fiction

A Pinch of Magic by Michelle Harrison

a pinch of magicThere’s a purposeful foggy dark atmosphere to this magical new adventure from Michelle Harrison, award-winning author of The Thirteen Treasures, which makes it all the more mysterious and adventurous. Set on a series of fictional islands, often enveloped by a ghostly mist, and surrounded by marshes and rocks with the nearest neighbour an eerie prison, this is a tale of curses and sorcery, of magical objects and imprisonment, and yet through the fog, a tale of sisterhood and teamwork, boldness and bravery shines brightly.

The three Widdershins sisters, Betty, Fliss and Charlie, dazzle like a ray of sunshine in the mist, living and working with their grandmother in a busy pub. From the rowdy beginning on the night of Betty’s 13th birthday (unlucky for some), she and Charlie are first encountered galloping down the stairs, Halloween costumes billowing, dancing happily. The sisters are bubbly, proactive protagonists, particularly Betty, the novel’s focus, and she’s an absolute gem of a heroine. On her birthday, Betty learns that her family is cursed, and she endeavours to break the curse and set them all free.

The three sisters each possess a magical object that has been passed down to them through their family heritage – a carpet bag, a set of wooden nesting dolls, and a gilt-framed mirror – all of which they can use to help break the curse. In children’s literature there are many enchanted objects that have a role in directing plot or character, and the more ordinary the object, the more exciting their magic. A wardrobe perhaps (The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe), a ring (Lord of the Rings), or a mirror (Snow White). Here, the bag feels Mary Poppins-esque, and does indeed go deep. The mirror may be seen to be vain, but holds power, but Betty’s object is the wooden nesting dolls – which have always felt slightly spooky and enchanting to me – the hidden quality, the addictive nature of lining up the seams.

Harrison has great fun weaving the objects’ magic abilities into her narrative, but the bulk of the plot centres around the strangely powerful and dark prison. Believing a prisoner holds the key to breaking the curse, Betty endeavours to bargain his freedom for the answer, only to discover that it’s very easy to make mistakes on a prison break. With a delightful cast of prison villains, shadowy wardens, and suspicious townspeople, the atmosphere simmers with menace.

To embellish the story, and the atmosphere, Harrison has a special attachment to names. The three sisters live in The Poacher’s Pocket on the isle of Crowstone. Their surname, Widdershins, means to go in the wrong direction and is considered unlucky. Crowstone belongs to the Sorrow Isles, among which are the isle of Repent on which lies the prison, and the isle of Lament with its graveyard. These small details punctuate the text providing atmosphere and portent.

But with three intrepid brave girls working together, a rat called Hoppit and a cat called Oi, the darkness of the setting is always going to be overwhelmed by the beauty of the girls’ inner natures – their ability to help others when necessary, pull together in times of conflict, and use their wit and intelligence to break their curse. Harrison writes with more than just a pinch of magic – this is a compelling magical adventure that spellbinds the reader into believing in a whole other world, and understanding that envy, betrayal and prejudice are the real evils, whereas foggy marshes and spooky crumbling prison towers are merely landscapes.

A rich, charming tale for ages 9+.

Cover illustration by Melissa Castrillon

The Light in the Dark

It’s the time of year when the days are getting longer, and the Christmas lights at teatime are just a memory. But with January weather in London, the evenings are still very dark. For some children (and adults), the darkness of winter brings sadness and even fear – dark can be scary for many – altering shapes in the darkness, the fumbling unknown of not being able to see, shadows springing unbidden. When I was little, I took great comfort in The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson, enjoying Plop’s discovery that other people like the dark for many different reasons. Dark was super, and kind, and exciting.

Four newer picture books aim to shine a light on the fear of darkness too. And they are all fantastic.

light in the night
The Light in the Night by Marie Voigt
Betty has no fear of the dark and enjoys bedtime for her bedtime stories. But when a Bear from one of her books comes to life, she must help him overcome his fear of the dark – and in turn he might help her too. On the surface, this is a simple book with adorable illustrations – a cuddly bear whose every expression shows on his face, a small intrepid child. And yet there is more depth – this is not just a book about conquering fears, making friends, or helping one another. The climax of the story draws out the notion that one has to try new things and this may entail showing incredible bravery in the face of darkness. Rewards come from adventure.

