Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Here be dragons

I've just spent a wonderful weekend wallowing in book related nostalgia. On Friday the postman delivered a packet containing four books by Rosemary Manning all about the adventures of one R. Dragon.

I can't remember exactly how old I was when I first read Dragon in the Harbour but I do know that it was one of the first books I chose to read because of the location.
R Dragon sails into Weymouth Harbour and amongst other things has an encounter with the boat train that connects with the ferries sailing to the Channel Islands. As a family in the 1980s we had taken this train, one that runs right through the centre of Weymouth town on the road, and boarded an incredibly rocky ferry on our way to Guernsey. Thus when I read Dragon in the Harbour it was the first time I'd really been able to really visualise a book accurately - I'd been to the place where the story happens!

I duly read the remaining three books, probably from the library (I do now think that I owned A Dragon's Quest as the cover was so familiar when I unwrapped it last week) and I know that I enjoyed them all at the time.

I am pleased to say that I loved the four books just as much on rereading them, they still have that sense of wonder and magic that I enjoyed so much more than twenty years ago. The writing is fresh and funny, both to children and to adults, and all are filled with witty line drawings that just add to the story in a brilliant way.

The only slight disappointment I have is that I still don't know what the 'R' stands for!

The four books in the series are Green Smoke, Dragon in Danger, Dragon's Quest and Dragon in the Harbour. Jane Nissen Books have just reissued Green Smoke but the sadly the other three are only available secondhand.

Friday, 26 June 2009

When in Rome...

Roman Mysteries - Caroline Lawrence

Way back in 2001 I read a book called The Thieves of Ostia, the first book in the Roman Mysteries series. I fell in love with it at once and couldn't wait for the second one to be published. I've been like that ever since, eagerly awaiting every new book.

The series appealed on a personal level and also on a professional level. Here was a great series that was good enough for both adults and children, it wasn't fantasy and better still you could recommend the books without ever giving away the plot: "its like the Famous Five but set in ancient Rome." You knew straight away if they were the right books.

Now 8 years and 17 books later I've just finished reading the final book in the series The Man from Pomegranate Street and I feel really quite sad.

The series itself only spans about three years. In that time our four heroes (Flavia, Jonathan, Nubia and Lupus) have left Ostia to visit Rome, Pompeii, Rhodes, Delphi, Ephesus, Alexandria and many more places. They have caused problems, solved mysteries and even ended up as part of the action in the Colosseum. Many Greek and Roman myths have worked their way into the stories along with copious amounts of Latin and history, however at no point have they felt like text books, all the details given are vital to the plot, even if they turn out to be red herrings.

The books are so accurately researched that when I was lucky enough to visit Ostia I was able to use the map at the front of the books to navigate my way around the ancient town nearly 2000 years, even though it is now an archaeological site not an inhabited town. Having visited both Rhodes and Ephesus after reading the books I can also say that Lawrence's books bring these places to life far more vividly than tour guides and travel books. Even with all of this detail however nothing gets in the way of the story.

Although these books are aimed at readers considerably younger than me I have without exception found them all gripping, and often I haven't been able to work out the solution to the mysteries. The amount of detail included meant that even when I did solve the problem it didn't matter because I wanted to learn more about Flavia's world. Lawrence doesn't flinch from portraying Rome exactly as it was, these books aren't sanitised for younger readers, but despite the gore, disease and dirt I'd love to have a time machine and travel back to meet Flavia et al.

The characters grow believably through the series, they are very 3 dimensional and to be honest not likeable all of the time, just as people in the real world aren't. By the end of the series many of the story threads that have been running through the books since page one are tied together satisfactorily, there are no shocking surprises, it is just how the children would have grown up in the real world. There is scope to write more but to my eyes the ending was just about perfect.

However old you are I do recommend trying these books. As an adult they won't take you long to read but I pretty much guarantee you'll enjoy them if you like historical fiction, or if you liked the Famous Five books when you were a child.

Caroline Lawrence's wonderful website can be found here

Monday, 22 June 2009

There is in London all that life can afford - Samuel Johnson

City-lit London ed. Heather Reyes

I love to travel and visit new places, often before I go somewhere new I'll try to read at least one book set in that location. Sometimes this is more of a success than others. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell was a great read just before going to Corfu, but Bill Bryson's Down Under just fed all of my underlying fears of the Australian wildlife.

Choosing what to read before visiting a new location can be hard. Sometimes very little has been written but sometimes there is so much to pick through that you are overwhelmed. It is for this latter category that Oxygen Books produce their fabulous City-Lit guides.

I am currently dipping in and out of their guide to London and already my list of books I'd like to read has grown by several pages.

