YA

Cover Reveal: Good Boy by Mal Peet, illustrations by Emma Shoard

In our busy lives, it’s not often that a book arrives and sweeps everything else away – work, washing, worrying. The late Mal Peet had a way with words that was more than immersive – his stories have the power to create not only belief in the authenticity of the story, but a whirlwind of sensation and wonder, a lasting sense of intelligent thoughtfulness. Good Boy is an unsettling novella, published by Barrington Stoke in a slim yet captivating volume that features Shoard’s emotive illustrations, enhancing and emboldening Peet’s text. With content aimed squarely at the YA audience, yet a reading age of 8, this is an accessible story, an examination of fear that leaves the reader ruminating and discussing long after the final page.

Sandie has been battling it since childhood: the hulking, snarling black dog of her recurring nightmare. Although a solution is found during childhood, it is the black dog’s return in adulthood that will test Sandie’s courage to the limit…

I’m delighted to showcase the cover for Good Boy. For me, Emma Shoard’s cover bristles with both menace and vulnerability. What do you think? Read Emma’s view below:

good boy

Emma Shoard says:

Though this cover went through quite a few variations, we always wanted it to show the black dog and for the overall impression to be dark.

I wanted to make something of the juxtaposition between the image of the nightmarish black dog and the title, Good Boy. I like the way that it makes you look again and see his moon eyes and hunched shoulders in a different light, perhaps interpret the posture as protective, curious, monumental even, not just menacing. I needed this to come cross in my illustration so it took quite a few attempts to get him right. The result is a design which I hope reflects the ambiguity of Mal Peet’s story.”

Fear stalks us all in some way or another, and this is a masterful way of exploring where it comes from, how it manifests itself, how we deal with it, and if we can overcome it.

On reading the novella, the reader senses immediately the confidence of the writing, the simplicity of the story, yet the powerful insight of Peet’s observation and reflection. A girl is comforted by ‘the biscuity smell of her mother’s bed-warmth’, a dog has ‘wet black button’ eyes in a patchwork head, a building on an estate is ‘a huge slab of a place jutting rudely up into the sky’. And Shoard’s illustrations run through a gamut of feelings with just a few brushstrokes – a mother’s embrace, a pet dog’s vulnerability, the darkness that lurks in us all. A haunting, captivating, ambiguous story. Don’t miss this one. It’s published on 15th March 2019.

Zebras and Lollipops

On route to take my younger children to school, we have to cross four roads. Two are minor, and two are main roads, neither of which two years ago had a zebra crossing. I decided to use my campaigning skills to petition the council and Transport for London to install one on the school’s road. And to my delight, a year later, they did. Now I use it about four times a day, and it serves the local park too.

phantom lollipop manAnother school that has a zebra crossing outside, is Izzy’s school in the Pamela Butchart book, The Phantom Lollipop Man, illustrated by Thomas Flintham. This seventh book in the ‘Baby Aliens’ series continues the exploits of Izzy and her friends and their school. In this title the friends are shocked to discover that their lollipop man has disappeared. Instead, they feel an unsettling coldness even when wearing tights, and start to see wispy clouds in the playground. Could he have died and now be haunting the school? So Izzy and her friends determine to find out.

On the surface, this is another exuberant adventure from brilliant comedy writer Pamela Butchart. The text flows with Izzy’s characteristic breathlessness, driving the reader through the plot and as always staying true to the brilliant friendship group, each member clearly distinguished by their character traits.

But what makes the book so endearing, other than the CAPITAL LETTERS, illustrations and energetic use of dialogue, is Butchart’s complete comprehension of schools. From her understanding about the importance of blu tack through to school office workers’ signs and the attitude of lunch supervisors, this is imperative as young readers feel a sense of familiarity with the world being created.

And although the books are hilarious – this one in particular had me laughing out loud every few pages and is definitely the funniest so far – there is an insightful compassion for the community of a school – the way that each component is dependent on another, and some real truths about what we value in society.

Izzy and her friends point to the lack of value we place upon certain people – lollipop workers included (but also perhaps, the school officer workers, the librarians, careworkers etc) and how important their roles are, and how they should be recognised. It’s a subtle message underlying the hugely comedic text, but a vital one. And Butchart also points out the loneliness that can be experienced in old age – when juxtaposed with the intense intimacy of Izzy and her friends, it becomes even more apparent.

This is a superb book that deals with community, values and society, and rounds off nicely with good use of the library and empathy for other people. A riotous, happy, storming success. A really top series for newly independent readers. I hope they keep coming. You can buy it here.

zebra crossing soul songOn a similar theme, but for teen readers is Zebra Crossing Soul Song by Sita Brahmachari. This is a book published by dyslexia specialists Barrington Stoke, and is suitable for a reading age of 8, even though its subject matter is for teens. But it’s an enjoyable read for all.

Lenny has spent most of his eighteen years crossing the nearby zebra crossing, aided by the singing ‘zebra man’ Otis. But when Otis isn’t there anymore, Lenny, who is himself struggling as he sits his psychology A-level, looks back on his memories of them together, through music, and finds a way to move forwards.

Cleverly, the fixed point of the zebra crossing gives a clear focus for Lenny to look back on his school years from nursery to A-Level as he reaches a crossroads in his life. And the shared passion of music gives Lenny and Otis a clear bond, and also a vehicle for Brahmachari to use music as a distinguishing feature in her novel, as the story is written in music memory tracks – music as a recall mechanism, but also as a form of writing in its own right – like a poem.

When Otis disappears, Lenny uses his knowledge of psychology and memory, as well as music to find out what happened in Otis’s past to affect his future, and discovers that not only does music hold a bond with the past, but a vital component of Lenny’s life going forwards.