The ending is also particularly sweet and clever – the bear and Betty dance and sing back home; their fear masked by a togetherness in hope, and their shadows when they arrive home aren’t the scary shapeshifters of most fiction, but tall and proud elongated reflections. This pair have inner strength. Voigt’s illustrations feel animated – and each scene shows prescience in the story to come, as well as the character within. The pictures on Betty’s walls are of adventures, the bedtime book foreshadows the adventure she is to take, and the different illustrative perspectives of the woods show the reader when something familiar and normal can become scary and vice versa. Conquer your fears here.

the rabbit the dark and the biscuit tin
The Rabbit, the Dark and the Biscuit Tin by Nicola O’Byrne
A slightly different issue in this picture book with a lift the flap element, in that Rabbit just doesn’t want to go to bed. And if it doesn’t get dark, he won’t have to. So he traps the dark in a biscuit tin. The consequences, of course, are that Rabbit upsets a lot of other animals – the bats and owls and foxes. But the really excellent part of the book is the dialogue between Rabbit and the Dark, as the Dark tries to negotiate its way out of the tin. In the end, it’s Rabbit’s ability to empathise with others that makes him open the tin. This gradual awareness of the needs of others mirrors the development of a child – recognising others and feeling empathy for them.

O’Byrne cleverly uses her illustrations to mirror this point, highlighting Rabbit’s grumpiness and own desires with subtle use of ear positioning and body language, before the joy of doing things for others is shown all over Rabbit’s face.

The Dark is neatly personified in the illustrations too – a dark hand reaching out for a biscuit, but in the end the Dark is shown in its glory – it is necessary, and exciting, and rather wonderful. Open your own biscuit tin here.

elephant that ate the night
The Elephant that Ate the Night by Bing Bai, illustrations by Yuanyuan Shen
A not dissimilar theme in this Chinese tale of a dark mushroom forest and the night that grows over it at the end of every day. The baby animals are scared of being swallowed by the darkness, and invite Awu the elephant to swallow any lurking darkness himself. He does, and as he does, his stomach gets fuller, illustrated by a growing blackness across his grey skin. When he’s satisfied he pats his tummy and sleeps. But the animals soon realise that they need the darkness for sleeping, and they implore Awu to spit it back out.

The repetition of sounds and phrases make this a perfect bedtime read, and the quirkiness of the illustrations – the elephant’s pink toes, the colour palate of yellows and greys, the patterned trees and the animals’ teeth – make this stand out from the average picture book. It treads on the edge of fear, without being swallowed by it completely. Find your bravery in the shape of an elephant here.

king who banned the dark
The King Who Banned the Dark by Emily Haworth-Booth
This picture book came out earlier last year, and takes the premise of no darkness one step further. A prince who is afraid of the dark bans it completely upon becoming King, installing an artificial sun and enforcing anti-dark laws.

However, there is much more to this story than the fear of darkness. The King has to win over his people, persuading them why darkness is so terrible, and sustaining his argument. Manipulative marketing morphs to a slow brainwashing. But before long, the people start to revolt.

With pages that stimulate discussion on propaganda, and selling a story, as well as distortions of the truth, this is an up-to-the-minute picture book that deals with an age-old fear in a very modern way. It analyses what makes people happy, and how people can be manipulated to think they are happy with the way things are, as well as exploring freedom of speech, tyrannical rule, and of course, the power of darkness.

And the illustrations are different too – although almost all in shades of grey and yellow, there is careful thought behind light innovations – a lamp hat, the power of torches, an array of light shops, candelabra dripping with light – but also the scariness of the dark, the creeping shapes and shadows, the stealth behind cover of darkness, and also its magnificence. Buy your own princely beam of light here.

Little Bird Flies by Karen McCombie

little bird fliesIt takes a certain amount of bravery, imagination, and sometimes desperation, to want to leave a remote island home that’s been base for a family for many years, and uproot from its rural idyll to the grimy urban streets of Glasgow, or for the new dawn of America – particularly in 1861. But that’s what the Little Bird of the title wishes in this new historical series from children’s books author Karen McCombie.

Bridie is a crofter’s daughter (her father occupies and works a small landholding known as a croft, rented from the landlord, or laird). She lives with her family on the little Scottish island of Tornish, an island that appears almost as a character itself within the novel.

