Book of the Week

The Garden of Lost Secrets by AM Howell

garden of lost secretsThere’s a noticeable rediscovering of nature in current children’s books. It’s the theme of the moment, maybe inspired by the fact that today’s children spend less time outside, and certainly less time being wild than they used to, or perhaps because they have less awareness of where their food comes from, yet at the same time a creeping alarm over climate change and how nature can wreak havoc if not nurtured.

The Garden of Lost Secrets from debut author AM Howell takes the reader back to 1916, when World War I is wreaking havoc on the human population, and urban children were sent away from the cities after Zeppelin airships flew overhead. Twelve-year-old Clara is sent to live with her aunt and uncle in Suffolk, not as a result of air raids, but rather because her father is convalescing after being gassed in the war.

Clara’s aunt and uncle are housekeeper and head gardener of an estate, living in a small cottage on the edge of the grounds. But rather than welcoming her kindly, her aunt in particular is austere and formidable, showing none of the kindness of her previous visits. What’s more, there’s a strange boy in the grounds at night-time, and an unopened letter from the War Office that Clara has intercepted in London and brought all the way with her.

As each day passes, more and more mysteries are presented, from the stealing of fruit from the gardens, to the appearance of mandarins in peculiar places, and a locked room in the house in which Clara is staying. Clara tries her best to be good, but the idea of solving the mysteries is too great a temptation to ignore, and before long her adventures are getting more than just herself into trouble.

This is a nostalgic, wonderfully atmospheric novel, taking the reader into a world in which, despite the war, children roam free, unhindered by parents and school, and everyday delights are simply the exploration of a large manor house’s grounds and greenhouses. Inspired by the real diaries from a 100 years ago of a gardener at Ickworth House in Suffolk, AM Howell has created a detailed, authentic imaginary tale.

The characterisation is spot on – from her pinafore to her small disobediences, Clara feels wholly from 1916; her head is consumed with worry for her family, but her heart is set on making everyone happy, and the reader is plunged inside her head, privy to all her thoughts. The secondary characters are equally well-drawn, with the layers of society firmly in place, the staff and their duties, the soldiers exercising in the woods nearby, and the ever-present over-arching fear about the war that consumes everyone, from the distance noise of gunfire to the threat of Zeppelins.

An abundance of period detail, including the cultivation of exotic fruits (pineapples) in hothouses, the damp coal cellars, and the features of the town, all transport the reader firmly to 1916, and open up a world of England on the home front, seen from a child’s perspective. There’s both knowledge, and yet still a profound innocence.

There is definitely a classic feel to this book, bringing to mind such greats as Tom’s Midnight Garden, although The Garden of Lost Secrets has a modern bent with its themes of the natural world, child sleuthing, and bravery. It is far pacier than The Secret Garden and other Edwardian literature, layering questions and mysteries in each short chapter, and only revealing the depths of the secrets near the end. With fresh modern writing, a sublime use of simile where needed, and extolling the virtues of the power of true friendship, this is an excellent new children’s novel, which is both gripping and fun.

For children aged 8+ years. You can buy it here. With thanks to Usborne for the review copy.

The Good Thieves by Katherine Rundell

good thievesFairy tales were often told as warnings or instructions on how to behave. Don’t play with the forbidden spinning wheel, don’t wander alone through the dangerous woods (even if you’re wearing a bright red cape), don’t break into someone else’s house and eat their porridge… Today’s tales are different. Children can do naughty, even bad things, if they are fighting evil or battling for the greater good. In essence, they can be good thieves – not good at thieving (although that too), but both good and a thief.

Set during the Prohibition in New York, during the 1920s, Vita (meaning life itself), has come over from England with her mother in order to set her grandfather’s affairs in order so that he can return home with them. It turns out, he has been cheated out of the ancestral home by an unscrupulous villain, Victor Sorrotore. Whereas her mother is all for signing paperwork and leaving swiftly, Vita is determined to win the house back for her grandfather, and recruits a pickpocket, and two apprentice circus performers to help her.

Set in a time well before house alarms and mobile phones, when picking locks is an asset for any thief, and children are left to their own devices, Rundell cleverly weaves period detail into her heist novel. Bootleggers and speakeasies, beautiful brownstone buildings and the intricacies of Carnegie Hall, as well as the specific grid system of New York, all provide a compelling and different backdrop for her children’s novel. And gender and race attitudes of the time are dropped into the story with deft awareness.