This is a cleverly woven piece, with a sympathetic bond between two people, and, as in Butchart’s light-hearted book, an awareness that although some people aren’t highly valued by society, they are highly valuable as individuals and in the role they play. Lollipop men and women are there to save lives – and sometimes literally do, and they play a positive role in shaping the community they serve. Sometimes it’s the quiet people who make the difference. You can buy it here.

 

 

No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen

no fixed addressIf the subject matters weren’t so tough and gritty, readers would float through Nielsen’s stories like a cloud. She writes the kind of books that a child devours in an afternoon, or sneaks a read of in double maths because they just can’t put them down, and even the most reluctant readers will be hooked by her prose. Her words conjure moving images in the head; a full immersion in the text. Her latest, No Fixed Address, is perhaps her best yet, and reaches to a slightly younger audience than her previous YA novels.

Thirteen-year-old Felix and his mother Astrid move into a van, temporarily ‘borrowed’ from Astrid’s former boyfriend, after they are evicted from their shabby apartment at the beginning of the summer. Astrid convinces Felix that it’s a temporary adventure – a summer of being flexible and moving around, but when school starts again and months later they are still living in a van, and Astrid has sworn Felix to secrecy for fear of the Ministry of Children and Family Development taking him away, Felix realises that their situation is rather more desperate than his mother is letting on.

Nielsen deals with Felix’s situation with pathos and skill. She shows when and how Felix is embarrassed, whether it’s from lack of personal hygiene, coping in deteriorating weather, or forming friendships when there is such a huge secret lurking in the background. She portrays Felix with humour and positivity – he’s so likeable that the reader feels his pain and embarrassment as their own.

Her portrayal of Astrid is nicely contentious – she is not overtly evil as Roald Dahl might have written her, nor good and compassionate, but somewhere in-between. This is a nuanced look at parenthood. Astrid is authentic, written astutely; Nielsen shows a damaged view of motherhood and the bad choices a person can make, but also offers a sympathetic look at the effects of depression, and envelopes the whole relationship with a feeling that although Astrid fails in many areas, she does have an overwhelming love for her son. This is inadequate parenting indeed, but not cruelty.

The reader will feel impatient with Astrid – she’s a fly-by-her-pants kind of mother – shifting Felix from four different homes before resorting to the van, which isn’t even hers, and she acts rather carelessly and disrespectfully, lying to authorities and so on. But the book poses questions around motherhood and parenting that will give the reader an insight into moral choices, and when sympathy and empathy are due.

Felix’s two friends are capably written; I particularly appreciated the way in which Felix reacquaints himself with Dylan – a friend from early childhood – showing the circularity of life, as well as juxtaposing Felix’s own life against Dylan’s, and showcasing their witty friendship banter. Their friend Winnie has a shade of Hermione about her, but is a good charming sidekick within the story, and it is the characters on the sidelines who lend the story its ability to impart moral growth and learning – the teacher and shopkeepers who show that small kindnesses can make all the difference.

In fact, what one takes away from the novel, is that despite the grittiness of the subject matter and the exploration of the harsher elements of life, this is ultimately a story about friendship and community. Although Felix comes up with his own solution to his problems through his skill at trivia and his love for quiz shows, Nielsen explores that not every problem can be solved on its own – to help yourself sometimes you need to let others help you.

Nielsen adeptly explores how people often hide their problems either from embarrassment or shame or simply an unwillingness to be open, and even close friends can miss the signs of a problem. She makes the point throughout that it is through sharing problems that they can be solved. This is ultimately a novel about life’s realities, about the power of community, and it should not only grip readers but make them appreciative of what they have.

This is a massively accessible piece of first person fiction that has heart and humour, and is a compelling read. You can buy it here.

Writing for Teens: A Conversation with Jon Walter

nevertheless she persistedJon Walter’s latest novel strikes the gong for women everywhere in this 100th anniversary year since some women were afforded the vote. Nevertheless She Persisted is the story of two sisters in 1913 and their struggle to achieve and succeed in a world dominated by men. Clara and Nancy work in Holloway Prison in a time in which the prison population includes a number of imprisoned suffragettes, some suffering force feeding as a result of their hunger strikes. Seeing their own struggles for independence mirrored in these fighting women, Nancy and Clara must make the decision as to which side to be on.

Walter’s novel gets to the very heart of the suffragettes’ struggle; looking not only at the importance of the role of imprisonment in the suffragette movement, and the Cat and Mouse Act, but also at the political motives and arguments surrounding women at a time in which their roles in life were still dependent upon men.

He doesn’t hold back. There is a graphic description of force feeding, an account of the sisters’ escape from their home, in which it becomes apparent that their father is guilty of incest. So, this isn’t really a book I’d normally recommend on a blog primarily designed to showcase children’s titles. In fact, it’s being published as part of David Fickling Books’ new foray into adult titles, which began with Pullman’s book of essays, Daemon Voices, last year. However, Walter claims that he writes YA fiction, (his previous novel Close to the Wind is suitable for those aged 10+ years, whilst My Name is Not Friday was longlisted for The Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Prize 2015), and his publisher claims that stories are for all:

Fickling says: Ideally I would really like to publish books that are not strictly for kids or only for adults, but with wide appeal. We’re not trying to muddle things – we’ll always keep story at our heart.”

But this is marketed as for adults, and so I feel that Walter could have pushed even more on the corporeal or visceral feelings that these women suffered – he holds back on the physical and emotional descriptions of childbirth and its after effects and the physical and emotional constrictions that women must have felt at that time, but to his credit he pushes the boundaries on the political instead.

