Book of the Week

Railhead by Philip Reeve

Railhead

It was apparent from the name of the book (and its author) that this was going to be one exhilarating rollercoaster ride of a book, and the content lives up to its title. Packed with action from the beginning, it’s an adrenaline ride that takes the reader through multiple emotions, with a large cast of engaging characters.

Zen Starling is a petty thief in the future, a place where interstellar locomotives run through the Great Network, passing through K portals – like wormholes – to jump from one planet to another. Mingling with the humans are drones and androids, train maintenance spiders, station angels and hive monks – the reader feels the heaving mass of transit and commuters passing through. When the mysterious Raven sends Zen on a mission to infiltrate the ruling Emperor’s train, in return for safety and riches, Zen is raring to exploit the opportunity of exploring this amazing web of worlds, riding the trains through the Great Network. But in the end Zen has to decide who is fighting for good and who is fighting for evil, and where his loyalties lie.

Philip Reeve’s imagination knows no limits. The world he has built includes trains that come alive, insects that commune together in formations to look like people, robots with whom you can fall in love. It takes a few pages to get to grips with the futuristic terminology that Reeve has created to describe systems and castes in his new world, but before long they become a part of the reader’s language. And each new technology is only a magnified version of our own – the Internet becomes a thing of the past, and the ‘datasea’ Zen’s present. There are algae colonies, breathing out oxygen “seeded in the shallows when the planet was being terraformed”; there are drones galore.

Despite this scintillating world beyond ours, there is familiarity in the age-old narrative devices of following a protagonist as he navigates through good and evil; through the clearly delineated hierarchy of this new society; and on his journey of discovery to find out whom he can trust.

Reeve’s language is chosen carefully – each word lives up to the world he is trying to create, from the ‘flutter-thud’ of rotors, to Zen’s luck, which is ‘glitchy’. But one of the most compelling characters is an android – who mirrors human emotions and reactions in order to seem more human itself:

“Nova sniffed. She had no need to sniff, but she had seen movies, and knew it was something that people did when they’d been crying.” Almost as if Reeve has taken how an author crafts a character’s reaction to things, and has stripped it bare for the reader to see. It’s fascinating, eerie, and wonderful at the same time.

Railhead is sci-fi, thriller, and romance, all neatly tucked into one fascinating book. Although marketed for children aged 12+yrs, it will be a lucky adult who gets to read it too. It’s amazingly filmic – Zen’s world is so otherworldly, and yet conversely seems so real.

You can buy it here.

With thanks to OUP for a review copy.

 

The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield

Bear and the Piano

One of the most emotional picture books I’ve read for a while, The Bear and the Piano seems a simple story, but on closer inspection there is a depth and complexity to the book. It speaks of human endeavour and success. It asks what’s important in life, and addresses what it is to belong somewhere. It tells of friendship and the power of music, and all in a story about a bear and a piano.

One day a young bear finds a piano in the woods. He has no idea what it is, and it makes an awful noise. But after years of trying out ‘noises’ on it, the bear discovers that it can make beautiful music, and the other creatures in the wood enjoy hearing him play. Then a girl comes to the woods and tells him about Broadway and the opportunities there, and he leaves for the big city. When he finally returns, he wonders if his friends will have forgotten about him – or be cross that he left.

David Litchfield’s illustrations are magical. Each picture plays with a light source: the forest floor is depicted with dappled sunlight, which throws shadows from the tall trees. The scene in which the bear leaves the wood shows the sunlight over the water illuminating the fronts of the other bears – even though their backs are to the reader as they watch the bear and the girl row away in a boat. The electric spotlights and headlamps of the cars light up the big city, and in turn the reflection of the night-time buildings light up the water. The majesty of the forest landscape and cityscape is never in doubt.

Each detail is stunningly depicted – from the fur on the bear, to the expressions of the audience when he plays the piano. The bear’s face as he listens to the music he makes is beautiful – you can even see it on the book cover.

It’s a sweet story – but the depth of narrative and illustration is what pulled me in. The reader discovers that the bear only manages to create beautiful music after practising for years. (The height and bulk of the bear in comparison to the piano changes dramatically over the years). There is complexity in the choices the bear has to make – leaving home and exploring the world, or staying and retaining the sense of belonging. In the end he discovers that his friends and family support him in his success and are proud of him. And this is the sweetest music of all.