But it is the characters who win over the reader. They are bold and brave and keen to make their mark upon the world, always active, strong and memorable, but above all passionate about something, whether it be finding an emerald long since hidden in the ancestral house, or pursuing their vision of their future circus act, or simply surviving the mean streets of 1920s New York. They are fierce in their love for those they care about, and inspire a fierce loyalty from the reader.

Vita is slowed in movement by an episode of polio when younger, (a limp), and this hampers her throughout, although Rundell is keen to show the other children’s compassion, yet not pity for her. Vita is also a determined child with distinct attributes, which Rundell brings to life with little touches – Vita has ‘six kinds of smile, and five of them were real’, and she owns a supremely active way of thinking about things – Vita wears ‘a skirt you can kick in’.

Vita’s accomplices are well-drawn too, most particularly the circus apprentices, and this is where the story picks up zest and flair. Flying through the air, being an escape artist, understanding animals or throwing knives are all prized skills in both the ring and in life itself, and Rundell imbues her descriptions with colour and artistry, bringing the acts and performers to life.

As always, Rundell’s writing is swift and breathless, propelling the reader through the text like a glider through air, swooping and diving in and out of the plot, with short paragraphs and snippy dialogue. She uses simile and metaphor with the precision of a knife thrower. She cuts through excess, landing each word with specificity and wisdom. It is this apparent confident knowledge of the world, of higher truths, such as that ‘sometimes it was sensible not to be sensible,’ which gives her text its gravitas in the middle of scintillating storytelling.

With themes of loyalty and friendship, righting wrongs and clever thinking, this is a smart, pacey heist novel, with an inherent sense of wit throughout. Reminiscent of Emil and the Detectives in its wise way of children working together and outwitting evil adults, yet with the Rundell idiosyncrasies that mark her stories as being a cut above the rest. A must read. For 8+ years.

The Good Thieves publishes on Thursday 13th June, and you can pre-order it here. With special thanks to Jade at Bloomsbury Publishing for my review copy.

The House of Light by Julia Green

house of lightSometimes it’s the quiet books that have the most forceful impact. When I read Close to the Wind by Jon Walters, I understood that this understated book with its everyman tale of migration and movement was a thing of beauty. And now Julia Green has done the same with her timeless tale of stagnation and closed borders in The House of Light. As we move into a more politically uncertain time, filled with aggression and anxiety, this kind of book will resonate with young readers, but will also stir them with its moral integrity and innate sense of hope for the future.

Bonnie lives with her Granda on a wild coastland, where the sea is out of bounds and border guards patrol the area and keep tabs on who is attending school (and who isn’t!). When Bonnie is scavenging on the beach one day she finds an upturned boat, but realises it has been recently used. Before long, she discovers the owner – a bare-footed boy hiding from the authorities. In these lean times, he’s hungry and in need of shelter, so Bonnie harbours him, waiting for the day when he can take his freedom – and maybe she can too.

This beautifully written novel not only lays out the political foolhardiness of closing borders, denying citizens’ rights, and the rule of tyranny rather than compassion, but it also shows the differences that individual people can make. Bonnie learns more at home than at school, under the moral guidance of her Granda, and realises that it is appropriate to welcome strangers and mete out kindness rather than comply with rules that don’t make sense. In the current period of political language around migrants and refugees, this is particularly compelling.

More than this though, the book speaks to the wonder of creativity, and thus creative thinking. The schools impose strict timetables of arbitrary rule-learning rather than embracing any creativity of thought, and when Bonnie discovers a house in which art and liberty are celebrated, she sees that creativity and freedom are connected.

But most of all, it is the wildness of the natural world that shines through the book. The coastline is depicted with intense beauty as well as harshness – Bonnie learns the wonders of the woods near her house, the benefits of snow (over which a boat can be more easily pulled and when footsteps disappear), but most importantly, the use of nature to guide and to heal. Birds give Bonnie clues as to what’s going on, she learns to read the sea and the creatures within, and she understands when to take from nature for survival and when to let it grow and flourish. This is a timely children’s novel set in a world in which medicine no longer exists for people like Bonnie, and she must turn to nature for its healing plants and tinctures. Moreover, energy supplies and mass food production have disappeared too – and it is up to Bonnie and Granda to seek from the animals and from the land. This is about people in a modern world re-learning the earth, its natural resources and its wonders.