This guide is split into ten sections all of which use quotes from various books to show a different side to London. Topics such as the River Thames, the weather and East Enders (the people not the soap opera) are explored by sixty different authors.

Some of the books used are recognised classics by Woolf, Dickens and Conrad but modern literature is also represented whether by literary authors such as McEwan or popular authors such as Maeve Binchy or Ruth Rendell. I am pretty certain that there is a new author for everyone to discover.

The passages have been selected with great care and give a wonderful flavour of London and you really feel that you are getting to know the city in a far more realistic way that you can by simply reading 'normal' travel guides.

Each quote is put into context with a short piece of witty text meaning that unlike many collections of excerpts and quotes you can either dip in and out or read it straight through from cover to cover.

This book gives a real taste of London through time without ever becoming a dry history text. In addition it introduces you as a reader to areas of London that you'd possibly never have considered visiting as well as introducing you to the works of 60 authors that you'd possibly never have considered reading without some prompting. I've been to London many times whether for business or pleasure but I now feel I know the city a lot better from reading this books than I ever did before.

This is not a guide book to London but rather a wonderful guide to the books of London.

So far there are guides to Paris and London available but there are similar works on Berlin, Dublin, Amsterdam and many more all in the pipeline. I think I'll be buying them all regardless of whether I'm visiting the locations or not.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Midnight Feast?

The Midnight Charter - David Whitley

This is an ambitious debut novel from a very intelligent author. David Whitley was on the wining University Challenge team in 2005 where he represented Oxford's Corpus Christi, and since graduating he has been working on his dream - a children's book.

The plot of The Midnight Charter centres on two children, Lily and Mark, in a world where before the age of 12 children are possessions and can be sold or traded by their parents. Once 12 they then have to earn their own way in the world. The twist is that in Agora there is no money, instead people must trade or barter to survive. The trades can be material goods or personal skills but everything has a worth. Unsurprisingly society is just as unequal as it is when hard currency exists, if you have nothing to trade you are considered a worthless burden. Charity does not exist.

Mark and Lily are thrown together by chance and just as a friendship forms they are parted suddenly. Their lives are then very different but completely interwoven. Both children are faced with danger as one tries to work with the system and one tries to alter it. This plot thread is interesting, well thought out and in general the characterisations are convincing and the story really comes to life.

The plot becomes more convoluted when just over half way through the Midnight Charter, and ultimately destiny, come into the story. I read to the end of the book with interest but by the end I wasn't quite sure that I had understood all of it.

I found myself having to frequently reread complete chapters as it became clear that I had either missed something or not understood the point. This isn't really a problem, more a lesson to slow down, but it did interrupt the flow of the story and it became disjointed, especially at high action points. There were so many ideas mooted that I am sure that again I missed something vital.

Visually the book is a joy to own, the cover is inviting and then each chapter is framed by a lovely line drawing that has been inspired by the front cover. The alternating chapter viewpoints also keep the story moving even if it did confuse me occasionally as I couldn't quite work out who's story we were following all of the time.

It sounds from all of this that I disliked the book and that isn't entirely the case. I was intrigued by it throughout. The ideas made me think, the touches of magic were clever and more importantly Whitley has thought out his world very cleverly, everything he writes stays true to his imagined world. But, and it is a big but, I also felt stupid while I was reading this book, something that Philip Pullman avoids in his idea filled novels.

My biggest gripe with the book becomes clear at the end: when you get to the last chapters it becomes clear that this is start of a series. Ultimately The Midnight Charter ends up feeling like a prologue as it ends just as the action starts.

I enjoyed the book enough that I will be looking out for anything else that David Whitley writes, but I won't be counting down the days until it appears. I wouldn't be surprised if Whitley goes on to write long detailed books for adults but in the meantime he has some interesting ideas for those brave or clever enough to read them.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Posioned Apple?

The Garden - Elsie V Aidinoff

For some reason that I can't explain I really enjoy reading novels that retell Bible stories but that take different viewpoint, or that are narrated by over looked (or reviled) characters. This being the case I am really not sure how I managed to miss this book when it was published back in 2006.

The Garden is a reworking of the Creation Story from Genesis but his time told from Eve's point of view. In this version Eve is living in the Garden of Eden being tutored in the ways of the world by the wise, benevolent and beautiful Serpent. At the same time Adam is being raised by God. Their upbringings could not be more different.

Eve learns quickly in her paradise but is always being taught to explore, to question and to test her boundaries by the Serpent. Adam and Eve finally meet and a friendship starts to grow as both God and the Serpent continue to educate the pair. God however has his own plans and unable to wait for events to unfold naturally he forces Adam into an act that horrifies him and damages Eve in many ways.