Nancy and Clara are scarcely out of childhood themselves, and indeed at the time many women were made to feel that their childhood continued into adulthood because their independence was so curtailed. However, they occupy an adult world and step into roles of responsibility within the prison system, all the while trying to create their own new world, to forge a new path of a new generation – a world in which women aren’t tied by the patriarchy, and in which they can wear trousers or ride a bicycle and fight for their own freedoms and earn their own money. In this regard, Nevertheless does read like a YA title. Jon Walter believes that all his books are for a YA audience:

Jon WalterChildren’s literature can be a great place for dealing with big questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where do we belong? How should we live? I write for children because I want to address those questions. And I also write for children because they occupy a place of transition, particularly teens, who inhabit the borderlands between childhood and adulthood. This is extremely fertile territory for fiction writers because it is unformed and unstable. It has friction and is ripe for conflict as the new threatens to sweep aside the old. Basically, I’m more interested in the world young people will create than the world we adults have left them.”

I wonder if the reasons that DFB have cast this as an adult title are twofold. Firstly, the issue of incest – generally one of the last taboos. Walter isn’t sure: “There are no rules that can’t be broken in fiction but there is definitely safe ground and risky ground. With YA it’s certainly not content. Authors such as Robert Cormier, Melvin Burgess, Margot Lanagan, Louise O’Neill, M T Anderson have all put that idea to rest. I think it’s more about the chosen subject matter. YA tends to find itself in the territory where the adult and children’s world collide. Dystopian fiction would be a good example of the convergence, which is probably why so many teenagers walk around with copies of George Orwell or Margaret Atwood. It’s also about the tone of the book and the primacy of plot, though these are not defining features. Is Stephen King YA? Are thrillers or crime fiction?  I could give you a whole long list of books that are relevant and suitable for teenagers but published as adult fiction.”

Indeed, the teenagers I meet definitely read novels that are in the general fiction area of the bookshop – from 1984 to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time to Catch 22 (the latter not a novel I’d recommend for adults; it’s best read as a teen when you’re sucked in by the sheer lunacy). In which case, is YA a patronising term? Why does it exist at all? Jon thinks we might be imposing unnecessary age limits on our readers:

There’s a belief in children’s fiction that readers tend to read two years above their actual age. This is because, while they want to see themselves in a book, they also want to see what might be happening to them very soon. They want to do what the older kids do!

But there’s also something that happens to children aged 14 and upwards. They’re looking at the adult world and seeing how they are going to fit. This isn’t just about sex and drugs and rock and roll. It’s about politics, how the world is structured; the who gets what and why. It might even be about the world of work; what will they do to employ their time and will it pay them enough to live independently? These are very adult questions so it’s not surprising that teenagers often prefer to visit the general fiction section of a shop rather than the children’s section.

If you put these two things together, then the age range of YA  narrows considerably. Instead of a wide 13-18, it might more practically be seen as 12-15? And if so, are we failing to market properly to children and adults in the 15 -22 age range? And rather than pulling older readers in, does the notion of a young adult genre patronise them? My children are 19 & 22, one at university, one doing care work and deciding whether he will make a career of it. Like most people their age, both have a tenuous relationship to adulthood. Why are there so few books aimed at ‘kids’ of this age? It’s almost as though they don’t exist!”

And perhaps this is the second reason why Nevertheless She Persisted is classed as an adult title – the protagonists aren’t children, they’re in their twenties:

One of the problems with Nevertheless was that the suffragettes had an age limit (at least for official suffragette activity) of 21. The age limit for prison wardens was 24. I could have circumvented these with a younger character who witnessed the actions of others but I didn’t want to do that because a reader of fifteen upwards doesn’t necessarily need a protagonist their own age. I think the issues that Nancy and Clara deal with are resonant with the lives and decisions of today’s teenagers, despite the protagonists and setting being adult.”

All in all then, we tend to agree. The genres and age levels imposed upon novels are fairly arbitrary – after all how many novels are there that traverse across the genres rather than tidily fitting into one particular category. Is Jane Austen romance? Classic? Literary fiction? Perhaps in the end, it’s really just about marketing:

I think it is but that’s hugely significant. Successful marketing is about putting books into the right people’s hands – it can be the difference between a book being read or passed over.” Walter’s latest novel might be marketed as adult, but it’s an appealing read for any teen looking to discover the women’s suffrage struggle, or to understand the relationship between sisters, or to read social historical fiction that contains those small nuggets of detail that are so fascinating. It’s written with clarity and pathos and as one would expect from a Jon Walter novel, carries the reader at pace with style and poise. Walter appears happy with DFB’s new direction: “DFB are taking a risk with this but it might just be that their new adult list appeals more to teenagers than the books might as YA. If the list also succeeds in attracting adult readers who aren’t engaged with the children’s book world, then that’s even better!”

I’m looking forward to reading whatever might be next – perhaps Jon Walter might try his hand at a picture book next? And those, as we know, are for all ages.

You can buy a copy of Nevertheless She Persisted here.

 

 

Summer 2018 Round-Up

It’s hard to believe we’re at another summer break for MinervaReads. The blog doesn’t operate in August, so at the end of July on the home page I leave a full list of summer reads and releases that you might find interesting. There was such a huge selection this year, I found it difficult to make my pick.

raj and the best day everpetratropical terry

Picture Books

If you’re looking for a picture book that sums up your summer with your pre-schooler, then you’d be hard pressed to find a more endearing, real and funny book than Raj and the Best Day Ever by Seb Brown. Raj and his Dad make a list of what they’re going to do on their day out. But when Dad leaves his wallet behind, they must improvise. With a celebration of a father/son relationship, wonderfully busy cartoon animal illustrations and a sense that fun can be had with a little imagination, this is a funny, up-lit picture book.