This is children’s literary fiction, and Green steadily guides Bonnie and the reader through the book with the metaphor of light highlighting principles. When to break the rules, and how the individual is important. Bonnie’s relationship with both the boy, Ish, and her Granda are drawn tenderly and evocatively. The reader feels her doubts and pain, her love and instincts. Although this is a simple story, it is well told, with underlying depth and memorable characters, and a tangible setting. It sears its message and vision into the reader’s mind.

The novel is indicative of the courage and hope this generation will need to take into the future, and is a hidden gem. I heartily recommend letting it light up your young reader. For ages 9+. You can buy it here.

Cover artwork by Helen Crawford-White. With thanks to OUP for the review copy.

The Golden Butterfly by Sharon Gosling

the golden butterflyWhat is it about the Victorian era that makes reading about it quite so appealing? Is it because it was the age of massive advances in science and technology, changing the world of communication, transportation and work? Perhaps it was the changing ideas about the treatment of women, or the recognition and shifting ideas of class and social mobility, industrialisation, the expansion of empire….

Amazingly, and with some skill, Sharon Gosling covers a lot of this ground in her novel, The Golden Butterfly, set in 1897, although most of the themes are subtly lurking behind the scenes.

Luciana’s grandfather was the Magnificent Marko, a leading magician of his time, who performed the most astonishing, spectacular trick called ‘The Golden Butterfly’. Since he dramatically departed the stage, no one has come close to performing a trick quite as extraordinary. After his death, the leader of the Grand Society of Magicians comes searching Luciana’s house for secrets of the trick, setting Luciana on a treasure hunt of her own. Before long, she’s embroiled in magic herself, ready to protect her grandfather’s legacy, and set to show the world that women have just as much right to perform magic as men.

Luciana is a strong female character – as are many protagonists in today’s current crop of middle grade (8+ years) fiction, but she has more to prove in her era, striving against being cast as ‘other’ or a ‘witch’ in order to practise a trade that has been embraced by theatre audiences, but only when performed by a man.

But all people are not who they seem. In fact, it is this very idea – the art of appearances and illusions – that stalks the novel, magic being about deflection and distraction. Luciana comes to discover that it is the person behind the façade that counts.

Where better than to set her cast of characters then, than in a theatre, with the fluidity of appearance and reality, front of stage and backstage. Throughout her novel, Gosling plays with the idea of the mask people show to the world, and what’s really underneath, as well as how distraction aids magic and can lead people in the wrong direction in real life too, and lastly, the power play involved with rivalry and ambition.

Luciana adventures with a trust sidekick, the loveable Charley, son of a housekeeper and thus of a different social class from Luciana. Warned off him by her grandmother, Luciana learns that it is not only the gender she is born into but the social class that enables or disables her. Gosling builds a wonderful friendship between the pair, despite their differences, showing that loyalty and shared history counts more than social status, but she also draws them into a world of polarisation – the sumptuous houses of the wealthy with their butlers and warm beds juxtaposed with the ragamuffin children lurking by the railway stations and the workers in public houses.

With a clever treasure trail set in motion from the beginning, Luciana moves through Victorian England encountering all these people, using different modes of transport, and learning to look behind the curtains.

She’s also an orphan – raised by grandparents, and part of her quest revolves around finding out who her parents might have been. This is visually evocative in that she has a recurring fear of fire, stemming from something in her childhood. Linking this to the secret use of lighting magnesium during a magic act to create a distraction (a bright white light like the original photographers used in their ‘flash’), and the science of the era is brought to life.

With her confident prose, Gosling is adept at describing the magic tricks, not only the strange contraption puzzles that Luciana’s grandfather leaves behind to solve (reminiscent of modern rubik’s cubes), but also in her description of the golden butterfly act itself and its behind the scenes mechanism. Her word precision, her specificity, is inherent on every page, so that the Victorian theatre world seems very real to today’s audience, each word as carefully placed as the cards in a magic trick.

Although the plot was guessable (by me at least), it does not spoil enjoyment of the novel. Like seeing a magic trick, it is the enigma of how it is done. Gosling imbues her world with colour and vibrancy, fully embracing the appearance and reality of her plot and using the built-in drama of anticipation and excitement of a theatre’s magic show to give her book its dramatic arc. The fun is in seeing how Gosling is going to reveal the truth – how the final trick is going to be played.