Eve no longer trusts God and no longer feels safe in the Garden. Together Eve and Serpent leave Eden and explore the world around them while Eve tries to come to terms with what has happened to her. Slowly she heals and with her new understanding she starts to rebuild her relationships with Adam and God.

Eventually Adam and Eve come across the Apple, eat it and then have to live with the consequences of their actions.

There is so much more to this book than this basic outline, it is full of beauty and wonder, it is full of sadness, betrayal and ultimately hope. I did find it very hard to put down. I liked the way that Aidinoff managed to mix evolution, feminism and freewill into the traditional story. Her interpretation of the story and characters will offend some readers but I found them fascinating - and to be honest her idea of God fitted very much in with my image of him as presented by later Old Testament stories. The growth of Adam and Eve was well handled and I very much enjoyed the way that Eve was portrayed, who knew I was such a feminist at heart?

As with most books this one is not without fault. The imagery, style and language used lull the reader into feeling that this is a book aimed at a younger audience, until the important scene in the middle changes everything and puts this book soundly in the older teen section.

I did enjoy this, it isn't as in depth or multi layered as works such as Anita Diamant's Red Tent but Aidinoff has written a book that really managed to make me believe that if Creation happened as put forward in Genesis then this is how it happened

So far this is Aidinoff's only book but despite some very good reviews in the press it sadly seems to have already slipped out of print. I do urge you all to visit your local library and borrow this as soon as possible while I keep my fingers crossed that Elsie Aidinoff writes another book!

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Not only a Jewish tragedy, but also a human tragedy - Simon Wiesenthal

Saving Rafael - Leslie Wilson
The final part of my MA involved writing a 20,000 word dissertation on any topic relating to children's literature. I chose to study The Portrayal of the Holocaust in Books Written for Children.
For 18 months I read all manner of books about the topic. Some were factual, some were fiction, some were written very soon after the war, some were written recently, unsurprisingly, some were better than others. What I did notice is how few were written from the view point of non-Jewish Germans, the only readily available books I found were by Hans Peter Richter.

Since finishing my dissertation the only Holocaust novel for children that I've read is Then by Morris Gleitzman, which was the truly incredible sequel to Once. I find it hard to believe that Gleitzman is a contemporary author who was not actually alive during the period he writes about, his books do not feel heavily researched, they just feel real - almost like autobiography.

Last week I was browsing in the library when Saving Rafael caught my eye. Not only did the cover really appeal but it was told from an Aryan German's point of view - finally I felt ready to read a new book about World War 2. The premise outlined on the back made me certain that this was the next book I had to read:
There was a vehicle pulling up outside. I heard the booted feet running up the stair, then the hammering on the apartment door and the shouting.
'Open up! Gestapo!'

You're fifteen years old. You're in love. Only this is Nazi-ruled Berlin and he's a Jew, so it's against the law to love him. There are spies everywhere. And they're taking the Jews away from Berlin.
To the gas chambers.

From page 1 I was hooked. the book starts with jenny working as a slave labourer on a farm, and then jumps back in time to explain how she ended up in a concentration camp labelled as a degenerate, Jew-loving prostitute.

The story unfolds gently and lovingly with jenny, Karl and Rafael growing up together in Berlin. Jenny and Karl have an English mother and a Quaker father and so are already outsiders in Nazi Germany even before being friends with a Jewish family, like Raf's, becomes illegal. An idea of the trouble ahead occurs early when both fathers are arrested on Kristallnacht but the families decide that friendship is more important to them than anything else.

The outbreak of War causes more rifts in the friendship as Raf and his mother are 'relocated' from their apartment and Karl and his father are called in to the army. Passive resistance keeps Jenny and her mother sane as well as in touch with Rafael and his mother.

I became so totally involved in this story that I did something that I haven't done for years.
I read the last two chapters of the book to see how it was going to end, I just couldn't bear investing so much emotion in the book without knowing the outcome. I didn't mind if it was a happy or sad ending, I just had to know because I couldn't handle the suspense.

Incredibly this action didn't ruin the rest of the book for me. In fact I think that it made me read the book more slowly and carefully so that I could see exactly how Leslie Wilson got to the ending, and how the characters developed without racing just through just to see the end.

It says something about the quality of the book that reading the end out of sequence didn't spoil the book at all, and it has become one of my top books of the year. It is certainly one of the best modern Holocaust books that I've read - and I've read a few. Like Gleitzman's books this one felt like it was about real people and not fictitious ones.