A lovely picture book – look at the backdrop of the forest through the curtains on the cover, and see the magic that awaits inside. One of my picture books of the year, and a debut too!

To buy a copy, please click here. With thanks to Frances Lincoln Books for sending a requested review copy.

The Boy Who Drew the Future by Rhian Ivory

The Boy Who Drew the Future

Although marketed as a Young Adult book, and about two fifteen year old boys, I would be happy to recommend this for 11+ years. Ivory tells the story of two boys, 100 years apart, who both have a mysterious gift – they draw pictures that tell the future. For Noah in contemporary England this is something of a curse – his parents find his ‘gift’ troubling and try to stop it – he too finds it awkward and embarrassing, yet is compelled to draw. For Blaze, in the 1860s, his ‘gift’ is even more dangerous – the threat of being killed for witchcraft is very real.

In both her tales, Ivory depicts the conundrum of the teenager brilliantly – the dichotomy of the outsider, the teenager who wants to stand out from the crowd and be special and unique, and yet also wants to fit in and be part of the group. Alternate chapters tell the story of Noah and Blaze from the first person narrative perspective, stepping inside the teenagers’ heads. The tension builds throughout the novel as Noah is desperate to share the secret of his gift with Beth, a new friend; and Blaze moves closer to danger with every new fortune he tells. For me, the boys’ gift worked almost like a modern-day superpower – it enables the character to transcend and rebel against the constraints and powerlessness of childhood.

The two stories are linked by geography as well as the boys’ gift, and the reader is left to tie up the strands between the two. The story is sad and poignant and the characters are beautifully drawn. Noah’s burgeoning romance with Beth is told with delicacy, and his relationship with his parents and their past is stunningly depicted – I can’t give away more. Blaze is parentless and friendless, contrasting sharply with Noah, but he has an incredibly moving relationship with his dog.

This is great historical fiction for children. It drips information about the past so that the reader hardly realises how much history they are absorbing. It is subtle and fascinating. The stories of the past tie themselves to the present; remaining relevant, interesting and in some cases life-changing.

A compelling read that works across genders and up the age scale. Some of the dialogue doesn’t ring as true as it should, but the story is so gripping, you’ll be transported to another place and time with ease. To buy a copy, and I recommend you do, click here.

I reviewed an uncorrected proof version of this title.

You Can Do It, Bert by Ole Konnecke

you can do it bert

One of the joys of reviewing books for me is receiving those that don’t get much mainstream press, and aren’t necessarily championed by bookshops and libraries. You Can Do It, Bert is a laugh-out loud picture book with a great message too. Minimalist in words and pictures, the book plays with its white space cleverly, placing its cartoon like drawings and text in the middle of a huge amount of space for more emphasis. It is a motivational book – for those embarking on a new adventure or trying something for the first time. The book begins with Bert (a bird) and explains that this is Bert’s big day. The reader assumes from the picture of Bert walking along a single straight branch to the edge that it is his day to start flying. His trepidation shows in his face (with incredibly simple line strokes) – it is as if he is walking the plank. Of course, like all of us, he procrastinates. Bert stops to eat a banana before taking the plunge – the comic timing is spot on – the resonance clear. Once Bert does actually go through with his task he shows grit and determination and, most importantly, has a solid friendship support group who cheer him on, and boost his confidence. Each vignette displays a different emotion from Bert – this is an exquisite display of how to tell narrative through pictures alone. By the end Bert is fulfilling his mission with enthusiasm. It’s a great little book – made me snort my own procrastinating banana whilst reading, and is one that could be a bedtime favourite or a storytime class option. Short and sweet, it packs a punch. You can buy a copy here.

With thanks to Gecko Press for the review copy

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

goodbye stranger

Every so often a writer comes along who weaves magic with every book. Rebecca Stead’s books are insightful and compelling, her words flow off the page like cake batter into the tin. Her books are always unputdownable; and always ask questions.

So, it comes as no surprise to find that her latest follows suit. Set in New York, Goodbye Stranger tells three interlocking narratives: Bridge, a girl stepping into seventh grade (Year 7), and navigating her friendships, and pondering the question of life after miraculously living through a terrible car accident when she was eight years old; Sherm, who is coming to terms with the breakup of his grandparents’ long marriage and puzzling the meaning of love; and a third mystery strand told in the rare second-person narrative: “You paint your toenails. You don’t steal nail polish, though”. The three strands build together until all is revealed at the end of the book.