The cover design is divine, the chapters are short and sharp, the villains shady, the final reveal heart-warming, cheerful and looking to the future. A great novel, showing that although we’ve come a long way since the Victorian era, there’s still a way to go, and that as Houdini said, ‘my brain is the key that sets my mind free.’ Books, like magic, dazzle and make you think. For ages 9+ years. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Stripes books for the review copy. Cover art by Pip Johnson.

The Summer of No Regrets by Kate Mallinder

the summer of no regretsHas the trend for up-lit died down? The zeitgeist that propelled Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine to the top of the bestseller charts and made it the bestselling novel of 2018? Judging by today’s lists, there’s still an appetite, even if we like murder more. But what about for today’s teens?  Recent discussions assumed that all YA books either slot into the fantasy genre or deal with issues such as eating disorders, bullying or depression. But what should parents and their offspring buy if they want to read something lighter? Some humour? Some clean teen fun? These books do exist, they just might not be face out on the bookseller’s shelves, and you’ll need to ask the bookseller. Start by requesting this one.

The Summer of No Regrets is clean teen uplit. After their exams, four sixteen-year-old friends are ready to embark on their summer together; long lie-ins and fun days out. But then Sasha is given an opportunity to go and stay with her estranged father in Geneva, and on the advice of Hetal’s Nani, they decide to opt for a summer of no regrets, (embracing adventure and new challenges), even if that means going their separate ways. Home-loving Hetal takes up a place at an exclusive science camp, Nell goes for a job she wants, out the way of her over-protective mother, and fostered Cam decides to look for her birth father. But will their summers work out the way they anticipate?

Each chapter is written from one of the four girls’ points of view, and Mallinder executes this skilfully, nicely imbuing each voice with its own idiosyncrasies and character. As with these types of novels, the reader may identify more with one girl than another, although they will possibly see characteristics of themselves, or their friends in all four. Each character is nicely flawed, and self-critiquing, sometimes overly as teens are prone to do – but they are rescued from too much introspection by Mallinder’s lightness of touch, and her use of the secondary characters around each girl.

But it is the four friends who dominate because the book is about friendship – a refreshing reminder that not all friendships degrade because of sniping about each other on social media or griping behind each other’s backs. Although some of the foursome are more in tune with each other than others – splitting into twos occasionally depending on circumstance and personality, all four have a wonderful support network of the other three behind them – even if they are geographically apart. Nowadays this is easy to portray with the use of mobile phones and Mallinder nicely portrays the girls’ messages to each other without it becoming overbearing or interrupting the flow of plot, but she also hints at a shared history, an ongoing bond between them that’s deeper than text messages.

The book is character-led, and each girl does have her own ‘issues’ within her story – whether it is a summer romance, an overly-competitive streak that gets them into trouble, or more serious issues such as post-traumatic stress, and feelings of abandonment and rejection. However, these issues never dominate – they are just a part of each girl’s life – a test they have to go through on their own, but which ultimately they can do because they have the strength of friendship behind them.

This is a story about real friendship – trusting, kind and generous; the sort of friends who pop by and see you while you’re at work, or answer your cries for help immediately. As the author William Sutcliffe pointed out a few weeks ago in The Times, it’s what makes the sitcom Friends so enduring – not just the humour, but the appealing essence of true friendship.

But this is about sixteen-year-olds rather than adults, and Mallinder captures well the liminal space they occupy between being children and stepping into their own independence – they still need guidance and still push boundaries.

As intimated by the glorious rainbow cover, this is a light, breezy summery read, which I read in one sitting, happily engrossed in the girls’ stories. A clean teen read, I’ll be heartily recommending it to every teen and pre-teen this summer. You can read your own copy for pleasure here – and pleasurable it will be. For ages 12+ years.

Malamander by Thomas Taylor

malamanderSometimes a story lures you in like a beckoning finger, and as you step over the threshold, what seems familiar turns gothic and dark, and you are swept away on a tide of imagination and character.

Malamander is one such story. In Cheerie-On-Sea (the letters c and h fall off the sign every winter), Herbert Lemon, the lost-and-founder of the Grand Nautilus Hotel, finds a lost girl one snowy winter evening. She too is sweet, named Violet Parma, and she’s an orphan, looking for her parents who disappeared one night twelve years ago when she was just a baby staying in the hotel.

Together they form a formidable duo, as they roam the coastal town looking for clues as to where Violet’s parents might have gone, and also learning more about the legend of the unctuous sea-monster who stalks the town in winter, hiding in the rolling sea fog, and waiting for its mate on the longest night of the year. This, of course, is the Malamander.

