Sunday, 18 November 2018

Shadow, by Suzy Lee, and The Wall In The Middle of this Book by Jon Agee, reviewed by Sarah Hammond

I was inspired to review these two books by an outstanding picture book dummy workshop I attended recently, run by Laura Montenegro. The focus of the class was the ‘gutter’ of the picture book. As a general rule, book designers keep images and words well away from the gutter (that is, the inside margin on bound books) so they do not disappear into the crack. However, in these two inventive and original picture books, the gutter is an integral part of the story. 


Shadow, an almost wordless picture book by Suzy Lee, uses it horizontally. With the click of a light switch, we discover a little girl in the attic on the upper page, and below the gutter the shadows of the attic objects are reflected on the lower page. A young reader would have fun matching up each object to its shadow. 



Our protagonist shapes her hands to make a shadow bird on the attic floor. This shadow reflection take on a yellow hue and, through the girl’s imagination, begins to develop a life of its own. The story becomes a celebration of creativity as the shadow world grows richer and richer. The little girl immerses herself in her imaginative play, literally diving into the shadow realm on the lower pages of the book. 

The story ends as it began as the little girl goes down for dinner and, with the click of a light switch, the attic is in darkness once more. Or is it?



By contrast, Jon Agee’s The Wall In The Middle Of This Book, uses the gutter vertically to insert a wall division between pages. A knight on the left page is pleased with this wall as it keeps the scary animals (and, we later discover, an ogre) safely contained on the right page of the book. 



However, the reader begins to notice that all is not as it originally seemed. The scary animals on the right pages appear to be frightened by a mouse, and slowly but surely a body of water with lurking sea monsters is rising up the left pages…

Readers will enjoy spotting these changes and the developing visual stories that unfold on either side of the wall. From an adult perspective, I loved the satisfying conclusion that assumptions about the need for walls, and the ‘bad’ creatures on the other side of them that need containing, might not be correct after all.

Both books encourage readers to engage in a fresh way -- the movement and tension of the stories depend on the physical shape and design of the book. Although for different reasons, both stories celebrate the journey to the page beyond the gutter, to adventure and exploration albeit within the age-appropriate safe realm of a picture book. This makes for a satisfying read on many levels.



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Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Bella and Monty by Alex T. Smith, reviewed by Kelly McKain



With the nights drawing in, I've decided to return to an old family favourite for this blog, and share some fabulous vintage Alex T. Smith with you. If you can call a book published in 2009 vintage, of course! My daughter was born that year, and this book has been with us since a couple of years later, and has been thoroughly enjoyed by me and both my children (the second, her brother, coming along when it was a little more sticky, bent and painted on!).

You'll know Alex T. Smith as the brilliant author/illustrator of the Claude books, of course, which have been made into the fabulous Claude animation series by Sixteen South for Disney Junior, launched this year. Alex T. Smith's imagination can therefore be said to have led Simon Callow CBE to say, of his first ever role as a sock: "He's very well-written and the concept of the stories is very original. The characters are so vivid, funny and unexpected." So, that's some imagination!

This lovely imagination has also brought us the vivid, funny and unexpected characters of Bella and Monty. Bella Bones and Monty Mittens are best friends. They both like the colour orange. They both like slurping spaghetti. They both have the same size feet. But... unlike brave pooch Bella, Monty the cat is afraid of the dark. When it comes to lights out, he's quivering in his sleeping bag at their sleepover, and Bella, wanting to help, takes him, and all of us, on a journey through the dark night...

Being a true best friend, she shines a spotlight on Monty's fears - of the dark, of strange noises in the night, and of spiders - and calms them all with her inventive solutions and explanations. They can safely put the sun to bed because the moon is shining, looking out for them, and lighting up the dark night. The ghostly noises in the night are just Ghoul School students, doing their homework. Once Bella and Monty have joined in with a class (and Monty has helped glue a zombie's ear back on) the noises are no longer scary. And as for spiders - they're only scuttling around with their Chinese takeaways!

So Monty (and perhaps any readers less than in love with night time) is far happier to snuggle down in bed... after he's played a little trick on Bella, though, who turns out to be scared of something herself!