With a wasted arm and leg, a deceased mother, two older sisters and a younger brother, life is hard, but also rewarding. Bridie very much sees the positives in life – not only her island idyll of rough seas and craggy landscapes, cherishing the views and wildlife – but also always working with the positive side of her disability. She doesn’t let it impede her, but rather uses it to her advantage where possible.

But things change in Tornish when the current laird dies suddenly, and a new family take over. Even then, Bridie sees positives in her new friendship with a ward of the new family, and a portrait painter drafted over to paint the new laird, but life gets harder for all the crofters and before long her dream to leave Tornish comes true – although perhaps not quite in the way she had envisaged. At this point the novel speeds up spectacularly – as though McCombie is in a hurry to leave it positioned for book two.

This is quite a unique book, documenting a particular way of life in a particular place, and written with a huge amount of understanding of the time and location, as well as with clear passion. This shines through in Bridie’s own pride in where she comes from.

The book is modern in its telling though – Bridie’s outlook is contemporary – she sees goodness in difference rather than shunning it, she’s up for adventure and exploration, and she feels almost feminist in outlook – the women in this story dominate and are strong risk-takers, working to do good and make their mark. There’s a feeling of class injustice with the portrayal of the privileged and careless wealthy gentry, who can be seen in a way as invaders – destroying the isolated island way of life – and forcing the residents to change how they live, or flee.

And so despite the strong traditions highlighted in the first part of the novel, McCombie portrays a world in flux. Changes come to old ways of life, people move on and move away.

With skill, McCombie presents this tear in the fabric of the crofters’ reality – the striving for modernity and adventure combined with the nostalgia for a simpler and more idyllic way of living. The history of the Scottish isles feels captivating – the landscape rugged and real, forging onwards even when the people themselves are long gone. And although the reader is thrust forwards into Little Bridie’s seagoing adventure, it’s the island that stays behind in the reader’s mind – a timeless sliver of land that feels just within reach. Particularly for little birds that fly, and McCombie gives the reader wings to do just that. You can buy it here.

Little Bird Flies: A Guest Post from author Karen McCombie

McCombie Little BirdWhat Do Sheep, Queen Victoria and Drunkenness All Have in Common?

Well, they all feature in Karen McCombie’s latest novel, stirring historical adventure Little Bird Flies, the story of a young girl coming of age on a remote Scottish island in the 1860’s. MinervaReads will review on Sunday (keep your eyes peeled). In the meantime, it’s well worth reading Karen’s explanation and Little Bird Flies‘ background detail below; she illuminates key features in a book that’s clearly close to her heart: 

  • Sheep?

Yes, sheep. Sheep are essentially one of the (unwitting) bad guys of my story. All Scottish schoolchildren learn about the Highland Clearances, a period of around a century when the lairds, ie landowners, in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland realised they could make a lot more money if they cleared the tenant farmers and communities off their lands and replaced them with sheep. Over that period, it’s estimated that over half-a-million Highlanders were made to leave – very often brutally forced off – the land their ancestors had farmed for generations. So where did they go? Some headed for the teeming streets of newly industrialised Glasgow, but many found themselves packed on sailing ships bound for countries like Nova Scotia, Canada and Australia. In Little Bird Flies, twelve-year-old Bridie’s family think their island has escaped the fate of so many other areas of the Highlands… till a new Laird arrives, heralding a time of huge change and danger at every turn.

  • Queen Victoria

On a visit to the Highlands with Prince Albert, Queen Victoria fell in love with the peace, the quiet and the beauty of the rugged landscapes. The royal couple bought a manor house, which they transformed into the grand, turreted Balmoral castle, and escaped there as often as they could with their growing family, enjoying a chance to break away from royal duties in London and the formal life they lived there. In doing so, Queen Victoria suddenly made Scotland, and the Highlands and Islands in particular, a tourist destination. I couldn’t resist featuring the Queen in Little Bird Flies, even if it is just a very, very small, barely there appearance.