Taylor’s writing is both highly gothic, and laced with a fine dose of humour. The plot whips along at 100 knots, and the tantalising descriptions of the familiar turned dark make this story hugely appealing. The seaside town at close-season is sensually described; it may be without ice cream and sandcastles, but it is imbued with the warmth of fish and chips that steams up the café and gives comfort, and also the horrific sounds of the sea-monster’s shrieks, the frightening foggy sands, and the sea mist that makes the town more than live up to its wintry name of Eerie-on-Sea. The tangible salty fishy smell almost seeps from the pages itself.

But it is the way Taylor has populated his book that makes it so special, drawing on familiar tropes and yet giving it a twist of his own. Every name in the book is joyfully Dickensian, from the sweetie-named children to the villainous slippery Sebastian Eels (a writer with dubious motives), and a very Famous-Five-ish, Scooby-Doo-type villain in Boathook Man. (Some of the names are decidedly creepy. Jenny Hanniver may seem like a nice bookshop lady but, if one looks up what a Jenny Haniver actually is, one may not sleep well that night.) The hotel owner, a reclusive Lady Kraken (think Miss Haversham) holes up in her tower with her claw-like hands and her cameraluna – (a camera-obscura-magic looking-glass) – spying on those below.

What’s more there is a kind bookshop owner, a talking cat, a beachcombing forager, and a mechanical mermonkey who spits out book references to where the correct book for each individual is stored in the bookshop – reminiscent of all seaside towns and their strange magical arcades (think the movie Big).

As Herbet and Violet’s quest for her parents turns into a quest for the egg of the Malamander, so they traverse the town and meet its people, and here Taylor excels in his use of dialogue, which is full of dramatic tension, slowing down in the right places, pausing, leaving gaps, all weaving in and out of his tale with its gothic mystery slant.

The denouement is like an action movie, set in a tide-filling shipwreck just off the coast, with Taylor even managing to make the reader as sympathetic to the Malamander as to the children.

By threading his coastal novel with ancient legend, and misleading the reader with red herrings, mysteries and untrustworthy adults, Taylor has shown he can write with flair, embedding hidden depths into the plot. He himself has hidden depths too – he illustrated the first Harry Potter editions. No wonder the map at the beginning of Malamander is as atmospheric as the prose itself.

This is a novel to hook you in from the first word. It’s cunning, clever, manipulative, deliciously dark and fun, and also holds delightfully old-fashioned storytelling. Don’t miss it. For ages 9+. You can buy it here.

Cover artwork by George Ermos. With thanks to Walker Books for a review copy.

The Words That Fly Between Us by Sarah Carroll

the words that fly between usLanguage is important. Of course it is, it’s one of the ways in which we communicate, and as a reader and writer it’s my primary source of information, and of huge value. But one of the things new writers are taught is the importance of words that are left unsaid. In dialogue, what’s underneath the words, what lies in the silence, which emotions are left hanging in the air – the words that are never spoken but which fly away. Listen carefully to the next conversation you have – who isn’t saying what?

Carroll delves into the world of examining language, secrets, lies, manipulation and communication in her emotionally deep novel, The Words That Fly Between Us

Lucy lives in a large house with her parents, seemingly all privileged and happy. Yet, Lucy lives in a state of heightened awareness; attune to the words that aren’t being spoken, and the manner in which those words that are shared are spoken. Her father uses words to bully and manipulate, and although Lucy is a talented artist, her father’s words hinder even this form of expression. Her confidence is chipped away, her place of safety gone. What’s more, the abuse towards her mother is teetering from just verbal towards the physical.

Lucy takes consolation in the loft space above her room, but she discovers that it links to the attic space of all the other houses in her street, and before long Lucy’s curiosity gets the better of her, and she finds that other people have unspoken secrets in their houses too. But she comes to realise that knowing other people’s secrets can create even larger dilemmas.

In today’s world, the language we use seems to take on an even greater import because quite often it is not accompanied by body language or pitch. Many people today communicate more by written word than spoken word – in text, online comments, direct messages. Carroll touches on this too, with her depiction of Lucy’s friendship with Megan, who writes a blog, but starts to receive unwelcome and bullying comments online.

And incorporating a diary into the novel as part of the plot, means that the reader can start to understand the power of secrets, the power of the written word, and the lies we tell ourselves, or portray to the world. Communication is a powerful tool.

