Chessboxer by Stephen Davies

chessboxerThere’s something special about being recommended a book by one’s own children, and this is one such novel. My daughter pressed this into my hands, despite neither knowing how to box, nor play chess, although I reckon she’d be great at both.

I can see why she liked it. This scintillating book pulses with energy. Chessboxer pounds with the punch of a boxer, and yet remains contemplative, with ideas behind the fast-paced plot as thoughtful as a chess player.

Leah Baxter is the quintessential feisty protagonist. She’s a chess whizz, just a few wins away from being heralded a junior chess grandmaster, and yet she’s lost in life…not just over grief for her father, but also in her chosen field – she’s not quite sure that chess is for her.

Davies introduces the spikiness of this seventeen-year-old straight away, as the story is told in a series of Leah’s blogposts. At first, these are public, and with them comes the inevitable array of comments, to which Leah replies with snarky sarcasm and a growing hostility.

After an encounter with one such commenter face to face, Leah turns her blog private, and the comments disappear, but her thoughts remain loud and clear for the reader to see. Davies has a firm grip on character – Leah treads the trembling tightrope between adolescence and adulthood, often making impetuous decisions, sometimes leaning towards self-destructive behaviour, and always with a firm eye on her obsessive nature regarding her passion.

Through the over-curious commenter on the blog, who turns out to be less stalker and more friend, Leah discovers new passions in life, including chessboxing. This strange hybrid sport blends bouts of boxing with rounds of chess, mixing the highly physical with the highly intellectual, and challenging Leah’s strategic thinking. Of course, the reader sees that the boxing is great physical therapy for Leah in the midst of her grief, which doesn’t seem to have been dealt with previously, but the amount of violence may be shocking for some younger readers.

What draws the reader in is the amount of grit, determination and resilience demonstrated by Leah, yet also her capacity for making impetuous and wrong decisions. And although her anger can be alienating at times, the reader stays the course with her, sees her processing the world, finding a way to trust people, and in the end her goodness shines through.

Her new hobby of chessboxing lends itself well to a build up of anticipation throughout the novel, honing a new skill, learning new tactics, and of course being tested time and time again. Davies holds this together well, drawing from extensive research, and also carefully plotting his novel, as tightly as the footwork of a boxer, neat and balanced, keeping the reader on their toes.

The setting is almost another character in the book – the streets of New York throb with an equal energy to Leah, from the green spaces to the donut shops, and even the local police station. Davies has a way of navigating the streets without resorting to description, but just strewing objects and places throughout the text – Washington Square, the fire escapes, tattoo parlours.

This is a novel with a delicate strength, a snarky protagonist, and an interesting presentation of prose. It made me think of that other recent YA with its angry girl protagonist, Furious Thing, featured just a couple of weeks ago on MinervaReads.

With our world as it is, we need lots of these intelligent and angry girls – those with drive and passion, with complexity that feeds their anger but can also quell it, and above all, with their hearts and minds in the right place. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Andersen Press for the advance review copy. A suggested teen read.

The Foolish King: The Secret History of Chess by Mark Price (book and app)

the foolish king

I never learned chess. It’s just one of those things that passed me by, and also seemed to be a game that required hours of dedication to learn, along with complete concentration. And any time I had for complete concentration was given over to reading.

It is still true that hours of dedication are needed to be good at anything, especially chess, but this book teaches the basic moves and principles in a single sitting with the simplest of instructions. And what’s more, it inspires by teaching the rules of chess through telling a story.

The Foolish King: The Secret History of Chess reads like a fairy tale. It tells the tale of the kingdom of Stur and its king, King Marra, but particularly his passion for gardening. King Marra’s extreme care and dedication to the land translates into prosperity and growth. But like all kings and commoners, eventually he grows old and dies, and after his death, there must be the accession of a new king. King Parip hates the land and his garden and he likes to play mean tricks on the insects that inhabit it, and so eventually the kingdom goes into decline.

Price uses the idea of insects populating gardens to teach the game of chess. Rather than the chess pieces being Kings, Queens, rooks, bishops, knights and pawns – Price introduces the idea of insects instead. So for example, ants or bees are the pawns (both insects known for protecting their queens), and grasshoppers or crickets are the knights (these insects can jump or hop!).

Two children in the story, Holly and Pip, are taught the game of chess by the insects in the garden, and in turn, and in a desperate race to save their kingdom and all its land, they teach the game to King Parip.

You might ask why teaching the new king the game of chess might lead to a happy resolution to the story, and allow the garden to grow again and the land prosper? Price cleverly interweaves the motivation for chess into his story – explaining that the day and night insects decided to play a game rather than just fight each other for the food at the short time of day when both nocturnal and diurnal insects were awake. In the same way, Pip and Holly teach chess to King Parip and it encourages him to be more patient and thoughtful, which in time stimulates growth in himself, and encourages him to see the advantages of insects in a garden and their contribution to a land of prosperity.

What’s clever about the book is that there are practical exercises in the middle of the story – practice boards (with answers at the back) that teach the reader how each piece moves, one by one – so that before starting to play the game, the moves are completely stuck in the reader’s head. Then a real game between the children and the royal insects is shown step by step, with speech bubbles explaining motivation behind each move.

The children characters are identifiable for the reader, and the whole book is brought delightfully to life by the humorous and frankly brilliant illustrations from Martin Brown (best known for his Horrible Histories illustrations). Ants shaking their fists, an insect chessboard stadium – complete with spectator stands, and some very self-important insect royalty.

This is a colourful, lively, and well-explained way to teach chess, and if it can teach me the basic principles, it can definitely teach your six year old. Buy the book here.

There’s also an accompanying app, available free from ITunes for Iphone and Ipad, which teaches chess to children aged six and over. The user can play against the computer or against a friend on the same device. The app also provides tutorials to support the book, featuring the same illustrations. On Christmas Eve 2016, a new website launches, on which users can play chess games online and climb onto the leaderboard. You can sign up here.