Of course, Queen Victoria’s descendants carried on the tradition of escaping to Balmoral where they can live an almost ordinary life… a few years ago, I slowed to pass a Range Rover on a narrow country road near the Castle, and realised it was being driven by none other than Queen Elizabeth herself!

little bird flies

  • Drunkenness

When Bridie and her family make the move to the teeming streets of Glasgow, Bridie finds herself handing out leaflets for her sister’s employer, Mrs Lennox. Mrs Lennox is involved in the Temperance Movement – an anti-drunkenness initiative – which sprang up all over Britain in the Victorian era. In busy, industrialized Glasgow, the problem with alcohol was particularly bad, as whisky was being mass-produced, and pubs and drinking houses were popping up at an alarming rate. Lots of religious or just socially-minded men and women like Mrs Lennox were worried about the effects of drink – and the money spent on it – on poorer families, especially the children.

Apart from livestock, royalty and too much whisky, my novel is also full of drama, daydreamings and danger; friendship, family loyalties, and of course, flight…

Little Bird Flies by Karen McCombie is out now, from publishers Nosy Crow. Click back on Sunday for my review – this is possibly McCombie’s best book to date, full of passion and, as you can see, fascinating social history. You can buy it here

Vote for Effie by Laura Wood

vote for effieWhen I was at school I was voted most likely to be prime minister when I grew up. Looking at the haggard face of Mrs May I’m very glad I’m not, but I have pursued my own little political activism agenda. When the council demolished my local playground for fears it was unsafe, I lobbied them to build another. They told me if I wanted one, I needed to do it, so I secured a lottery grant and did so. When I wanted my local primary school to build a library, they said if I wanted one, I should do it, so I did.

And I was ready to paint black and white lines on the road outside the school, until the council said that installing a zebra crossing was actually something they’d do themselves. I’ve even tried lobbying my son to play less Fifa and do more homework, but it turns out he’s more stubborn than the council, and that’s saying something.

Anyway, to local acts of political activism in fiction and Vote for Effie by Laura Wood is a welcome addition to the canon. Effie joins a new school and instead of quietly observing how she could fit in, sees an injustice on day one, jumps straight in and fights to become Student Council President.

Effie is an exuberant, outgoing and forthright character, who speaks from the heart and wins the reader’s vote straight away, although it takes a bit longer for her to convince her peer cohort.

Wood’s breezy prose – the story is told in a wonderful first person narrative that is purposefully and woefully unself-aware – lends passion and conviction to Effie, who wants to change perceived ideas of sports and gender, bring awareness to student body about the benefits of recycling and libraries, and shake up the status quo.

There are wonderful moments of comedy throughout the novel, (pasting her face onto the body of Emmeline Pankhurst on a campaign poster, for example) but serious undertones too, not only in the issues that Effie addresses within her school, but also the gentle sidebars to her story – the loneliness of the elderly as exemplified by her interested next-door neighbour, the benefits of immigrants to society.

The text veers off prose too – interspersing the story with newspaper articles, notes, and minutes from the school council meetings to further the plot and beautifully twist points of view. Wood has a deft touch in children’s comic writing – she understands fully that the most important element of school life is not academics, or team sports or even gender equality, but FOOD.

In all seriousness, this is a great novel showcasing women’s leadership, youth political engagement, and the hope that springs from children that they can make a difference, that they can make the world a kinder and better place – and don’t we need that at the moment! 

You can read Laura Wood’s thoughts on writing the novel here and buy the book here.

Laura Wood: A Q&A about Vote for Effie

laura woodLaura Wood has certainly made her mark in the world of children’s literature. From the Poppy Pym series to last year’s triumphant YA title, A Sky Painted Gold, Wood can plot an adventure, create a dreamy 1920s landscape, and make the reader laugh. Vote for Effie (review coming tomorrow on MinervaReads.com) is a laugh out loud look at school council elections, with a bold exploration of female leadership. Here, Laura explores what made her turn from 1920’s Gatsby parties to present day school room drama:

What inspired you to write VOTE FOR EFFIE?

There were a few things that inspired me to write Vote for Effie. In my job I’m so lucky that I get to go into different schools and meet loads of brilliant students, and something I was noticing was how incredibly politically engaged and switched on these young people were. I think that when I was eight years old I would have struggled to tell you who the Prime Minister was, and yet even the youngest children I work with know so much about what’s going on in the wider world – about Brexit, and Trump and the refugee crisis. And not only do they know, they CARE. This was really crystalised for me when the first Women’s March took place in 2017. Seeing so many young people taking part, hearing the stories of young activists, made me feel hopeful during a dark time. I wanted to write a book that was about that, about a character who is an optimistic force of nature, one who sees things that need changing and does something about it.

vote for effieWere you like Effie when you were at school?

