Monday, 30 March 2015

The Pheonix Presents The Pirates of Pangaea Book 1 by Daniel Hartwell and Neill Cameron - reviewed by Cavan Scott

In his excellent How to Make Awesome Comics, Neill Cameron suggests mashing together different cool things to make a REALLY cool thing.

The Pirates of Pangaea is the artist and author practicing exactly what he preaches. Cameron and co-writer David Hartwell take two eternally popular staples of adventure stories and combine them with epic results.

Pirates and Dinosaurs. Need I say more?

OK, if you insist. Set during the 18th Century, The Pirates of Pangaea sees Sophie Delacourt visiting a recently discovered island that is still populated by dinosaurs. All is going swimmingly, until she is kidnapped by a band of vicious pirates, led by the blood-thirsty Captain Brookes. Can she escape before Brookes finds his heart's desire, a mystical skull hidden somewhere on Pangaea?

Along the way, we have action, intrigue and pirate ships strapped onto the back of massive sauropods. Yes, you read that right - schooners on the back of dinosaurs. Just look:

Seriously, why has no one done this before? If any comic deserves to be adapted for the big screen, it's this pre-historic page-turner.

Oh, and you've heard of horse-whisperers? Well, Sophie turns out to be a T-Rex whisperer. Far more impressive, if you ask me!

The writers' inventive world building is brought vividly to life by Cameron''s dynamic artwork, with colouring from Abigail Ryder. Best of all, there's a real sense of jeopardy here. There's no quick fixes to problems, and you begin to wonder which of the main cast will make it to the end of the book - if any!

If you like your swashes buckled and your pulse quickened, you'll love this dino-mighty adventure.

The Pirates of Pangaea is published by David Fickling books. Reviewed by Cavan Scott


Thursday, 26 March 2015

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott reviewed by Lynda Waterhouse

This book was given to me as a gift. A Christmas present from my Godson. In fact the first present he has ever given me. After months of languishing on my ever growing ‘To be read’ pile so, with this review slot looming, I started to read it.
The full title of the book is bird by bird, Some instructions on Writing and Life. I pulled a face. This was probably not a book I would have chosen for myself. I pursed my lips and sighed. I do not consider myself to be a great reader of ‘how to’ books. Then I glanced at one of my bookshelves. In a neat row was Stephen King, Dorothea Brande, Robert McKee, Betsy Lerner and Christopher Booker. The row was rounded off by The Penguin dictionary of Jokes. Who was I trying to kid?
Anne Lamott’s book is a slim volume and is divided into five parts; Writing, The Writing Frame of Mind, Help Along the Way, Publication and Other Reasons to Write and The Last Class. It is full of advice as well as being funny and brutally honest. It has a section entitled Shitty First Drafts in which she says ‘All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.’
The section on jealousy particularly resonated with me. Anne says, ‘Jealousy is one of the occupational hazards of being a writer, and the most degrading. And I, who have been the Leona Helmsley of jealousy, have come to believe that the only things that help ease or transform it are a) getting older, b) talking about it until the fever breaks and c) using it as material. Also someone somewhere along the line is going to be able to make you start laughing about it, and then you are on your way home.’
This book is written in lively and sassy style. Anne is very open about her life experiences and her faith which makes this book a warm and generous guide.  The perfect gift.

Bird by bird is published by Anchor Books


Sunday, 22 March 2015

DEADLY LETTER by Mary Hoffman. Reviewed by Ann Turnbull.

Starting at a new school is a rite of passage that happens to everyone more than once and is rarely easy, so it's not surprising that books about this experience are always in demand.

Deadly Letter is set in the world of younger primary school children. Prity has recently come from India to start school in a London suburb in a chilly English autumn. She finds the food strange, the other children occasionally unfriendly, and the playground games puzzling - especially the one called Deadly Letter. Her understanding mother and aunt provide her with jeans, a new haircut and the right kind of lunchbox. The friendship of an older boy also helps her to fit in.

But it's not all straightforward. The kind older boy is over-protective, and Prity has to explain to him that she needs to overcome her problems on her own. She wins through - and when, a few months later, she finds she must move again, she is able to cope much better. She even teaches her new friends Deadly Letter.

This is a story that any child would relate to. Mary Hoffman does not exaggerate Prity's problems by surrounding her with spiteful children. Those who seem to be unkind are mostly shown to be simply thoughtless, and Prity comes to realise that her classmates are really quite friendly. The story deals with aspects of our multi-cultural society without ever feeling like an 'issues' book. The writing is clear and accessible, while not shying away from interesting words like paratha and churidars. It gives young readers plenty to think about.

Sophie Burrows' illustrations, with their expressive faces, relate closely to the text and add to the book's appeal.

Published by Barrington Stoke, 2014, pb, 48pp.


Saturday, 14 March 2015

Phoenix by SF Said - reviewed by Dawn Finch

First the blurb….
Lucky thinks he's an ordinary Human boy. But one night, he dreams that the stars are singing to him, and wakes to find an uncontrollable power rising inside him.
Now he's on the run, racing through space, searching for answers. In a galaxy at war, where Humans and Aliens are deadly enemies, the only people who can help him are an Alien starship crew – and an Alien warrior girl, with neon needles in her hair . . .