Further use of imagination in Petra by Marianna Coppo in this skilfully intelligent, minimalistic picture book. Petra is a pebble with a misguided sense of identity, although gradually she learns she has the potential to be many things thanks to her imagination and her literal journey. The understated-ness of the book lends to its charm, and readers will enjoy exploring Petra’s resilience in adapting to her new discoveries about who she is. Quirky and full of emotion. For a pebble, that’s saying something.

Issues of identity arise in Jarvis’s Tropical Terry too – a picture book fully exploiting the colours and shapes of the sea. Terry is a dull-looking fish, although it makes him excellent at hide-and-seek. But when he dresses up as a tropical fish, he gets more than he bargained for. Being happy with who you are and discovering your strengths, as well as valuing your real friends, is a great message.

the girlsswan lake

Others to look out for this summer include The Girls by Lauren Ace, illustrated by Jenny Lovlie, which celebrates friendship and inclusion between four little girls with joyful light and breezy illustrations, and Swan Lake by Anne Spudvilas, a dark and brooding visualisation of the ballet story that will haunt and delight in equal measure. The illustrations conjure up the movement of the dance; and the zoom into the chandelier and dresses is simply phenomenal. Sure to cast a spell.

hello horse

The summer is a great time to take up a new hobby. I swear my parents only took me riding for the first time in a freezing cold frosty mid-December to put me off the experience, but youngsters with an eye on the horses will be enthralled with Hello Horse by Vivian French, illustrated by Catherine Rayner. Charming, informative and with the most exquisite illustrations, this is a nature storybook that seeks to inform about aspects of horse care whilst telling a gentle story. The watercolours of the fields and wildflowers exude a sense of summer country days, and the texture of the horse is so appealing and nuanced that it will turn the reader’s head.

Young Fiction/Independent Readers

secret sevenknights and bikesbeano

For young fiction readers, Pamela Butchart has updated The Secret Seven series by Enid Blyton, and the first is published in July – Mystery of the Skull. Butchart brings her exuberance and fast-paced story-telling, and although it’s stuck with Barbara, Jane and co, and so lacks a modern diversity, the first adventure is jolly good fun, and just as addictive as the original Blyton tellings.

From new publisher Knights Of, comes Knights and Bikes by Gabrielle Kent, illustrated by Rex Crowle. As anticipated, this is a romping energetic adventure story on bikes that explores the wonders of friendship, with a quest to solve, and mentions of water balloons, frisbees and much more. A bit wacky, highly illustrated, and with a computer game to follow, this should be a well-thumbed mystery.

My own kids adore Saturdays, mainly for the postal delivery of the weekly Beano, so this summer will be fabulous when they discover Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief, as told by Nigel Auchterlounie. Full text interspersed with black and white cartoon illustrations, and a chatty interactive adventure in Beanotown. Perfect for a longer read.

Junior Fiction/Middle Grade/Fluent Readers

boy underwaterplanet staniguana boy

Junior fiction or middle grade readers may not want to read Boy Underwater by Adam Baron, illustrated by Benji Davies, next to the swimming pool, but it’s a compelling, sometimes sad read that will keep children hooked. Cymbeline Igloo has never been swimming, and his first foray into the pool alongside his classmates isn’t pretty. But it has longer-lasting effects upon his mother, and before long, old family secrets are exposed, and Cymbeline’s life will never be the same. Baron explores loss with pathos and empathy, but also adds brilliant touches of humour with his narrator’s wry voice, as well as a satirical look at privilege, and wise words about life in general. No wonder it was a Waterstone’s Book of the Month. Unmissable.

If you’re looking for funny, try Planet Stan by Elaine Wickson, illustrated by Chris Judge. A friendship adventure story packed with space facts and diagrams and charts, and yet also with hilarious survival tips. Or Iguana Boy Saves the World with a Triple Cheese Pizza by James Bishop, illustrated by Rikin Parekh about Dylan, whose superpower is being able to speak to iguanas. Perhaps not the best superpower to own. But if there were no other superheroes, it’d all be down to him. Funny, and with comic-strip illustrations.

the goose road

For a sensuous summer read, historical The Goose Road by Rowena House is set during World War I, and explores France through the eyes of Angelique, desperate to hold onto her farm until her brother can return home from the Front. Packed with detail, and charmingly poignant, this triumphs a girl with ultimate resilience in a desperate time.

YA/Teen

its a wrapthe lost witchmud

For YA, the choice this summer is really fantastic. For an accessible, funny, warm teen read you’ll want to devour the Waiting for Callback trilogy by Perdita and Honor Cargill. The third in the trilogy has just been published – It’s a Wrap. The characters are rounded, real and raw, the situations dramatic and often hilarious, and the prose so readable you’ll forget where you are.

The Daddy of YA is back in town – Melvin Burgess has a new novel out for teens called The Lost Witch. His novels have never been for the fainthearted and this is no different – stark imagery that fixes in the mind, an exploration of the power and manipulation in relationships through use of a well-crafted other world, and a prosaic dance with the natural world in looking to what is wild and tame within ourselves. A master of twists and turns, here Burgess has intertwined an adept hand at fantasy whilst still retaining the grittiness of real life. Exciting, dangerous – for older teens.

Other teens will prefer the more contemporary and reality-based Mud by Emily Thomas, with a teen voice that showcases sophistication. Set in 1979, it explores what happens when Lydia’s father announces he is selling their house and moving Lydia and her three older siblings to live on a barge with his new girlfriend and their family. Filled with complicated relationships, forgiveness and learning to make do, this is a fascinating read.

a boy called ocean
From river to ocean, A Boy Called Ocean by Chris Higgins tells the story of Kai from multiple points of view. Kai has always been best friends with Jen since he moved to Cornwall when he was small. But now Kai’s feelings have started to change, and then he makes a snap decision and finds himself stranded at sea. With Jen on land, and an ocean between them, this is a different kind of romance.