I was surprised how much I liked this book as I struggled with Wilson's earlier book Last Train from Kummersdorf. Although published by a children's publisher this book shouldn't be overlooked by adults, it is incredibly moving and it certainly made me hope that I could have been so brave in such circumstances.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Chicken House do it again

Stolen - Lucy Christopher

I've just finished this, one of the most disturbing books I've read in a long time.

It is a truly outstanding first novel published by Chicken House and I am really surprised that it seems to have just appeared on the shelves with so little fuss and fanfare. It is certainly a book that I am not going to forget in a long long time.

The action starts straight away in Bangkok airport where Gemma is getting herself a coffee following a long flight and an argument with her parents. Jet lag is making her a little spaced out and when a good looking guy comes up and rescues her Gemma is more than happy to let him do so.

Her rescuer is not what he seems. He slips something into her coffee and then once that has taken effect he kidnaps Gemma from the airport right under her parent's noses. The next thing Gemma knows she is waking up in a strange bed, in a strange house literally in the middle of nowhere. Slowly her memories return, helped out by her captor who is more than willing to fill in the blanks.

The rest of the book concentrates on Gemma's attempts to both appease and escape from her kidnapper and while these actions are well written and believable it is when the focus is on Ty that the quality of Lucy Christopher's writing really shines through. He is a truly terrifying character, with an ability to make everything he says seem so reasonable. Gemma is a teenager who could have come from anywhere, she is a very realistic character, but Ty leaps from the page in all of his horror and compels you to read more and more about him and his plans. I'm shuddering just thinking about him.

Surprisingly the climax of this book is not the final chapter and it is this that slightly spoiled my read. I am sure that everything that happens towards the end is well researched and accurate, but for me it was such an anti climax to the tension that it dragged me out of the story. For this to have been a perfect book for me I would have said that there needed to be two books, either physically or separated within the text. Book one finishing with the dramatic occurrence and then book two focusing more on the resolution and healing. This would have allowed Christopher the space to give as much detail on the healing process as she did on the kidnap.

The style of book, having Gemma write to Ty, also didn't quite work for me as I often forgot it was a letter and then found the moments where she addresses Ty directly jarring. However as there is no way I could ever have written anything a quarter as good as this these are minor points that I only mention because they drew me out of such an incredible story when all I wanted to do was stay immersed and find out more.

Oh dear, again I've made it seem like I didn't like the book. This isn't the case at all, I found it a gripping read - one that I really couldn't put down at all, I just had to know how it was all going to end. It was a very visual read and it isn't an 'issue book' at all, which with the underlying theme of Stockholm Syndrome it could so easily have become. Chicken House really have done it again, they've taken and gamble with a new author and a difficult topic and produced a fantastic book.

I'm not the only one who thinks this either Achuka have made it only their second five star book of the year.

Monday, 1 June 2009

You don't have to be mad...

Lottie Biggs is NOT Mad by Hayley Long

I'm not sure if the format in which I read this (photocopied manuscript) has prejudiced my thoughts, but even a few days after finishing the book I am still a little ambivalent about this book.

The book is narrated by Lottie and she is being forced to write her 'autobiography' as a piece of GCSE English Coursework. Without spoiling the book for future readers I can't say much about the plot except to say that even with Lottie faithfully documenting her life events spiral out of control for many and varied reasons.

At the start of the book I wasn't at all enamoured, in fact I was almost bored. It came across as a very derivative book. The humour felt forced and Louise Rennison does that better. The plot also didn't feel new or original and my personal favourite Chris Higgins takes some beating for compelling family novels.

If I am honest I only kept reading because the author is local and I always make a point of giving local writers a fair go.

And then there was the twist...

Oh boy I really hadn't seen that coming, sometimes a manuscript with no clues to the plot can be the way to read a book. Suddenly all of the points that had previously jarred made sense and I was desperate to read to the end of the novel to see how Lottie dealt with everything.

So much happens in this book that it is hard to believe that it all happens in a term. This could be because the action flits back and forth through Lottie and Goose's friendship, but I lost track of the supposedly elapsed time and I couldn't believe that the resolution of the plot (it is hard not to give too much away!) did happen in only eight weeks.
Lottie was the only character that really 'lived' for me, Goose came close as did Lottie's mum, but the rest of the cast seemed very flat and plot devices rather than real people.

I am glad I persevered with this novel as it did manage to surprise me. Hayley Long has managed to create a character that gets right under your skin, you may not love her, or even identify with her, but she is certainly alive. The book was, eventually, a good read but I still remain ambivalent overall but that all being said I will be eagerly awaiting the next book featuring Lottie Biggs to see how she puts her life back together.

Lottie Biggs will be published by Macmillan at the start of July