Topically dealing with internet safety, body image and of course the ever-present problems of friendship and peer pressure at this pivotal point of adolescence, Stead handles her young teens with emotional depth, wonderful empathy and adroitness. These are children with whom the reader immediately identifies, and wishes well. The reader waits on tenterhooks to see if everything will turn out alright. The dialogue sits well, and as always, New York springs to life under Stead’s pen.

All in all, this is the quintessential story for this age group – it discusses and makes you ponder what it means to be yourself – it pulls out arguments about identity. How much do we fit in with our peers or strike out on our own? How much of ourselves do we show to our parents or our friends? These are key questions of identity for this age group, and the book handles them responsibly without once becoming patronising.

As mentioned before the prose is idyllic – “Bridge woke to the sound of the cello. Her {mom’s} music reminded Bridge of picking wildflowers – she started with something thin and simple and then kept adding new sounds, all different shapes and colors, until she had something explosive. But in the mornings her mom tried to explode very quietly, so that the people downstairs didn’t get annoyed.”

Stead’s book is a pleasure to read from start to finish. I only wish I hadn’t read it so quickly! You can order your copy here.
For the 11+ years crowd.

Please note the book does contain a narrative about sending selfies of various poses by mobile phone.

Andersen Press very kindly sent me a copy of this book to review.

I, Coriander by Sally Gardner

I Coriander
Republished by Orion in a special edition to celebrate its 10th anniversary, this is a historical novel for children that is brilliantly crafted, well-told and beautifully researched. Coriander is the daughter of a silk-merchant in 1650’s London. By candlelight, she tells the story of what happened to her after her mother’s death during the shaky period when Oliver Cromwell took power in England. Coriander’s father is a Royalist and after marrying a Puritan for protection, flees for France, leaving Coriander with her stepmother. Sally Gardner weaves fantasy into her historical novel, transporting Coriander to a fairy tale world for passages of the book, but this is brilliantly juxtaposed with her very real re-imagining of the politics and physical setting of London Bridge in the 1650’s. It is gripping from the beginning, summoning a vivid historical London, as well as setting a rapid pace for a plot paved with twists and turns. The characters feel authentic, even those within the fairy tale world.
Readers will delight in the fact that reality and fairy tale overlap – wicked stepmothers, princes, good and evil – the strands are so well integrated that it lends to the discussion of how fairy tales work and why they are told. The violence and abuse in the 1650’s scenes starkly contrast with the beautiful landscape of the fairy tale world, but both worlds portray good and evil in their various guises.
Told in the first person, Coriander is a well-defined and likeable feisty young woman, rebellious and brave, both straddling two worlds and torn between them. The reader cannot help but root for her. A thoroughly enjoyable read, for children aged ten plus. It won the 2005 Nestle Children’s Book Award.

With thanks to Orion for the review copy. To purchase your own, click here.

An Island Of Our Own by Sally Nicholls

An Island Of Our Own

Sally Nicholls’ An Island Of Our Own has been longlisted for this year’s Guardian Children’s Fiction Award, with good reason. Thirteen year old Holly and younger brother Davy have been left in the care of their elder sibling, Jonathan, since their mother died. Told in Holly’s authentic first person voice, the book recounts the year Holly was twelve, in which her Great Aunt suffers a disabling stroke, and although unable to speak, gives Holly clues to finding what might be a much-needed family inheritance. With the kindness of strangers, some savvy Internet usage and her own unflappable competence, Holly sets about solving the mystery of the missing inheritance.

Not only is this a compellingly crafted family mystery, but there are many other elements that combine to make this a joy to read from start to finish. Lacking any kind of morbidity or sentimentality, Nicholls manages to portray a family struggling with their circumstances with pathos and wit. Jonathan is beautifully drawn out by Holly’s voice, a portrayal of an older brother shouldering responsibility with dignity, sacrificing his own path for the sake of his siblings. Even though Holly has a normal twelve year old’s view of her sometimes irritating elder brother, the reader is cleverly shown how patient and loving he is. For me, he was the stand-out character of the book. By showing some of the fun that can be had without parents around, as well as illuminating those moments when the absence of parents is heartrending (eg., Holly’s shopping trip to buy a first-time bra with an older brother instead of a mother in tow), Sally Nicholls affords the book the reality of the circumstances.  Bringing in meetings with social workers, extended family complications, school, work and money issues, everything is encompassed within this accomplished book.