There are definitely bits of my personality in Effie, and we share a love of musicals, Disney films and glitter glue, but I think Effie is a lot braver than me. We didn’t have student council, but I don’t think I could have handled the high-stakes rollercoaster of an election campaign… I’m much more of a behind-the-scenes person!

If you could join Effie’s campaign team, what role would you want?

I’d love Angelika’s job as campaign manager. Running the campaign, organising things, and owning lots of colour coordinated post-it notes and shiny ring binders would be ideal!

Do you have any tips for young people who want to make a difference at their school?

I think the first thing is to make a manifesto, to think about the things that you want to change and why. Once you have a practical, manageable list of issues you want to tackle then it’s much easier to start taking action. At first Effie finds it difficult to narrow down her list of issues, but talking things over with her friends always helps her to make sense of things.

With thanks to Laura Wood, and publishers Scholastic. To buy a copy of Vote for Effie, click here, and to read my review, come back tomorrow! 

When Good Geeks Go Bad: A Q&A with author Catherine Wilkins

when good geeks go badIt all started with a pair of trainers. Ever had an argument with your child over their choice of shoes for school? Or about an accessorised piece of school uniform? When I was a child I wore a brightly-coloured coat to school as a clear mark of rebellion against my school’s black coat policy. Today, I see various attempts to challenge authority with hair style, or key rings on bags, or shoes!

When Good Geeks Go Bad begins with Ella’s Dad refusing to buy her a cool pair of shoes or let her stay up late. And yet she’s always been a good girl. So Ella decides to go bad. Perhaps then she can get her own way. But being bad is more than just a few detentions and she’s soon losing control.

In fact, she’s already lost control at home, where her parents are spending time apart. So when her best friend wants to spend time apart from her too, she wonders if it really is best being bad, or if being geeky was good after all.

This highly-relatable, funny read from comedienne and writer Catherine Wilkins is an excellent look at a young teen fitting in at school, and finding her own place at home, as well as working out which identity she’s going to carry through her teen years. Who to be friends with and for what reasons? It poses the sorts of questions many children ask of themselves in Year 8, on the cusp of being full-blown teenage. Wilkins understands how to write funny as well as how to explore the pathos in harder family scenarios, and she creates a highly identifiable character in Ella.

Written in first person, Wilkins captures the wishes and desires, the nuances of Ella’s life and thoughts, almost in diary-style, as well as those of her peers, so that the reader can often see more of their motivations than Ella can herself – giving the reader even more laughs, and also understanding. Here, Catherine Wilkins answers some questions on the book, and her own ‘funny’ life:

Were you Good at school or were you Bad?

A bit of both. I was a slightly mischievous younger child. When I started secondary school I became shy and quite well behaved. Then I eventually rebelled again a little bit. Like Ella, I wore trainers to school. I think there’s something about testing where the line is that all kids do. (Also I really liked my trainers at the time).

In When Good Geeks Go Bad, Ella’s dad refuses to let her have cool shoes. Was there an item you wanted in your childhood that you never got bought? 

There were many, many items I wanted that I never got. From a sooty puppet to a frosty the snowman ice slushie maker. We never had money for crazy purchases, but my parents encouraged me to save up for things, or wait for birthdays, so sometimes I got lucky too. (The downside of this is that when I wanted a shell suit, I eventually got one. And I still have not managed to burn all the photos of it.)

In the book there’s also some serious stuff about separated parents. Do you think all comedy should go dark at some stage?

I would never legislate that all comedy should do anything. I think comedy is subjective and everyone has different taste. I find when things in my life go a bit dark, it can help me to laugh at them, make them less scary, make sense of them and bring them back into the light. But that might not work for everyone. Comedy can be used in many different ways. I like that it can be a coping mechanism, to cheer things along, or satirical beacon shining a light on hypocrisy and corruption. And you can enjoy dark comedy and still like slapstick too.

Also I feel like in this book, there are genuinely serious bits, that we’re not laughing at, but they are then undercut or contrasted with the more funny bits.

You write comedy for kids – does being funny come naturally to you? Are you the funniest in your house?

