Thursday, 23 October 2014

The Firebird Trilogy by Nick Green reviewed by Julia Jones

I've just read the three parts of Nick Green's Firebird Trilogy as one big book. It's been a terrific experience and I'd happily go back to the beginning and start again.

Project FirebirdLeo Lloyd Jones is a teenage joy-rider from Salford who is picked – accidentally, he assumes – to be part of an elite group of youngsters who might be required to rehabilitate the world in the case of cosmic catastrophe. This is Project Firebird. Now I don't normally do much in the way of cosmic catastrophe and my appetite for dystopias is distinctly limited. But I love adventure and stroppy teenagers and their capacity for moral decisions and courage and emotion and idealism and that's what Project Firebird gave me.

Leo's quality is leadership, the indefinable sort which is something quite different from ambition or the desire for power. Most of the time he's completely unaware of it but when push comes to shove he's usually able to make the right choices and find the words to inspire others. On his first day at Project Firebird he is sitting next to fourteen year old Rhys Carnavon, the fit, good-looking ' natural leader' who has just trekked back from Antarctica after witnessing the death of his scientist father. The shifting relationship between Leo and Rhys is a main plot strand running throughout the trilogy. It's complex, does not allow for second guessing and has a resonance beyond the individual characters. It's one of the reasons I'd like to read the trilogy again.

Plotting is excellent throughout. For me the books really began to sing at the shift between volumes one and two, Project Firebird to Firebird Dawn. The shock at the beginning of the second volume was, I thought, brilliantly managed – especially when an unexpected twist and additional layer of complexity was revealed later in the book. Another welcome moment was the emergence into the open air. Nick Green seems to be particularly good at evoking effects of light on landscape and glistening natural beauty. Not that the post-disaster countryside is uniformly lovely: there are methane flares from pockets of rotting garbage and a glimpse of a survivor spending his (short) life melting down abandoned plastic. One imaginative insight I especially enjoyed was Leo's occasional sense of his 'own' landscape – Salford, Manchester, the M6 motorway – buried a thousand years below the landscape on which he and his friends are struggling to survive.

There's cruelty and loss in this second volume but I feel somehow that it's the most human of the three. That's a descriptive not an evaluative point. The mainly female Blackwater village, the ruthless Dustral raids are small scale in comparison with the brutalities and stark struggles for existence in the final volume Firebird Radiant. That's fine. I think trilogies should work rather like symphonies with themes introduced, developed and brought to some resounding climax. AS such, however there the obvious danger or predictability and one of Nick Green's clevernesses in his third volume is to counterpoint the megalomaniac’s bid for global domination with the intimate domesticities of broken nights and nappy changing.

There are thrilling action sequences, delicate moments of relationship and some extraordinarily fine descriptive writing throughout the trilogy. There's also plenty of intellectual content and much to reflect on and discuss in our management of the natural world. I rather hope that we are sufficiently co-operative to establish a Global Seed bank to preserve crop varieties – currently I hear more about fragmentation and restrictive patenting. These books could be offered to consumers of The Hunger Games or Malorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses. Instead each volume is available for £1.85 on Kindle. I don't think this is ideological statement: I think this is 21st century publishing's failure.


Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Class Six and the Nits of Doom by Sally Prue. ...reviewed by Adèle Geras

I know I am always doing it: the very opposite of what you're supposed to do.  The etiquette is: you don't puff the work of your friends. Indeed, you go to great lengths to avoid mentioning it, lest you be accused of bias.

I'm quite happy to be accused of bias. I am biased in favour of those of my acquaintance who just happen to be good writers. Because I'm a writer, I have a lot of friends like this...and Sally Prue is one of them. I make a point of bringing their latest work to the attention of the wider world and I don't feel in the least guilty about it. I have, I promise you, a HUGE pile of stuff by people I know which I have no intention of reviewing. 

Sally Prue's little book needs  critical attention for two reasons. First, because it's good but more importantly, it's one of a specific kind of book which never gets noticed at all.  This is the small, not very flashy narrative for younger readers: the kind of thing you'd find in a classroom but not on the pages of the Sunday Times. 

These are often the books to which children have most access. They are short, which means that they're accessible at a time when readers need good meaty stuff to move them on to really demanding books. They must be simple without being stupid. This is not as easy to achieve as it looks.  It helps when there's an occasional line drawing to pull the child through the  story.  It helps greatly if they're funny. And if they're written by someone who takes as much care with every sentence as Prue does, then the readers are in luck and this slim volume will be excellent exercise for those parts of the brain that are needed to turn children into enthusiastic lovers of every kind of book.

 Class Six and the Nits of Doom.... an immediately interesting title...poses a what if which has probably often crossed the mind of disgruntled pupils: what if Miss is actually a witch? 
I'm not giving too much away when I tell you that this year,  in Class Six, Miss is not only a bona fide witch, but also one who doesn't limit herself to the more fluffy and child - friendly enchantments. On the contrary, these spells can be properly nasty and the way Class Six copes with them strikes me as admirably stoical. Not only that: whenever someone suggests getting adult help of some kind, his or her fellows say, to all intents and purposes, "Naah, don't bother, they won't believe us. "

So the pupils deals with this predicament as best they can. The dénouement, when it comes, is exactly right. But along the way there are the incidental delights of Prue's writing, which is both hilarious and quite sharp.  