Activity Books

seashore watchercolossal city counthoakes island

If you’re looking for interactive activity-led books then Seashore Watcher by Maya Plass has a summery feel and handily comes in a ziplock bag for practical use. As well as information about identifying different coral and shells, there are activities, factfiles and more. The full-colour photographs are fascinating and wondrous. Colossal City Count by Andy Rowland is like a Where’s Wally with numbers and world cities. Practise identifying clues and counting villains to solve the crimes committed city by city. Have great fun spotting how many Victoria sponges there are in London!

Lastly, and the one we’ll be taking on holiday, is Hoakes Island by Helen and Ian Friel. This puzzle adventure book – a collection of diary entries, maps, notes, puzzles and all sorts, leads to the clue as to where Henry Hoakes has gone – the owner of the amusement park. There’s a red magnifying piece for assistance, a group of talking animals, and letters that aren’t in order. Maths, comprehension, observation skills are all needed to solve the puzzle – but there’s also an intriguing adventure story within. For ages 7-11. (The answers are at the back, but don’t peek. It’s worth the challenge).

Do come back in September. I have the best books of the year to recommend to you – they’re dropping thick and fast for the autumn. You’re in for a cracking reading time as the nights draw in, and the weather cools down!

Robin Hood for a New Generation: A Guest Blog by MA Griffin

paybackOver a week ago, I featured Payback as my book of the week. It’s sharp, political and a very modern take on Robin Hood. Here, MA Griffin describes the influences and ideas that formed the novel.

Every generation has their own version of Robin Hood.

Mine was a BBC adaptation starring first Michael Praed and then Jason Connery. Like all versions, it differentiated itself from its predecessors with a series of idiosyncrasies. This one had a moody Clannad soundtrack over shots of shadowy forests, and a weird stag-headed God called Herne the Hunter.

Two elements of the Robin Hood story have stayed with me ever since. One is the fascination with ensemble casts. The line that runs through Poison Boy, Lifers and now Payback is the assembly of a rag-tag crew of unlikely heroes who spend as much time battling each other as they do the forces of the antagonist. The other is the idea of the sympathetic outlaw – the character whose actions are morally dubious but whose intentions are good, and who finds themselves battling a hierarchical system built to favour those in power.

Payback had both of these elements even in the early stages of planning. When I met the Chicken House team to discuss the book, I had a paragraph of prose describing an organisation called – at the time – Takeback. My opening sentence was, “The richest 1% control half the world’s wealth. It’s time for a new Robin Hood; a company of trained thieves called Takeback.”

M. A. GriffinAs I planned and wrote Payback, I was thinking partly about the Amazon tax scandal of 2016, now being replicated blow-for-blow by Netflix. I was also thinking about an article I’d read about champagne in the House of Lords. As austerity bit, there was a plan to combine the catering services for the House of Commons and the Lords to save the taxpayer money. The Lords rejected it because it would have meant accepting a cheaper vintage of champagne. Their catering budget is £1.3m per annum. Parliament’s bar bill in 2016 was £1.8m. Combined, that’s £12.4m over the course of a four year term that we’re not spending on mental health services, housing, welfare, the NHS, education.

Payback is a masked gang of teenagers who are way too brave and enterprising to accept this sort of nonsense. They plan heists (‘grabs’) stealing money and valuables from corrupt lawyers, luxury goods companies and unscrupulous casinos then arrange ‘drops’, public events where the money is redistributed amongst those less fortunate. They have a YouTube channel of movies shot during their raids. They have fan-forums where supporters share potential targets. City centres bristle with pro-Payback graffiti; newspaper op-eds speculate about the identity of the gang’s masked members. When our protagonist Tom gets to join his idols, he’s thrust instantly into the limelight; famous overnight.

But Payback is struggling. Evading the law month after month is exhausting and one particularly relentless cop is closing in. Then it turns out they’ve made a terrible error. The victim of one of their heists turns out to be vengeful and unhinged; a man ready to do anything to protect his reputation.

What do you do when the law is closing in one side and malicious hoodlums stalk you on the other? Like the blurb says, “Robin Hood never had it this bad…”

Payback by M. A. Griffin is out now in paperback (£7.99, Chicken House), and you can read my review here, and purchase the book here. With thanks to M.A. Griffin, who you can follow on twitter @fletchermoss and find out more at www.chickenhousebooks.com

Payback by M A Griffin

paybackWith an edgy cover that illuminates shadows of teens wearing fox masks against a stark black background, where the title winks at the reader in foiled gold lettering, Payback draws attention before the reader has even opened the book. Inside, lies a dark, gritty political thriller.

Protagonist 16-year-old Tom has long been a fan of direct action group, Payback – a modern Robin Hood heist outfit who take from the rich and give to the poor, often filming their crimes and screening them on YouTube. When they target the hotel where he works, it’s not long before he’s recruited to the cause and the group, and using his acting skills to assist in their next ventures.

In typical heist movie style, the reader is on board with the perpetrators of the crime, at first seeing what they do as necessary to combat corporate and government wrongs. The so-called victims of the crimes are not victims at all but evil money-grabbers, and the direct action group Payback doesn’t keep the money, but simply redistributes wealth – handing it off to the neediest in society.

But the beauty of the book, which reads as a thriller, gaining momentum job after job like a train rushing through stations with the brakes off, is that it makes the reader re-evaluate the protagonist’s motives, and the moral stature of the group.