I live in such a fun house that it unfairly throws off the grade curve. My three-year-old daughter is probably the funniest. She’s always making up jokes and dances and clowning around. She has comedy chops. Then my one-year-son is pretty funny, but more in a cute way. Then my husband is a comedian and writer too, and they all play funny games together. I might be somewhere at the back, just after the cat (who is actually really funny at falling off things and then looking to see if anyone saw).

What’s the scariest thing about doing stand-up comedy?

The profit margin. BOOM. (Jokes). For me, the scariest thing would be never having tried doing it. But lots of people would say performing in front of other people is nerve-wracking. I didn’t find that so much when they were strangers, but as I climbed the ladder a bit, and there’s accountability because the gig matters and you have to impress the next booker or reviewer, that’s when I would get nervous and lose my spark. But when I started, the thrill of testing a new joke and getting a laugh made up for everything.

Which fictional character do you wish you could be (for a while)?

This is a really hard question to answer because there’s so much to choose from. Maybe I’d like to be Alice and check out Wonderland for a while, and have some adventures.

What advice would you give budding comedy writers?

You are probably already a fan of comedy, so keep doing that and consume as much comedy as you can. Keep a notebook about your person to write down your funny thoughts and observations. I think sometimes with comedy it can be ‘spotting’ the joke, as much as making it up, seeing if you can spot something that no one else has connected in that exact way.

If you have a friend who has the same sense of humour as you, sometimes it helps to pretend you are trying to make them laugh. Or even collaborate with funny friends and try and write stuff together. (When I was at school I was often trying to force friends to do comedy with me, but they weren’t always as into it).

But also it’s important to write about what you think is funny, not what you think other people might laugh at, or what’s expected. It’s yours. Your jokes, your voice.

And lastly, is the next book simmering – will we see Ella again? Or is there something new?

There is a new book on the horizon, but it’s something brand new, not Ella. But never say never, it might be fun to see what Ella gets up to next in the future as well.

With thanks to Catherine Wilkins for her time. When Good Geeks Go Bad is published today, 10th January, and you can buy it here. 

Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange

our castle by the seaI don’t know what the state of the world will be like this first Sunday of 2019, because I’m writing this review from the depths of Brexit mania in December 2018, but I do know that this historical fiction for readers age 9+ will still be relevant. Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange is set in a lighthouse overlooking the sea – looking out towards Europe from our tiny island – and the book, like the lighthouse, takes a wide perspective on our world – on conflict, family and belonging.

It is 1939 and Petra lives in a lighthouse that dominates a landscape of secret tunnels, sweeping beaches, and ancient legends. Stormy skies above are swiftly being overtaken with enemy planes. To complicate matters, Petra’s mother is German, and before long the police suspect that spying activity is going on within the lighthouse and ‘Mutti’ is interned for being a foreign enemy.

Strange’s attention to detail creates a filmic picture in the reader’s mind – in a visually notable scene the family have to paint the lighthouse green to camouflage it – and Strange also details the lighthouse’s workings and logbooks. There is another fabulously memorable scene in which Petra tries on a gas mask for the first time – the sensory feelings invoked feel authentic as if Strange has experienced it first-hand.

So the book works as an excellent study on the home front during the war – but it also excels in delivering on its themes, not only across the novel but also in small linguistic ways – using imagery of the sea and water in metaphor:

“like water freezing in the cracked surface of a stone, those secrets were growing colder, harder, starting to force us apart.”

Strange also ties ancient legend from the location into Petra’s situation: the nightmare of the legend of the Wyrm, the swirling treacherous waters that devour ships off the coast, comes to life in the danger that stalks ordinary people in wartime.

And yet there is also the extraordinary dichotomy of carrying on life as normal whilst things are clearly not normal in wartime. Strange explores this with her controlled plot and confident writing. There is a clear sense of a family trying to swim when all about are sinking and no one is willing to throw a lifeline.

Historical fiction works best when it gives an accurate portrayal of how people once lived and excavates the social fabric of their lives, and also when it manages to invoke thoughts in the reader about their current situation – and fundamental to Strange’s plot is working out where people’s allegiance lies – and where the finger of suspicion is pointed. Not all is as it seems in Petra’s life, people hide who they are and what they are doing, and as she uncovers the truth, so does the reader, triggering thoughts about the still common practice of attributing labels and stereotypes to people – framing them within a pre-conceived identity. Historical novels can be a great indicator of the present day.