And yet the plot is neat, the chapters bite-size, suitable for even reluctant readers. There are numerous other wonders to be explored within the story, too, such as Jonathan’s refuge at makerspace, and the family’s adventure to the Orkney Islands, all of which is clearly well researched so that the details lend the book authenticity. Sally Nicholls set out to write about family, generosity, the goodness of the Internet and the wonder of everyday ordinariness. She has succeeded – and her characters live on in the mind. For readers aged 9 and over.

To purchase a copy of An Island Of Our Own please click here or see the Amazon sidebar.

Grrrrr! by Rob Biddulph

grrrr

Rob Biddulph set up quite a career challenge for himself when he won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize for his first picture book, Blown Away. So expectations were high for his second picture book, Grrrrr! which was published last week. Grrrrr! is another rhyming story about animals. Fred the Bear is a champion animal in the woods, winning the fish-catching, scaring humans, and hula hooping trophies year on year, although it is his great growling for which is he famous. When, on the day of the competition, he loses his Grrrrr! the consequences make him realise what’s really important. This is a story about the importance of friendship, and the correct way to approach competitions (hint: no cheating!)

The rhyming works quite well, although I would quibble that it contains extraordinarily difficult names for children to read and pronounce, (Fred being the exception) but Rob Biddulph’s strength in his artistry pulsates through the warm and vibrant illustrations. Not only are the animals portrayed with character and depth, but they are humorous, bold and colourful. Slightly reminiscent of the simplicity of Oliver Jeffers’ creations, the animals’ eyes, eyebrows and mouths manage to convey emotional depth. As well as warming to Fred the Bear, the reader can spot all the various backstories in the illustrations, from the growing love affair of the rabbits, and their sensitivity to noise, to the deer’s underpants, owls with mobile phones, and pirate bears. There’s even an appearance by Penguin Blue from Blown Away. Numerous cultural references abound too – from the growl-o-meter harking back to old TV game shows to the scoreboards that are reminiscent of retro computer games. The blending of the bears’ bodies to the trees in the wood is also clever and effective.

By appealing to both grown-ups and children, and by using humour, morality and a good story, as well as conveying greater depth in his illustrations, Biddulph appears to have cracked it again. This author/illustrator certainly hasn’t lost his Grrrrr!

To buy a copy of this title you can click here or see the Amazon sidebar. Please note this review was from a mock-up of printed pages rather than the finished publication.

In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll

My next book of the week will be published September 6th. For a list of my books of the week to date, scroll down to the bottom of this review.

in darkling wood

Both the narrative structure and subject matter of Emma Carroll’s latest story, In Darkling Wood, are indicative of her own distinct style: quietly modern and yet definitely traditional in application. The novel is told using a dual narrative – in letters dated 1918 from a young girl to her brother in the war, and a modern-day first person narrative of a girl called Alice who is sent to live with her estranged grandmother whilst her brother is in hospital for a heart transplant. By weaving the two very distinct narratives together, Emma Carroll creates a magical story that is both classical and contemporary – just like her style of her writing in all her books.
At first Alice struggles in her stay with her gruff grandmother – her anxiety about her brother shines through the text, as does her frustration with her parents and her grandmother, Nell. She befriends a mysterious girl in the woods bordering her grandmother’s house, and before long becomes embroiled in a battle to save the woods and the enigmatic creatures whom the mysterious girl claims reside within the trees. At the same time, the letters from 1918 reflect another young girl’s anxiety about her own brother, and a preoccupation with some enigmatic winged creatures in the wood. The two stories edge closer together, and the book’s resolution is satisfying and complete.
Emma Carroll neatly references the Cottingley fairies story – a series of five famous photographs taken by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths in Cottingley towards the end of the First World War that came to the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and created a stir about the existence of fairies.
In Emma’s story, the fairies come to represent hope, and lead Alice to stand up for what she believes in.
The story is told sensitively, and is utterly engrossing. Each character is superbly drawn – the voices drip effortlessly from the page – from the distant yet forthright grandmother with secrets, to the absent father, sick brother, and the cast of characters in the modern school, as well as those from 1918. In fact, Emma’s time as a schoolteacher has clearly been useful – the school environment is one of the most believable I have encountered.
Furthermore her talent as a writer shines through in her description of Nell’s house and the Darkling Woods surrounding it – they remain an image within my head months after reading the book. It’s my last book of the week before the summer. Take it with you on holiday – but be warned – wherever you go, you’ll imagine you’re In Darkling Wood…

With thanks to Faber for the review copy. You can buy your own copy from Waterstones here, or see the Amazon sidebar.