Tom comes from a privileged background – something of which is he quite self-aware. And it troubles him at the same time as providing him with a cushy safety net. And Payback’s crimes are not without their innocent victims – even the ones not at the scene, such as the waiter they trick out of having a job, simply by taking his place as a disguise. As the violence ramps up, the reader becomes even more doubtful of the lines of right and wrong.

In the middle, there’s some head scratching for the reader – was Robin Hood right – is stealing from the rich to give to the poor the right thing to do – and how do you work out who should be a beneficiary and who shouldn’t? And are all the privileged evil? There’s some pretty facile arguing from some of the gang, juxtaposing benefit withdrawal with champagne expenses in the House of Lords. All this talk about the balance of wealth in society makes the book current, but what Griffin does magnificently is that he doesn’t present the story as a didactic piece – just as a kind of ‘throwing it out there, think about this’ conversation.

The teenagers read as pretty authentic, with the odd swear word grafted in, and the dialogue pretty spot-on – tidied of course for a prose novel – but they also come across as pretty insular and spectacularly naïve. In fact, at times every move seems more like a game to them – even a computer game – than real life. So when they set some of their money on fire, or badly misread a trap – it’s kind of inevitable that things will start to go badly for them, and that the smart policewoman who’s hot on their heels will piece it all together before they will.

By and by, the reader learns that much of the gang’s motivation isn’t necessarily altruistic.

However, Griffin ramps up the tension so that by the time the policewoman comes across Payback’s headquarters, the reader is in as much of a hurry to find out what happens as Tom and Payback are to get away. The second half of the book is a rip-roaring read, particularly difficult to put down.

The idea of a direct action group making changes in society rather than the people being reliant on the government to effect change is perhaps even more current than the idea of a Robin Hood figure (although Griffin purportedly took some inspiration from Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo, a modern Spanish politician famous for his Robin Hood raids). The novel is highly political because it speaks directly to teenagers about how and when they could effect change themselves – and at what point a moral or legal line is crossed.

With a wonderful evocation of a slightly different Manchester, in which teens lurk in spaces under arches and access free climbing walls, and terrific scenes in the dark ‘wild nothingness’ of the countryside, Griffin nails his settings with aplomb. It’s a highly visual novel with teasing chapter endings, moral dilemmas and questions about consequences, trust and justice. But most of all, it’s a thriller of a ride. Invest in this one, and you’ll have swift payback in satisfaction. You can buy it here.

A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood

a sky painted goldThere’s always that one book you read over a lazy summer, (maybe whilst swaying in a sun-dappled hammock or sitting at the edge of a swimming pool with legs dangling in the cool water), which is like a drop of sunlight itself, with its long languorous descriptions of hot lazy days and summer evening outdoor parties.

The Great Gatsby is that novel for me. Although I take great pleasure in re-reading it at any time of year, (I view it as the quintessential novel and marvel at its perfect opening and closing, its narrative arc, its unreliable narrator), it always conjures a feeling of sticky heat, of lavish summer nights and heated tension.

A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood is another summer novel, and although it’s certainly been smudged with more than a hint of a Gatsby brush, and has more than a touch of I Capture the Castle to it, its narrator seems to be pretty much reliable.

Lou Trevelyan lives in Cornwall with her large family and dreams of being a writer. In search of solitude, she steals away to the large empty Cardew house on an island across the causeway, but when the owners arrive for the summer, her place of abandon is turned into an opulent party house. After gate-crashing one of their Gatsby-esque parties one night, Lou receives an official invitation to the house, and before long she’s swept into the Cardews’ decadent world and captured by their attractive carelessness.

In the same way that Lou is seduced by the brother and sister who own the house, despite them being, at times, careless with other people, so the reader is seduced too by the lush descriptions of parties on summer nights and beautiful people living luxurious lives. There is nothing new about this coming-of-age romance, but it sumptuously immerses the reader in the 1920’s era, with great period detail recounting the hairstyles, art deco, dresses and jazz music of the time as the wild youngsters experience the post-war age.

Wood carefully explores Lou’s transformation into adulthood; the conflict with her country bumpkin older sister, the astute knowingness of her parents that each of their children will grow to have different lives, Lou’s own excitement at seeing London, and her growing sense of freedom and independence counteracted with her wariness of the wider world, the temptations of the time and the wilder morals of the people she encounters.

The mood of change as the world takes breath after the First World War is well captured by Wood; her youth are more daring, embracing different styles of music and dance, and displaying the restlessness and grasping for fun so indicative of the wealthy youth of that time. Wood documents their proclivity for drinking and extravagance, and notes the growing freedoms of women and the emergence of black culture – and in doing so she shows how she has plucked her enigmatic Cardews from that famous ‘lost generation’, as well as expressing her insight into our own times with her glance at that period of history almost a hundred years ago.

And yet, this is a dreamy YA read rather than a satirical criticism of the time. The Cardews may be careless with their money, but they are not as careless as Fitzgerald’s characters: here the Cardews win the readers’ love and sympathy, and pose as victims and heroes in a mesmeric summertime escapist novel. With their increased leisure time, these protagonists have the wherewithal to devote time to sketching and writing, climbing trees and observing. And so the book matches perfectly a reader’s desire for their own pleasurable leisurely summertime read. For ages 12+ years. Publishes 5 July. You can pre-order it here.

But A Mermaid Has No Tears…

girl who thought her mother was a mermaidThe Girl Who Thought Her Mother Was a Mermaid by Tania Unsworth, illustrated by Helen Crawford-White
Not out until 12th July, but well worth waiting for, this middle grade (junior fiction age 9+) mermaid book is another triumph from the dark pen of Tania Unsworth. A master at combining reality with tinges of dark fantasy, and beguiling the reader with intrigues of what is real and what is make believe, Unsworth’s new novel picks up beautifully on the current zeitgeist for mermaid stories.