Not unlike Letters to the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll, published for children last year, the landscape is fundamental to the plot, and it provokes thought on what we make of the structures and landscapes we inhabit.

Strange doesn’t hold back on her fiction just because it’s for children, and this is another powerful novel from a skillful writer. Absorbing and truthful, the characters are a far cry from the stony coldness or petrification that the name Petra implies. In fact, they show bravery, compassion and emotional strength – something we could learn from, entrenched as we are in our present political turmoil. You can buy yourself Our Castle by the Sea here, and be transported to its wild coastline and wartime experience.

Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange is out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House). Find out more at www.chickenhousebooks.com and follow Lucy Strange on twitter @theLucyStrange

Paper Avalanche by Lisa Williamson

paper avalancheThis is a book with a mental health issue at its heart, and although like No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsin, Williamson has clearly taken a ‘theme’ or ‘problem’ she wants to address and written a story on it, the novel in no way feels like an ‘issue’ book. The characters are so well drawn, so likeable and sympathetic and written in such an understanding way, that they could be real, and so it feels more like a character exploration than a focus on ‘issue’. 

Year 9 student Ro Snow spends much of her time at school trying hard to be invisible. She’s one of those children at school who wanders the corridor alone, keeps her head down in lessons, and doesn’t shine in any after school clubs or at any talent because she wants to be un-noticed. She’s a ‘behind the scenes’ kind of person. The reader first meets her at an after-show drama club party where she is shying away from the teenage boy who clearly has noticed her and taken an interest. It feels authentic, and squirmy and also deeply moving.

Ro’s mother is a hoarder, and their house, to Ro, is both highly embarrassing from the outside and an absolute shocker from the inside. Piles of dishes litter the sink, piles of paper line the corridors. Ro can’t see her carpet anymore, and she has to shuffle sideways to make it through her hallway. Her room though, with a lock on the door to keep her mother out, is spotless, clean, minimal. However, she can’t make friends, in case they expect an invite home, so she keeps herself to herself.

Ro feels that her mother’s mental health issue defines her whole life. Until that is, things start to change, as life invariably does. A new family with teenage boy move in next door. And a girl called Tanvi starts at her school who takes an unlikely punt as who’s to be her new best friend – picking Ro. When Tanvi forces Ro into joining the school choir, and Ro discovers how talented she really is, it becomes harder and harder to hide from the spotlight. But with a light shone on her circumstances, things could go drastically wrong…By the end Ro comes to understand that she isn’t defined by her mother or her hoarding, nor limited by it, and it’s through the kindness and caring of people around her that this becomes apparent. 

Williamson is masterful in drawing out the usual trials and tribulations of the teen years into a captivating read, in which the reader feels every emotion with the characters. Her writing is unobtrusive, leading the reader flawlessly from one scene to the next, never breaking the spell of imagination, but managing to show the profound effects of loneliness and shame.

Included in the narrative is Ro’s ever more absent father, who has found a new wife and daughter, and some of the scenes with him are excruciatingly real. With her embarrassment of her home life, her feelings of rejection around her father, and her worries about everyday practicalities, Williamson shows a teenager under huge pressure and anxiety, but still incorporates enough humour, wisdom and kindness from friends and outsiders to make the reader feel that resolutions will come. And they do, but like life, not in all areas, and sometimes they’re still a bit messy.

I particularly enjoyed how Williamson very slowly incorporated into the text Ro’s first experience of having a boyfriend, only at the end revealing how many parallels there are between the pair.

This is a great book from one of the best YA authors around.  Whether it’s showing how secrets are best shared, the small intimate details between mother and daughter, a teen’s frustration at fighting to be in control and yet still wanting a responsible parent, first love that’s not too complicated or angst ridden, or just the emotional pull of engaging characters, this is a book not to be missed.

Paper Avalanche strikes deep, yet remains phenomenally readable. Age 12+ years. You can buy it here.