I became a reader in the 1970s and this was a golden age for Science Fiction. I had a steady diet of books by the masters of the art, and grew up in a world of aliens, distant planets and giant robots – it was a pretty good time to be a reader. Fashions come and go and, as a children’s librarian, I know that we drifted into a time when you couldn't bribe a young person to read sci-fi. Its image became tainted by a slew of poorly written dross, and cheaply made Star Wars knock-offs, and it simply fell from favour.
Superb books by writers like John Christopher became lost in the melee of ghastly fan-type fiction and, by the time the new century crept in and the Future arrived, we had almost lost the genre for younger readers. It boldly went on for adults and now we have some incredibly fine writers exploring new worlds for us – but in the world of children’s books it had all gone a bit quiet.

I genuinely don’t think that this was for want of good writers, far from it. I think that what actually happened was publishers decided that the genre was not desirable and opted not to commission it. A great shame in my opinion, and a situation that I’m very pleased to see being challenged by writers like SF Said.
I am a fan of Said’s previous work, and in Varjak Paw he challenged what publishers would normally perceive to be fashionable and created a book that seemed to have a genre all of its own. We waited a while for his new book – Phoenix – but it’s worth the wait and again he’s kicking against the genres. Phoenix  is highly accomplished Science Fiction (although I believe that Said prefers the term Space Fiction, and it is indeed set in deep space) and it is an explosive quest story that is riveting to the end. We are swept away with the most extraordinary characters and Said manages to keep them completely real and believable at all times, no matter how wild the adventure gets. We genuinely bond with them, and feel as if we are part of the crew travelling into a mysterious galaxy in search of Lucky’s absent father.
One of Dave McKean's stunning illustrations

As with Varjak Paw, Said’s text is supported by Dave McKean’s glorious inky outpourings. These never clash with the text or reveal too much, but rather act as a teaser for the imagination. They give the book a subtle graphic novel quality, without ever overwhelming the text. It is clear that McKean and Said have an almost symbiotic relationship because the text and illustrations work so well together. The book is a beautiful package of wonderful writing combined with fantastic images and everything comes together to make a book that would definitely convert any non-sci-fi reader.

Here’s hoping that publishers will sit up and notice and take greater risks when commissioning, so that young readers can once again have access to more Science Fiction of this quality.

Publisher: Corgi Childrens (11 Dec. 2014)

ISBN-10: 0552571342

Reviewed by Dawn Finch
Author of Brotherhood of Shades
School Library and Literacy Consultant
Vice President CILIP


Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy by Elizabeth Kiem reviewed by Julia Jones

If you love books about the ballet (suffer from enduring nostalgia for Noel Streatfield for instance?) as well relishing thrillers and the murky history of modern Russia, then you may already have come across these two YA novels by Elizabeth Kiem. I've read them in the wrong order: first Hider, Seeker, Secret Keeper (published 2014) which I reviewed for the Bookbag and now the first volume, Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy (2013). Dancer, Daughter focuses on seventeen year old Marina Dukovskaya whose mother, Svetlana, has been principal ballerina at the iconic Bolshoi Ballet for a decade and is now a National Treasure, a Soviet Cultural icon – a key Soviet asset in the celebrity Cold War.

Or is she? The story begins in Moscow, November 1982 on the day of Leonid Brezhnev's death. Aspirant ballerina Marina is, as usual, measuring out her day with a precise number of tendus, frappes and fouettes, in the advanced repertory academy where she and the other stars of the future are distorting their feet and bloodying their toes to learn their trade. Her mind is mainly full of the forthcoming results of a pop music competition and she ignores veiled hints about possible defections and the jealousy of her class mates for her gorgeous new coat, a gift, naturally, for her mother. Marina works hard for her art but takes her life of privilege for granted. On this night, however, the TV First Channel replaces its regular programmes with a film of the Bolshoi's Swan Lake. There are no explanations, no national news or results from the music competition – and Svetlana Dukovskaya doesn't come home.

Two days later Marina and her father learn that Svetlana has been institutionalised. She has apparently suffered a breakdown and has been taken into custody by the State Psychiatric Directorate. Marina's father, a scientist, makes puzzling comments about bacterial warfare and uses the word 'escape'. The word hits Marina like an electric shock or 'the jolt up your spine when you land a jump poorly […] My parents wanted to abandon the Motherland. And they were calling it “escape”?' The following day they get a call from the director of the Bolshoi – Marina has been dismissed. Her father is taken in for questioning, though he is then released. On the day of Brezhnev's funeral, they flee to America. 'I understand the system […] The rules are: if you pose a problem for the Party, if you are a risk to the People, you must be dispensed with. So we are following the rules. We are dispensing of ourselves before the KGB can do it for us.'

Elizabeth Kiem is a former dancer and a Russophile. She's a journalist who has lived in Russia and who acknowledges real life sources for much of her material. I wondered, briefly, what today's teens would make of this harking back to the post-Stalinist era before I realised that the writing in this first section of the novel – actions taken within a world bound by draconian, incomprehensible Rules – works particularly well as it is writing from within a dystopia. The subsequent, main section, following Marina and her father's attempts to make sense of their situation within the Russian emigrant population of Brooklyn, is atmospheric but more confusing as the hostile forces could equally be KGB, CIA, the bratva (Russian Mafia) – or none of them.

Dancer, Daughter has a twisting plot, where Marina's actions and reactions are as often fuelled by her teenage anger and disorientation as by tangible external threat. I wasn't sure she was quite as convincing a heroine as Lana, her daughter, in volume two and I wasn't sure that the integration of the actual dancing worked as successfully as the interpretations of Stravinky's Danse Sacrale in Hider, Seeker, Secret Keeper. I'd certainly recommend both novels – but I'd probably suggest that you read them the right way round.

Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy & Hider, Seeker, Secret Keeper by Elizabeth Kiem are both published by Soho Teens. 


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.