By weaving together these strands, as well as incorporating a homeless girl with a distinct message, a reclusive neighbour who isn’t all she seems, Carroll forms a multi-layered story that mirrors the multi-layers of her characters. Because the bullies in the stories aren’t simple two-dimensional fairytale villains – these are complex characters with deep flaws and insecurities that manifest themselves in harmful ways. By portraying them as humans too, Carroll portrays an ever greater emotional depth to her already heart-wrenching story.

In fact, it is the very appealing first person voice of Lucy that pulls the reader in. And just as Lucy sees the menace behind ordinary words, so the reader begins to see the depths behind the simplicity of the voice, and that although this is an easy read in terms of accessibility, there is a lot more going on beneath the surface.

Carroll deftly imbues her main character with a talent for drawing – a way of expressing her feelings beyond words. And although the book isn’t illustrated, the author shows enormous talent at describing Lucy’s drawings, so that we can see them in our mind’s eye and extrapolate the emotion they are depicting.

This is a powerful book for a 10+ age audience. With compelling, confident writing, a clear understanding of relationships, and a good illustration of how language works and can be manipulated.

Carroll shows what it is for a child to feel safe, to find their voice, and then develop the confidence to use it. Again, what’s key is the kindness of strangers, true friendships and an empathetic heart. You can buy it here.

The Secret Starling by Judith Eagle, illustrations by Kim Geyer

the secret starlingSetting is of great importance in most literature, and at first I read The Secret Starling with confusion, then with compulsion and ultimately joy.

The story begins with Clara, being raised with a strict routine under the watchful eyes of a series of governesses hired by her generally neglectful and uncaring uncle, in Braithwaite Manor, a place seemingly disintegrating before her eyes. Artefacts disappear, the grounds are unkempt, and food seems scarce – Cook making do with basic ingredients.

Braithwaite Manor seems extraordinarily reminiscent of Misslethwaite Manor from The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which Eagle even refers to within the text, explaining how it is Clara’s favourite book, although there is no secret garden at Braithwaite. Indeed, the metaphor of Misslethwaite Manor is extended here too. There is no potential for growth at Braithwaite (indicated by the lack of secret garden), but both houses are gloomy, shut up, disused, representative of repression or stifled creativity, and the moors in both represent wild freedom.

However, Clara’s uncle grants her this freedom early on, depositing her in the nearby village, and abandoning her to her own devices. It was at this point that I realised the book wasn’t set in some Edwardian era, as The Secret Garden, but is in fact, set in the 1970s, clues being Clara’s shiny fifty pence piece gifted by Cook, the general modernity of the village, and the Queen on the throne.

Clara is joined by Peter, who feels far more up-to-date, a modern child raised in London who is street-savvy and wordly-wise. He is visiting from London, where he lives with his adoptive grandmother in a tower block. Together, Clara and Peter at first make the most of having a manor house to play in without adults, before realising that there is a mystery in the heart of their story – and they set off to London to discover why Clara’s uncle is selling the house, why he’s abandoned her, and what the whole story has to do with Clara’s mother and a ballet shoe.

Before long, this intertextualised novel turns into the most exciting chase to undercover a deeper mystery, involving searching a library for old newspapers, riding the underground, meeting Nureyev, the famous ballet dancer, and outwitting and escaping from the most dastardly villains – good old-fashioned types with no scruples and definitely people who care nothing for child welfare!

The conclusion is satisfyingly old-school too – identities uncovered, new relationships formed, and a definite nod to Noel Streatfield and the canon of children’s literature. However, as well as these nods to those that have gone before her, Judith Eagle brings a lovely modern sensibility to her fiction. Peter, in particular, is independent and resilient, although his knowledge and freedom of getting round London on his own does perhaps speak more to the 1970’s London child than today’s.

The objects and places that root this book in the 1970s will feel terribly old-fashioned to today’s young reader, although of course quite familiar to the older reader reviewer! What at first seemed like an Edwardian children’s book to me, then transpired to be from the 1970s, shows that perhaps society has changed exponentially from the 1970s to now, and that the 1970s feel closer to 1910 than they do to 2019.

In Eagle’s fictional world, nothing and nobody is as they seem to Clara, and she has to learn whom to trust, and delve into her own knowledge and past to discover who she really is. In the end though, no matter what era the children are living through, the same attributes hold inherent value: truth, love and loyalty.