Also, the fact that Class Six can be going through what it is going through while the rest of the school goes on around it unawares, says something quite profound about the way we deal with problems affecting our close neighbours but not ourselves ....this is something to go on thinking about when the fun and games are over. 

Whatever its deeper significance,  Prue has written a jolly good romp which moves at a cracking pace and those who've just begun to read fluently will love it.


Friday, 17 October 2014

TAKING FLIGHT - By Sheena Wilkinson

Reviewed by Jackie Marchant

This is a book of contrasts – about two cousins living near each other, yet in completely different worlds.  Declan is the son of a single alcoholic mother living on a rough estate, attending a rough school, someone with no ambition other than to finish school as soon as possible.  At the start of the book he is in trouble again, for lashing out at his former mate, who describes his mother as a slag because she’s having an affair with his father.  His punishment is suspension, but it’s the letter of apology that Declan finds hardest to deal with.

When his mother tries to kill herself, Declan has to go and stay with his cousin Vicky.  Vicky lives with her divorced mother Colleen and pays regular visits to her wealthy father and new wife, the main purpose of which seems to be to demand more money for riding lessons and more support with her flashy new showjumper, Flight.  Hers is a world of private school, horses, giggly friends and shopping – and absolute horror that her mother used to live on the same estate as Declan.

The story is told from these two viewpoints, Declan struggling with what life has thrown at him, while Vicky struggles not to let him near her friends.  The one thing that could bring them together is the one thing that drives them further apart – horses.  Declan has never been near a horse before, is reluctant to be dragged off to watch ‘princess Vicky’ riding Flight – and completely astonished with how much he immediately takes to them.  The more his affinity with the animals comes out, the more Vicky is determined to keep him away.  But, as Declan’s situation spirals ever downwards, it is Vicky who holds the key to his redemption – if only she can find it within herself to overcome her bitterness and jealousy.

The two viewpoints are handled deftly, although it’s Declan who has the reader’s sympathy, despite his flaws.  Coming from her privileged background, it can be harder to empathise with Vicky, although Declan can be pretty cruel to her.  Ultimately, this book is about accepting people for who they are, rather than their situation.  Winner of the CBI Book of the Year Award, this is a great, page-turning read.  


Monday, 13 October 2014

No Going Back by Alex Gutteridge, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

No Going Back by Alex Gutteridge   

 Alex Gutteridge is brilliant at writing stories that feel light and easy to read, and yet carry a depth of wise consideration of life and love and loss and families and friends that keeps you thinking about the story long after the reading of it has finished. 

It took me a long time to become a real reader as a child.  I struggled with learning to read, so didn't see it as something to do by choice for fun for a long time.  My breakthrough book was 'Flambards' by K M Peyton, and I mention that because it was the same qualities of light first romance in a novel, together with moral dilemmas for characters I cared about, that I recognise in Alex Gutteridge's 'No Going Back' and her earlier 'Last Chance Angel'.  I think this will be a book that entices reluctant young (mostly female) readers of about twelve to fourteen into reading a story that will move them to laugh, cry and think. 

Described as 'contemporary paranormal', this is the story of fourteen year old Laura who has had to leave the London home she and her mum have shared since the accidental death of her father ten years before.  Now they must move to Derbyshire to live with ailing grumpy Gran.  But they aren't the only ones to move into Gran's house.  Suddenly the ghost of Dad is there too, well meaning but annoying in just the way that all dads are to their teenage offspring!  There are secrets from the past to be revealed, family misunderstandings to be sorted, and a kitten and boy to be flirted with and finally won. 


Thursday, 9 October 2014

A Breath of Fresh Air! Three Picture Books about Playing Outside reviewed by Pauline Chandler

Choosing bedtime stories for my grandson recently, I was struck by how many picture books are full of rampaging dinosaurs, wild-eyed dragons, monsters and superheroes, all in dazzling primary colours. Very exciting, but not quite conducive to a calm ‘time for bed’!  I’ve noticed, too, that young mums and dads are now thinking that it’s best not to overstimulate little ones, with every bright toy or storybook that comes along.     

May I suggest play in the great outdoors? Soft nature colours, wonderful weather, textures, scents, sounds, fresh air freedom! What could be better for the kids than time free from the adult’s all seeing-eye (or when they think they’re free!), freedom to learn by making their own decisions and solve their own problems. Are there any stories to encourage this? Yes there are!

I had to search hard for them, those outside books, with the kind of soothing ambience that says what a wonderful world it is, stories that celebrate simple pleasures, such playing in a field of dandelions, or collecting eggs from the hens, or messing about in the garden.  

Sandra Horn’s book ‘The Dandelion Wish’ tells just such a gentle story, beautifully illustrated by Louise Warwick.  Out in the fields, Jo and Sam watch the wind blow the dandelion seeds high into the air and when Sam suggests blowing seeds to make a wish, Jo joins him, with magical results. Yes, there’s a dinosaur, pirates and fireworks, but they’re all part of the Dandelion Fair, which arrives and departs like a dream. In the end, ‘Only the night heard a home-going rabbit whistle a rock-a-bye tune.’
This is a lovely story that celebrates outdoor play and the power of a child’s wishing and dreaming.