Bella and Monty: A Hairy, Scary Night by Alex T. Smith is published by Hodder Children's Books





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Saturday, 10 November 2018

Karma Khullar’s Mustache by Kristi Wientge, review by Lynda Waterhouse


I discovered this novel whilst browsing in a bookshop. I hadn’t heard of the author or read any reviews but I was instantly drawn to the book as I too had experience of being the girl with the moustache at school, just like Karma Khullar in this warm and funny story.
The story is set in the USA and Karma Khuller is 12 and about to start middle school when those seventeen pesky hairs start sprouting. To make matters worse her beloved dadima has died. Her father has lost his job and is now staying at home whilst her mother has taken on a demanding job and is working long hours. Her older brother Kiran is being allowed to develop his musical talents.  Her best friend Sara is captivated by new neighbour Lacy who appears fashionable, popular and sophisticated. Sara has no time to support Karma when she need her most.
The novel is written in a warm lively first person narrative that moves from humour to pathos and back again with delightful ease. The story raises complex issues such as cultural identity, bullying, friendship and spirituality and does not offer ‘pat’ solutions.
No-one’s life is perfect but with kindness and understanding then it is possible to find your way in life. This is Kristi Wientge’s debut novel and I cannot wait to read more of her work.
ISBN 978 1481477710 Simon&Schuster



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Tuesday, 6 November 2018

The Girl In The Broken Mirror, by Savita Kalhan: reviewed by Sue Purkiss

This is an absolutely rivetting read, though not a comfortable one: indeed, how could it be in any way comfortable when at the heart of it is a brutal rape?

It tells the story of Jay, a fifteen year old girl born in England but from an Indian family. Up until she is eleven, she has a comfortable, happy life: her father,who has wholeheartedly embraced English life, has a successful business, and she goes to a private school. But then her father wraps his car round a tree, and they discover after his death that his business has failed and he has lost everything.

The story demonstrates very clearly how thin is the barrier between relative wealth and poverty. Jay and her mother move to a tiny flat above a grocer's. Jay moves from her private school to a comprehensive and works part time in the shop: her mother has two jobs and studies part-time to train as a teacher, which she hopes will be their way out of their situation. Jay has a plan too: she is studying hard, in the hope of getting a scholarship to a university, and then a good job. And she has two very good friends, Chloe and Matt - who is just becoming more than a friend.

But then the grocer decides to sell his shop, and Jay's mother tells her that they are to move in with Uncle Bal and Auntie Vimala. Uncle Bal is a kindly man, but he is dominated by his horrible wife, who is a more traditional Indian - and uses this as an excuse to demand that Jay and her mother act as pretty much unpaid servants in the house. Thay have two sons, gentle Ash, who is still at home, and Deven, a very unpleasant university student who is the apple of his mother's eye.

At the beginning of the book, Jay is just waking up in the aftermath of the rape. The writing is powerful and visceral, and Savita Kalhan, absolutely makes us understand why Jay feels she is filthy and spoiled, and that all she can think of doing - once she has scrubbed herself with bleach in a vain attempt to make herself feel clean - is to get as far away from the house as she can. The next section tells us what led up to the rape, and then we learn of its aftermath: of how Jay tries to come back from it, with the help of her friends. This process is not made to seem easy or inevitable: it's painful not only for Jay but for those around her, particularly her mother.

The book demonstrates how difficult it can be to be caught between two cultures. It also shows clearly how hard it is to get out of poverty - and it shows how, apart from these more dramatic difficulties, being a teenager isn't the easiest thing either. Savita Kalhan is not afraid to confront things that it would be easier to avoid, and because she writes so well and creates such very real characters, she puts the reader right in the middle of some very distressing experiences. Yet ultimately she offers hope, and shows that generosity and kindness are to be found more often than brutality and arrogance, and will, in the end, triumph.

A brave and engrossing book, which is very much to be admired for its uncompromising determination to write about tough subjects, and bring them out into the open.



Sue Purkiss is the author of Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley, an adventure story for 9-12 year olds. www.suepurkisswriter.com 

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Monday, 29 October 2018

Noah Can’t Even by Simon James Green - Reviewed by Kelly McCaughrain

This YA novel was on my TBR pile for a while (purely because I loved the title) and I finally got round to reading it because I was due to be on a panel at DeptCon4 with the author, Simon James Green, and I wanted to be able to be informed and polite when I met him.



Informed and polite doesn’t quite describe the fangirling that ensued. I LOVED this book. I read it over the course of 2 days in a hotel in Galway, which I was supposed to be treating as a writing retreat, and then I berated poor SJG on Twitter for disrupting my writing because:
  1. I couldn’t put it down
  2. I couldn’t do any writing of my own because what was the point when there were such brilliant books out there already?
He was very nice about it.