Quick Gift Guide: Books

Are you still stuck for Christmas gifts? Perhaps it’s not for Christmas, but a seasonal present. I’m always pleased to receive a book – and trust me I already have a few! Here are some eclectic titles that have nothing to do with Christmas, which various family members might like:

the boy and the bear
For the very young:
The Boy and the Bear by Tracey Corderoy and Sarah Massini
There’s a wintry feel with this delightful picture book about unlikely friendship, and patience. With glowing silver snowflakes on the cover, and a boy in a woolly hat holding hands with an adorable bear, the book gives a warm fuzzy feeling from the start. The story has an old-fashioned timeless feel, the boy running in the countryside flying a paper aeroplane with satchel swinging from his hip. There is not a screen in sight. Nor a friend either. But there is a shy bear. Although seemingly incompatible (in the most adorable ways), the pair strike a friendship, which has to take a hiatus for hibernation. The matching of text to illustration strikes perfection here. There is humour, pathos, a conveyance of the passing of time, and so much emotion. I suggested this for the very young, but if you’re young at heart, you’ll love this too. An absolute gem of a picturebook. You can buy it here.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn

For the unicorn-obsessed (and others)
Phoebe and Her Unicorn by Dana Simpson (7+)
This glittery pink full length comic strip novel tells a cute story in simple sharp lines, with jokes a-plenty, and will enthral youngsters with its tale of Phoebe and her vain mythical animal companion. Phoebe skips a rock across a pond and accidentally hits a unicorn in the face. The unicorn, until then completely absorbed in its own reflection, is thankful for the distraction and grants Phoebe a wish. She wishes for the unicorn, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, to be her obligatory best friend. And thus the adventures begin. As you’ve noticed from the name of the unicorn, there’s more than a hint of mischief here, but the book also bears a special message about overcoming loneliness and finding one’s own strengths and virtues. This is a lot of fun, and because the comic strip maintains focus on the key characters rather than deviating too much into the landscape, and the strips are self-contained, the story is easy to follow for reluctant readers. The newest full length comic strip title is Phoebe and Her Unicorn in Unicorn Theater. Sweet and sugary, and reminiscent of My Little Pony with a bit of attitude, this is a US title now available here.

the ink house
For the appreciative art fan:
The Ink House by Rory Dobner (8+)
This isn’t a usual picture book. More a unique curiosity through the artist’s mind as he seeks to explore the insides of The Ink House, an intricately designed mansion built on a pool of ink, in which a party of animals is due to take place, after the human resident takes off in a hot air balloon to search for further knickknacks to add to his treasured collection.

The illustrations, in ink of course, are amazingly detailed and stunningly imagined. There’s a darkness, a gothic tendency in the drawings, and the feeling is that each stroke is penned as delicately as if he were crafting a poem. The story isn’t really a story – just a menagerie of animals within a setting, and the scenes in which Dobner showcases the house in most detail work best. The mouse on the desk with piles of books, clocks, candle, quill pen; the ape in armchair with guitar, old-fashioned tea set, and gramophone showcases the neat juxtaposition between old and new, distorting one’s expectations and reality; the horses in the tiled hallway complete with pillars and a view onto the gardens. The artwork is disturbing, disjointed and wonderful, justifying the purchase even if the text is a little clunky. My advice – add your own words to the pictures, and tell the story in your head. You can buy it here.

absolutely everything

For everyone:
Absolutely Everything by Christopher Lloyd, illustrated by Andy Forshaw
The author of this conversational tome is nothing if not ambitious. The contents of this nonfiction narrative span from the Big Bang through dinosaurs, homo sapiens, ancient civilisations, the classical empires to the medieval, age of exploration, revolutions, wars and onwards. Everything in fact. The tone is avuncular, as if you’ve asked a favourite relative to let loose – tell me about the ancient Greeks, Chris…In this chapter, Lloyd starts with an anecdote about an olive, which merges into why olive oil was so precious, then onto slaves, democracy and war…you can see how the narrative flows from one idea to another, incorporating facts, events and stories. Each section is colour-coded for easy reference and there are colour visuals throughout, from illustrations adorning the text to photos, maps, timelines etc. There’s a nice linear progression to the book, an understanding of how one thing in history leads to another (although this is definitely Western civilisation’s history), and an over-riding infectious enthusiasm to explore how societies linked up, how the world became global. Engrossing and all-encompassing. Give as a gift, and keep a copy for yourself. The sort of book to stop you getting bored in the holidays. You can buy it here.