Stella is terrified of water, yet has a penchant for the ocean and the huge picture of the sea that hangs in the back of her house. Her mother died when she was eight, and left Stella a necklace called ‘the word of the sea’, but no one seems to be able to give her more information on it. When her grandmother, suffering from a form of dementia, gives Stella a hint that her mother may have been a mermaid, Stella follows a series of clues that leads her to a place called Crystal Cove and a mermaid show, where things aren’t always as they seem.

Good, sparse yet engaging text leads the reader, with Stella, into a labyrinth of truths and untruths, as she investigates whether her mother was a mermaid. The book also investigates the nature of friendship – Stella finds this difficult but has made a friend in the flamboyant Cam. There is also a look at the reliance children place upon adults to keep them safe and reveal the truth to them, but in typical Unsworth style, there is a sharp twist, and a fearsome and chillingly real villain.

The book is great at its description of the real world, especially the seaside town to which Stella runs away, but it also has a wonderful handle on depicting Stella’s inner thoughts, fears and motivations. By adding her spin on magical realism in the way of mermaids, Unsworth allows Stella and the reader to ask the bigger questions in life too.

A hugely compulsive novel, with superb characterisation. You can pre-order it here.

the surface breaksThe Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill
Almost all the current books about mermaids are influenced by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, whose protagonist sacrifices her world, tail, and voice for love, but none are quite as sharply or devastatingly reimagined as this feminist retelling. Bringing her trademark biting satirical agenda and fight for gender equality to the tale, O’Neill has written a gripping, terribly dark fairy tale for our times.

Gaia’s world is dominated by men, none more so than her powerful and controlling father. When she spies a human boy on a boat, she falls for him and decides to sacrifice her world, and mutilate her body, in order to be with him. Unfortunately, she has gambled on his looks alone, and the reader becomes more swiftly aware than Gaia how reckless this is. The reader’s awareness of the palpable horror of her situation, a description of her ever-shredding feet that is almost too painful to read, and a mounting frustration at the treatment of women throughout, and Gaia’s hopes in particular which are so much pinned on frivolity and appearance, make this an engaging but demanding read.

O’Neill goes to great lengths here to subvert the original fairy tale so that she can pose an exploration of women as more than just a stereotype – more than just erotic objects, or manipulative shrews, but as multi-layered beings – fallible, abused, powerful, exotic, all at once. The Sea Witch is shown as feisty and motivated, not just a Disney character of pure evil revelling in her own wickedness, but in fact a believable and sumptuous character who is the most free of all the women, by vaunt of being most comfortable with who she is.

In fact, in some places it brings to mind what was really embedded in Christian Andersen’s text, which has been lost to the images in our minds of red-headed Ariel with her big blue eyes. It’s astonishing that so much of the misogynistic cruelty and darkness resides in the original story, and to find that O’Neill hasn’t deviated as much as we might think.

The book also gives a beautiful twist to women above the sea’s surface. They are not as free as Gaia imagines, and the prince is preoccupied and ungrateful – not the fairy tale beau of generosity and unparalleled power. Layers of lust and love, sibling rivalry and power dynamics ebb and flow throughout the book. It doesn’t smash the patriarchy so much as stimulate young women to think about who they are and their position in life. Clever, thoughtful and raging – this is not a soothing or subtle tale. For YA readership. Take a dip here.

bad mermaids on the rocksBad Mermaids: On the Rocks by Sibeal Pounder, illustrated by Jason Cockcroft.
For much younger readers – those aged about seven and up, Sibeal Pounder is an absolute joy to read. Her Witch Wars series is wacky and zany and never fails to raise a smile, and the Bad Mermaids series elicits the same response. On the Rocks is the second in the series about three mermaids accompanied by a talking seahorse.

Pounder’s ultimate strength is her exquisite world-building, in this case, the undersea kingdoms of the mer people. The vocabulary is broad ranging, with many plays on words and satirical digs at our normal world, (Pounder is inventive with transport and fashion) and conjures a playful fun underwater plot that keeps the reader absorbed and extremely entertained. She makes fun of the world as she writes and makes subtle winks to a feminist agenda – mermaids happily burp bubbles, which turns upside down the idea that mermaids are just aesthetic beauties, and give each other plenty of sass in their dialogue. Each mermaid has her own particular and distinctive character traits and it makes for a diverse and fascinating story.

In On the Rocks, the three mermaid heroines from book one are stuck aboard a spooky ship, but a human, Paris Silkensocks, discovers a plot to destroy the mermaid world. Paris must find the mermaids in time and avert a crabtastrophe. Fun and frolicks. With scattered black and white illustrations from Jason Cockcroft. Swim with mermaids here.

LoraliLorali by Laura Dockrill
From zany to zanier, Dockrill’s writing style can be a bit of an acquired taste – veering towards the wacky and unpredictable, so tackling mermaids and the fantastical seems like a good fit. Dockrill has two books published in her mermaid series, the first of which, Lorali, was published in 2015.

Rory finds a naked girl washed up under Hastings pier during a storm on his sixteenth birthday. But even more surprising is where she comes from. Lorali has to get used to some strange things in the ‘walking’ world, but it’s Rory’s gradual awakening to Lorali’s world and why she’s running from the sea that becomes the centrepiece of this intriguing novel.

Dockrill deals cleverly with her convoluted plot, telling the story from three points of view: Rory, Lorali, and the sea – the last of which provides the reader with the background to the world of the mermaids.

But it’s Dockrill’s handling of the teen world that is where she is most adept. The mermaid’s newness to the world is not unlike that of a teenager, exploring themselves and their surroundings for the first time as realisation dawns of the sort of adult they might turn into, and the choices they make.