Noah is a completely endearing character, which is quite an achievement considering he spends most of the book pissing people off. He’s a sort of Adrian Mole type – pernickety, high-maintenance, and unintentionally hilarious. He’s unpopular at school (the revelation that his mother has a Beyonce tribute act does not help), his dad is absent (and Noah’s attempts to explain this are both funny and heart-breaking), he’s obsessed with Murder She Wrote and Agatha Christie, and his only friend is Harry. When he gets the chance to work on a project with a popular girl, he figures this could be his chance to integrate with the normals, even get a girlfriend. But things are totally derailed when, instead of Noah kissing Sophie at a party, Harry kisses Noah and chaos ensues. 

I laughed out loud so many times reading this book and I really cared about Noah. I found him completely believable and relatable and I thought his emotional journey through the choppy waters of family and sexuality felt very natural and touching. The humour kept things light and fast-paced, which I think is the key to making the emotional moments pack a real punch and these definitely did.

I got to talk to SJG a bit at DeptCon4 and he’s an absolutely lovely guy. We chatted about getting so attached to your characters that you don’t want to let them go. In fact, he didn’t, he wrote a sequel, Noah Could Never, which is just out.


I’ve just started reading it and I can tell I’m going to love it already. I can completely believe he was attached to Noah because the book is all heart and the characters are the centre of it, which is everything I want in a book.

Go read it, you will be glad you did.



Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the YA novel Flying Tips for Flightless Birds

She blogs about Writing, Gardening and VW Campervanning at weewideworld.blogspot.co.uk 

@KMcCaughrain 





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Thursday, 25 October 2018

The Elephant Thief by Jane Kerr - reviewed by Sharon Tregenza


Based on the true story of an elephant’s journey, this is a delightful book set in Victorian England. Maharajah the elephant walked from Edinburgh to Manchester and became a local celebrity. Kerr has mixed fact with fiction to create a gripping work full of adventure. The fictional rider, Danny, is a young boy who is mute due to a trauma which is gradually revealed. When he accidentally bids for Maharajah at an Edinburgh auction his zookeeper employer comes up with an idea for him to redeem himself.  He’ll transform Danny into a bejewelled Indian prince and set him on a journey with the elephant to garner publicity. Maharajah creates a great stir and even Queen Victoria herself follows his adventures. But there are shady people with a vested interest in making sure that the journey is a failure.
The relationship between the elephant and his young rider forms the heart of the book. There’s plenty of conflict, an interesting parade of villains and heroes and enough mystery and adventure to keep you happily reading along until the very end.
Kerr’s writing style is engaging and her portrayal of the relationship between the boy and the elephant is believable and charming. The strikingly simple cover is a great asset too.




This is Kerr’s debut novel and is published by Chicken House. ‘The Elephant Thief’ is written for YA but is also a great read for adults.

·       Paperback: 416 pages
·       Publisher: Chicken House; 1 edition (2 Mar. 2017)






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Sunday, 21 October 2018

EDGAR AND THE SAUSAGE INSPECTOR, by Jan Fearnley. Reviewed by Saviour Pirotta

Jan Fearnley's latest picture book for Nosy Crow is a hoot. Edgar and his sister Edith live at the end of an alley. Edgar loves Edith very much and one day sets off to buy her favourite treat. Sausages!

Sadly, coming out of the butcher's, Edith is waylaid by a food inspector, a rat, who pronounces the sausages tainted and makes off with them, presumably for further inspection in a lab. The same unhappy meeting keeps repeating itself on further shopping sprees and it soon becomes apparent that the inspector is not all he claims to be. This pushes the otherwise peace loving Edgar over the edge, with fatal consequences for...but no spoilers here.

Fearnley's story is a delicious tale of sweet revenge.  Told in a fast, edgy style with gorgeous retro illustrations that remind me of the ever-popular Madeline books. It's one that I'm sure will prove popular with many readers. The ending would also be great to engender discussions about the nature of revenge and 'getting your own back.' A treat in more ways that one.  Let's hope there are more adventures of Edgar and Edith on the way. They are an adorable pair.


Saviour Pirotta's latest picture book, The Unicorn Prince, is illustrated by Jane Ray and out now. Follow Saviour on twitter @spirotta.






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