This is a cracking pacey novel, written with assurance and with a distinct nod to classic children’s literature. Suggest for age 9+. You can buy it here.

No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton

no ballet shoes in syriaOne of the most important skills reading teaches us, albeit subliminally most of the time, is that age-old question: ‘What must it feel like to be you?’, or ‘empathy’. The word empathy stems from the Ancient Greek, em – in, pathos – feeling. In fact, our usage of the word has increased, in particular from the 1950’s onwards. This is interesting, as most people might feel that in recent years our feelings of empathy have waned.

Because of course, as our world becomes more global, our acceptance of others seems to decline. Despite the fact that our high streets look the same, we drink the same brands, own the same clothes and do the same jobs, we keep recognising and highlighting our differences. Sometimes recognising difference is good, but when used against people, it is not. Identity politics has never seemed such a loaded term. Setting us straight, is this insightful and winning new novel from Catherine Bruton, No Ballet Shoes in Syria.

Eleven-year-old Aya could live anywhere. She has a father and mother, a little brother, and a huge passion for ballet, which she learns under the tutelage of Madame Belova in her dance studio near home. However, that’s Aya’s previous life. In Aleppo. Since the war, she has had to flee, and the reader meets her as she seeks asylum in Britain. When she stumbles across a ballet class in the community centre in which her family is seeking help with their asylum application, the instructor recognises her talent, and her situation. Before long, Aya is fighting for a ballet scholarship, a place in Britain, and contact with her lost father. Luckily for her, she has more than one empathetic English resident on her side.

This nuanced gentle portrayal of a young Syrian girl is a fantastic read and an eye-opening book. Bruton successfully shows her roundedness and that of the characters around her. Aya has had to take over and assume a great deal of adult responsibility in the wake of her mother’s traumatised state – the loss of Aya’s father and the journey has been too much. Aya takes great care of her baby brother Moosa, fights for their rights, and also tries to navigate the delicate balance of still being a child, and adapting to life in a foreign country.

The girls in the ballet class are also beautifully brought to life, but play a very distinct role within the novel. It is their attitudes (and changing attitudes) to Aya that inform the reader and will start to pose questions in the reader’s mind. Here, with their youth and naivety making them susceptible both to what they’ve been told by elders, but also making them more open to Aya, they come to discover the differences between refugees and asylum seekers, but also come to understand the cyclical role of history through their ballet teacher, Miss Helena.

Aya’s situation calls to mind Miss Helena’s own past – her own refugee status in the Second World War, as she fled Nazi Germany and found a home in England. Her experiences, although very different from Ava’s, show how time moves on, but the same wounds are inflicted. By that token though the same wrongs can be corrected – through kindness and empathy:

“Perhaps if history was always repeating itself – wars and families fleeing their homes; persecution, refugees – then other stories recurred too: stories of kindness, sacrifice, generosity.”

Through this very stark quote, Bruton also pulls the reader into the stories that have preceded No Ballet Shoes in Syria, and those to which she refers in her introduction – Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr, the books of Lorna Hill and Pamela Brown and many more.

Alongside Aya’s gradual acceptance into the ballet class, Bruton flashbacks through Aya’s journey from Syria to Britain – interlaying the text with memories. This slow revealing of Aya’s past is like the slow learning of friendship – a gentle discovery of the other person, helping us to know and understand what they have been through, and their hopes and dreams for the future.

At the same time as the reader’s growing awareness of Aya’s past, Aya slowly learns about the country she’s come to – the accents, the food, the different ways the children live and behave, and also the similarities – in particular the global language of dance.

But perhaps my favourite element of the novel is the idea of community. It is not carelessness that sets the world of form-filling and yet also ballet classes within a community centre. Bruton cleverly shows the reader all the different forms of community that exist, and how useful they are for us as human beings to reach across the divide. The community of asylum seekers themselves, helping and looking out for each other, and slowly replacing the community they have lost in leaving home. The community of ballet dancers, all helping each other to improve and succeed. The community of global dance – the fact that Miss Helena recognises and knows about Aya’s dance teacher from Syria. And of course, the global community of human beings and how by recognising ourselves in each other, we can come together and accept and invite difference.

To assuage any fears about getting Aya’s voice wrong, Bruton took the opportunity to work with Bath welcomes Refugees and Bristol Refugee Rights in the writing of the book and her research sparkles throughout. She’s also the alter ego of Cate Shearwater, the author of Somersaults and Dreams, and her ability to see dance, creativity, and sport as outlets of expression and emotion are very apparent.

