop to their first adventure.

A world-megastar called Betty Massino has come to Marsh Road to star in a play. A thief makes off with her hugely expensive diamond necklace and Piotr's dad, who works as the security manager at the theatre, is the main suspect. He's so distraught by the accusation that he decides to take his family back to Poland. Which means that the fabulous five have a very short time frame in which to find the real cuplrit and prove his innocence.

The story is a breathless pageturner with an ending that will have you cheking amazon to find when the next installment of the Marsh Road Mysteries is due.

Reviewed by Saviour Pirotta

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Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Trouble on Cable Street, by Joan Lingard: reviewed by Sue Purkiss

Anyone who was teaching English in the late 70s/early 80s - and probably after that - will remember the name of Joan Lingard. She wrote Across the Barricades, a sort of Romeo and Juliet set in Belfast during the Troubles. Kevin is Catholic and Sadie is Protestant: they really shouldn't fall in love, but they do. It worked really well in schools: the story was gripping, it dealt with emotions deeply relevant to teenagers, and there was lots to discuss and tease out - so thank you for that, Joan Lingard!

She is still writing, and her latest book is set in the east end of London in 1936. It's an unusual combination; from Dickens on, there have been lots of books set in Victorian London featuring the lives of the working class, and there are plenty set against the background of the Blitz - but I can't think of many set in this particular time and place. Trouble on Cable Street concerns Isabella, whose mother is Spanish. She has two brothers. One has chosen to fight in the Spanish Civil War for the Republicans: the other, by contrast, is attracted by Oswald Mosley's increasingly powerful Fascist movement in London.

The story sheds an interesting light on a turbulent and not particularly well-known period. We know now that fascism in England was a dead end; but it's important to remember that they didn't know that at the time. It must have been very frightening to see the Blackshirts marching through the streets and to witness the riots and the rabble-rousing speeches, particularly if, like Isabella, your mother was a foreigner and you worked for a Jewish factory owner. Isabella senses for herself the charismatic power of fascism in the person of her brother Arthur's friend, Rupert; she distrusts him, but she sees his power - and his good looks. The people she loves are in very real danger, from several different directions. By the end, no-one is left unscarred. 

The book tells us a great deal about the political state of Europe in the years leading up to the war, and it makes us feel what it must have been like to be on the streets of London in the path of a fascist demonstration. It also resonates with the present climate, where extremists whip up hatred, immigrants provide easy scapegoats, and cities have once again been scarred by riots. But at the centre of it is Isabella, strong and warm-hearted, who must negotiate a path through the danger and uncertainty and decide, as we all must do, where to place her trust and her love.

(This review first appeared on my own blog, A Fool on a Hill.)