Kim Lewis’s picture books about country life on the farm, are some of the best.

In ‘Friends’, Sam and Alice go off, on their own, to collect a new-laid egg, but on the way back home, they quarrel and the egg is broken. Both children are deeply upset and think they can’t be friends any more, but when the hen lays another egg, they make up, finding a way to do this by themselves, with children’s innate awareness of what’s fair. Then they find the fresh egg and take it home together.  What lovely pictures illustrate this charming story! Kim Lewis treats us to detailed and realistic images of life on the farm. 

My final choice is ‘The King of Tiny Things’ by Jeanne Willis, illustrated by Gwen Millward.

This delightful tale, with more enchanting pictures of the countryside at night, takes us with Chrissy and the narrator on a summer time visit to their grandparent’s house. When the girls camp out in a tent in the garden, they meet all sorts of little creatures on a night-time adventure. There’s so much to enjoy in this story of magic in the dark, with friendly bugs and caterpillars, and the king of tiny things. Children on their own, free, outside and doing stuff! Wonderful!

All three picture books are highly recommended for children aged 5-7.

Pauline Chandler 2014



Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Blade Itself, reviewed by C.J. Busby

The Blade Itself is written for adults, but it's a book that might also be enjoyed by older teenage readers, especially any who are fans of G.R.R. Martin. I picked it up almost by accident from my sister's shelf while visiting this summer. She is an extremely discerning reader of fantasy and sicfi and I always trust her judgement, so I knew it would be good. But I wasn't prepared for just how good.

The Blade Itself is the first book of a trilogy set in an alternative world but one that is reminiscent of medieval Europe, albeit with a very different history. There are no maps, so my sense that I almost recognised the topography and names (Angland? Midderland? The southern, oriental-type empire called Ghurkul?) added a certain resonance, but also left it all nicely vague. The world is one that has a recognisable kinship with G.R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire - swords, men at arms, politicking, and scepticism about the apparent reappearance of old magic. But it's not derivative - for all the inevitable resonances any epic fantasy has to other epic fantasies all the way back to The Lord of the Rings, Abercrombie's world is original enough to really engage the reader, and what's more important, his writing is cracking.

The story is told from the viewpoint of a number of different characters, and I loved all of them - whether it was bitter, twisted torturer Sand dan Glokta, vain, lazy, aristocratic Lieutenant Jezal dan Luthar, the tough northern barbarian fighter Logan Nine-fingers (also known as the Bloody Nine), the seasoned northern scout, Dogman, or the long-suffering army stalwart, Major West. Each has a distinct voice, and although the threads intertwine, each also has a distinctly interesting journey and their own sub-plots to follow, so I greeted each change of chapter/voice with the sense of excitement of catching up with a really interesting old friend.

But it's not just the characters - Abercrombie's writing is sharp, clever and above all funny. I like my fantasy laced with a decent amount of self-deprecation and deadpan humour, so for me this was the best aspect of the book. Despite some very dark moments, gritty realism and a lot of blood, it also had me laughing out loud in parts. Sand dan Glokta has a nice line in bitter sarcastic humour, while Luthar is unwittingly funny just because he's totally lacking in self-insight. Nine-fingers, as well as having the ability to eviscerate an opponent on autopilot, is master of the one-line put down. There are also some nice moments where Abercrombie subverts the usual fantasy fare - the powerful wizard who's drawn Logan down south turns out not to be the white-beaded old sage standing by the front door, but the person Logan barely glanced at - the stocky butcher with blood half-way up his arms, dissecting an animal in the yard below.

The plot follows a lot of disparate strands, all, like the characters, with their own fascination, and there's an underlying sense that all of them are going to turn out to be interrelated. There is an empire on the move in an unholy alliance with dark magical forces, a conspiracy needing investigation at the heart of the corrupt, class-ridden central Union, a wizard who apparently still lives hundreds of years after he first made an appearance in the Union's mythology, and some violent orc-like creatures overrunning the Union's northern borders. It's a full-scale adventure, and one that's very hard to put down. I had to stop after book two of the trilogy because I had my own pressing writing deadline to make, but as soon as I'm done I'll be diving into the last book.

The Blade Itself is gritty, bloody, and there's a lot of politics to keep up with, so I wouldn't recommend it to those under 16, but there's nothing that would worry the older teenager. There is a lot of swearing. But you probably hear worse on an average secondary school bus...

So, in return for all the great reads we adults have had from YA fiction, here's one that crosses over in the other direction: older teenagers (and adults), I give you Joe Abercrombie. Enjoy!

C. J. Busby writes fantasy for 7-12. Her latest book, Dragon Amber, is out with Templar: the first in the series, Deep Amber, was published in March and has been shortlisted for the Stockton Book Award..

"A rift hopping romp with great charm wit and pace" Frances Hardinge on Deep Amber



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