There is a raw darkness to the book too, jumping from the realism of a seaside town to a world in which strange weather and pirates rule. Dockrill’s words tumble over like the crashing of the waves, and her nod away from fairy tale and to modernity lies in the way in which she addresses feminism and misogyny, but not always in the way in which the reader expects. For a YA audience. You can buy it here.

There are a few adult novels published in the past year or so that also feature mermaids, creatures that speak to our times. Mermaids are regarded as freaks, albeit beautiful ones, and in today’s society, when we are constantly alert to ‘otherness’ and ‘diversity’, the concept of mer-people on land or humans at sea is all about how we fit in, and the similarities and differences between us. Happy swimming.

 

Trees, Treehouses and the Spaces Inbetween

It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to understand the importance of trees as a metaphor or literary device in children’s literature. Their growth from seed to giant is in accordance with the growth of knowledge or imagination, they represent the wild within urban areas, they are a liminal space between ground and air. We use them in all manner of ways to talk about family trees, with all the various branches. We refer to a ‘tree of life’, a force that connects creation. Trees are affirmative – they give life by releasing oxygen, they provide food and shelter, they cover about 30 per cent of the world’s land area. No wonder I can rattle off ‘tree’ books in an instant – The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, The Thirteen Storey Treehouse by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton, The Magic Treehouse books by Mary Pope Osborne…and so many more.

But these three recent ‘tree’ books are something special.

everything you need for a treehouseEverything You Need for a Treehouse by Carter Higgins and Emily Hughes

There’s something about a treehouse – that arboreal space that’s also domestic, a meeting of urban and wild, a place where imagination lets loose. This is sumptuously captured in this highly detailed picture book published earlier this year. Lyrical text leads the reader into the book – explaining that what you need for a treehouse is time and imagination. The text then branches out into poetry, using extended metaphor and alliteration, comparing trees to an army, but then calming into more natural imagery – sun speckles seen close, boxes for begonias, and of course elements of play. And the treehouses imagined in this book invoke all sorts of play, from swinging tyres to bookshelves and boats.

There’s practical advice about building treehouses too: proposing a child starts with a plan, or wears a hard hat, and remembers snacks and socks for cold overnight stays. The beauty of the language, of course, is that this is not a set narrative, but a bundle of suggestions, a plethora of ideas. And so illustrator Emily Hughes is let loose with her imagination – just as the child would be, with passion for adventure and creativity.

There are numerous children in this book – a whole school perhaps or a village – each with their own identity, using brains or brawn or humour to play their part. One girl does another’s hair while she lies in a sleeping bag, some children are telling ghostly stories with shadow movement, others listen to music or watch the stars. They play pirates, or direct others with drills and measuring tape. And each page holds a different kind of treehouse – one over water, one as a pirate ship, one as a palm house, and one with a helter skelter staircase. These are treehouses from the imagination and they are fully realised on the page – detailed, wondrous and fantastical. Because of course, not all children have the adult help, time, resources or space to build a treehouse, but Hughes shows that even with just imagination, the most fanciful treehouses can be built in the mind or on the page. Like castles in the sky. You can buy it here.

a good day for climbing treesA Good Day for Climbing Trees by Jaco Jacobs, illustrated by Jim Tierney

Jacobs is a prolific and popular author, with more than 120 books published, although mainly in Afrikaans. This novel, translated into English, is a light book about serious issues. Marnus feels invisible, stuck in the middle of a teenage older brother and a genius entrepreneur younger brother. So when Leila knocks on his door with a petition to save a tree, an opportunity presents. Before he knows it, he’s climbing a tree to stop the bulldozers, and then remaining there in case the bulldozers return.

As well as showing the reader how activism develops – from kindly neighbours and friends, to local journalists, and student protestors, the book explores a thirteen year old’s friendship with a child of the opposite sex, particularly one he’s just met – Marnus’s awkwardness round Leila is drawn with pathos and understanding, and quite a bit of humour too.

A cast of eccentric characters who gather round the tree and their activism makes the text warm and quirky, but Jacobs does more than just populate the story with colour – each character has their motivations and backstory, each character is fully developed and cleverly drawn. But it is Leila’s motive to save the tree that draws the book to a satisfying close – and leaves the reader feeling both fulfilled and uplifted. (Age 8+ years). You can buy a copy here.

the family treeThe Family Tree by Mal Peet, illustrated by Emma Shoard

Another well-known and hugely admired author, Mal Peet’s emotive and evocative novella, The Family Tree, has been given loving treatment by publishers Barrington Stoke after his death. Peet’s succinct, intuitive and astute writing tells the emotional story of an unnamed narrator who returns to his childhood house, looking back with nostalgia but also adult realism, as he recalls the breakdown of his parents’ marriage and the pivotal treehouse in the garden, which provided a childhood adventure but also eventually the sanctuary for his father’s breakdown.

Stunningly told, the publishers have pared the perspicacious prose with Shoard’s impressionistic full colour illustrations – their light smudging a beautiful counterpart to a story going back into the past. Features are slightly indistinct, the green and greys lend a fluidity to the scenes, and the treehouse is both a loving object and a place of menace as it becomes the father’s home and the cause of much angst and pain. Shoard’s illustrations bring an almost sensory element to fill the white spaces left in between Peet’s words – the body language of the three family characters is both poignant and brilliant.

Rarely does one come across a children’s tale written quite so hauntingly, leaving one drained and emotional but also strangely hopeful, nostalgic and understanding of human nature, and in particular fatherhood. I read in one sitting – as will you – and yet it will stay with you much longer than the hardiest of treehouses. (YA title, not suitable for younger readers). Unmissable. Buy it here.