My brother is a superhero by David Solomons
Too Close to Home by Aoife Walsh
The Cake, the Wolf, and the Witch by Maudie Smith, illustrated by Tony Ross
Alfie Bloom: The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle by Gabrielle Kent
There’s a Bear on My Chair by Ross Collins
The Sword of Kuromori by Jason Rohan
The Boys’ School Girls: Tara’s Sister Trouble by Lil Chase
Mad About Monkeys by Owen Davey
The Broken King by Philip Womack
The Imagination Box by Martyn Ford
Joe All Alone by Joanna Nadin
How to Write your Best Story Ever by Christopher Edge
Head Over Heart by Colette Victor
Wild by Emily Hughes
Violet and the Hidden Treasure by Harriet Whitehorn illustrated by Becka Moor
The Wild Beyond by Piers Torday
The D’Evil Diaries by Tatum Flynn
The Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Robot Girl by Malorie Blackman
How to Fly with Broken Wings by Jane Elson
A Whisper of Wolves by Kris Humphrey
The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone
Squishy McFluff The Invisible Cat: Supermarket Sweep by Pip Jones and Ella Okstad
Stonebird by Mike Revell
Darkmouth by Shane Hegarty
The Wickford Doom by Chris Priestley
How the World Works by Christiane Dorion and Beverley Young
I am Henry Finch by Alexis Deacon, illustrated by Viviane Schwarz
The Story of Buildings by Patrick Dillon, illustrated by Stephen Biesty

My Brother is a Superhero by David Solomons

My Brother Superhero

I was sold on the premise of this book before it even arrived: Luke goes for a much needed wee, leaving his older brother alone in the treehouse at precisely the moment when Zorbon arrives from outer space and grants his undeserving older brother superpowers. And David Solomons has executed his premise wickedly.

From the first sentence explaining Luke’s bad timing, he comes across as a loveable comic-mad 11 year old with oodles of wit, attitude and boyish exuberance. The plot develops at fair pace, with Luke exploring which superpowers Zack has been granted and trying to identify his Nemesis. Then Zack is kidnapped, and Luke has to work with his friends to rescue him in time so that Zack can use his superpowers to save the entire planet.

As the story builds to its climax, David Solomon’s writing becomes more and more filmic – the final scenes in the fake volcano are more than inventive – it’s like every comic book sewn together as one. I could almost feel the evil laugh ‘mwha ha ha ha’. In fact it is one of the most filmic children’s books I have read – the author even imagines that his acknowledgements should ‘zoom out the page at you in massive 3D titles, accompanied by a stirring orchestral score’.

References to comics, superheroes, and films abound, although it is easy to follow even if you aren’t genned up on all of these. There are touching references to Luke’s Dad introducing him to Star Wars, which were particularly enjoyable. The superb cast of characters bring scope for humour in every eventuality – their traits are enjoyable without being forced. A supervillain who wants to be the superhero but is deluded, a girl who wants to be a journalist but gets her vocabulary wrong – especially at inappropriate moments; to the supervillain:

“‘You’re diluted,’ she said scornfully.

He looked understandably puzzled.

‘Deluded’ I explain.”

Luke’s best friend, Serge, is French and obsessed with food – there’s no end to the comedic possibilities. Their use of the vending machine as part of their plan to stop the villain is inspired, especially the children’s research of online discussion forums to find ‘known issues’ with the machine. In fact there are constant references to modern technology and culture (although no one I know in a certain DIY store has ever been that helpful), and references to the younger children’s restrictions with phones, which sits the book squarely in today’s zeitgeist.

It was so funny I laughed out loud on numerous occasions, read out bits with delight to my family, and gulped it down in one read. A fantastic new talent – I fully expect that one day I will see David Solomon’s name blasting out my television George Lucas-esque.

You can buy it here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.