The book is published on 2nd May and you can pre-order and buy this story of hope here.

The Disconnect by Keren David

the disconnectI’m as guilty as the next person with regards to phone use. My weekly checker tells me if I’ve spent more time on my phone this week than last, and I feel relief when the numbers move down. Should we feel guilty though? Is phone use a bad thing? The headlines flip-flop back and forwards with regards to children and screen time – children need to be tech savvy, ready for a changing workplace, and yet social media is damaging their mental health, their brains are rewired with over-use of the phone, their concentration spans zapped. Which of the screaming headlines is true? It’s a question that dogs this moment in time – perhaps even more than Brexit.

Keren David has written a fascinating novella that more than lives up to its topical and intriguing premise: Could you live without your phone for six weeks?

When an eccentric entrepreneur challenges teenagers in a school to give up their phones, offering a cash incentive (£1000 for six weeks), it’s not wholly surprising that many don’t participate. Esther gives it a try, wanting to use the money to visit her sister and father in America. But of course, with most of her friends on their phones, what will she miss, and can she stay the course?

Esther is introduced to the reader as an average Year 11 student: she takes validation selfies – seeking her friends’ advice on what to wear before going out, she has major FOMO (fear of missing out), and she uses her phone to stay in close contact with her older sister, who has moved to New York. She misses her terribly and their relationship is crucial to her wellbeing.

So when she gives up her phone, she is inevitably going to miss out on friends’ interaction and gossip, and on her relationship with her sister – after all, old-fashioned snail mail is exactly that – slow. But David goes much deeper, exploring all the elements she misses out on by sacrificing her phone, and all the benefits she reaps.

Yet this isn’t an essay of pros and cons, this is a concisely written story about fully-rounded people with whom the reader can identify, with advantages and disadvantages of life without a mobile phone carefully extrapolated and interwoven into the story. What’s more, David probes deeper into the more nuanced arguments around social media – whom to trust, tech giants’ motivations for making their products and the software within, and issues around privacy.

This last issue is particularly pertinent to one character – a crossover from another Karen David book called The Liar’s Handbook, in which she investigated undercover policemen who fathered children with unsuspecting women. The boy, River, features as the protagonist in that story, and a secondary character in this, and David deftly explores his ongoing sense of mistrust of those in positions of authority, and his influence on Esther, in a lovely twist on the ‘disconnectivity’ in the title here, seeing as the books are so neatly connected.

There’s a lively authenticity to the setting here too – London feels very much alive, and in particular the café that Esther’s stepfather runs, and David deftly depicts the Middle Eastern food with mouth-watering descriptions.

The little details are carefully thought out – Esther and her peers are self-conscious about using their voice – so much of their interaction comes from texting and written language – and they are also self-conscious about their appearances, stemming from a constant need to monitor who says what about how they look. Social media accentuates social groupings, instant gratification, knowing stuff about people that usually would take time, or that wouldn’t even be known.

But there’s also a brilliant summation of the emotional importance of Facetiming a relative who lives far away but stays close to the heart, and the usefulness of knowledge at one’s fingertips.

In the end, David portrays a good equilibrium in her answers. Esther comes to understand the uses and abuses of her phone. There’s loneliness both with her phone and without it; everyone needs to appreciate solitude and understand its difference from loneliness. And Esther has a new-found understanding that self-worth doesn’t just come from other people’s online likes and comments. Offline interactions are just as important, although interestingly can be damaging too, but it’s those ‘real-life’ face-to-face connections with family and friends that build confidence and self-belief and help a person to sustain them. Through real-life human interactions we form resilience and find confidence within ourselves. Taken all together, facial expressions, tactileness, actual physical presence and words spoken can mean much more than a text or a Facetime conversation. It is no coincidence that when writers write their characters, they use the full gamut of senses – they explore the character’s body language, facial expressions, the physical presence in a scene including scents, flavours, touch, sound and words spoken. Esther will come to find that she can choose an outfit without using validation selfies and waiting for likes.

Mainly though, time away from the phone gives Esther space to think and to read a physical book, an appreciation of a calmer, quieter, slower way of living, and the overriding message is that some degree of disconnectivity is healthy.

This is a thoughtful read but also a gripping one – will Esther win her money, and will it have been worth it? You’ll want to disconnect yourself for a while just to find out. Click the button to ‘connect’ you to a bookshop here!