Latest Book Review

The Ghost Garden by Emma Carroll

The Ghost Garden
The Secret Garden
by Frances Hodgson Burnett is a much-loved and yet rather strange children’s book. Although it can be embraced as a paean to gardens and the healing power of nature, and although it remains a favourite of mine for its ability to feature prickly rather than immediately loveable children protagonists, when you come to it as an adult you have to ponder its darker side. After all, the novel starts with Mary’s family all dying quite horribly and the child being forgotten. Then when Mary arrives at Misselthwaite Manor, a father is projecting his grief onto his son and purposefully making him out to be ill – Munchausen syndrome by proxy.

Whatever you think of it, its imagery lingers, which is why modern-day books that allude to it hold a special place in my head and heart. Emma Carroll’s newest book, The Ghost Garden, her first with dyslexia-specialists Barrington Stoke, is beautifully atmospheric, historically detailed, but also contains barely contained allusions to the aforementioned Secret Garden. Indeed, even on the cover, a girl pushes around a boy who has become wheelchair-bound.

The Ghost Garden is set in the summer of 1914, and a young girl, Fran, stumbles across a bone whilst digging in the garden of a country house. That same afternoon, coincidence strikes when the young boy of the house breaks his leg. Then more strange happenings in the garden lead to a burgeoning friendship between the two, all set against the very dire backdrop of impending war.

With stylised illustrations from Kaja Kajfez, The Ghost Garden is marginally spooky, but bursting with particular detail. As one would expect from Carroll, the characters are swiftly yet beautifully drawn, so that the reader feels as if Fran exists far beyond the pages of the book, and the tale is well-executed and rather fun. Its final message is that, despite the world’s sometime devastating bigger picture, things are best faced as a community rather than alone. And that we should create and embrace positive moments and memories during the good times, making the most of the time we have. At the end of 2020, what better message could there be? A sumptuous little feast, to be devoured in one go.

With thanks to Barrington Stoke for the review copy. The Ghost Garden by Emma Carroll is published in January 2021 but is available to pre-order now for a post-Christmas treat.

Friend Me by Sheila M Averbuch

friend me
Do you have children with phones? Silly question really, as Ofcom’s 2019 survey found that 83% of 12 to 15 year olds in the UK owned a smartphone. So, it’s only fitting that some of the contemporary literature for this age group features interaction with a digital device. Yet, writers of fiction have argued for some time that phones get in the way of plots. It’s harder to go missing and have an adventure if your parents can text you every two minutes. It’s easier to solve mystery clues if you can just ‘Google’ the answers. And far less interesting for the reader.

But Averbuch has discovered a cruelly satisfying way to lend interest to the digital device. It can, as she says in the book, become an easy way for a loner to look busy or popular – they can just look down at their phone.

Friend me is a cautionary tale. Roisin, recently moved from Ireland to America, and struggling to fit in, is bullied in school by Zara. Happening in person, but exacerbated online, Roisin finds herself unable to confide in her parents (her mother is a workaholic, her father back in Ireland), or her older brother. However, she finds a true friend in Hayley, online. Someone who lives at an inaccessible distance in real life, but who online, not only sympathises with Roisin’s experiences, but has shared similar, and completely agrees with Roisin on pretty much everything.

But then Zara, busy taking selfies, has a dreadful and shocking accident, and when Roisin thinks about it, it’s not that shocking in regards to private conversations she has had with Hayley.

The book almost pivots at this point, from a contemporary tale about a new girl, into a scintillating, positively filmic thriller, in which Roisin must race against time to discover who Hayley really is, what impact she may have had on Zara, and perhaps while Roisin’s doing her detective work, discover a bit more about who she is herself and what true friendship means.

What could seem unrealistic towards the end, never quite reaches implausible limits, simply because the premise is so simple – when we get sucked into our phones, it can have an effect on our real lives, and friendship can be a messy business.

Grippingly tense in the second half, and nicely built in the first, this is an exciting new read for tweens and young teens, and an excellent warning about phone over-reliance. As we know in our Covid times, there really is no substitute for face-to-face interaction, and friendship in person.

Roisin is a well-rounded character, with identifiable weaknesses and immaturity, and yet possesses a good moral compass and firm grounding. She is easy to know and like, and the reader is rooting for her all along, even when perhaps wincing at some of her text messages.

The prose-style lends itself well to the subject matter – this is an easy, absorbing read, with enough incident and drama to keep readers fully engaged, and most thrillingly it doesn’t dictate the rights and wrongs of the situation, but lets the reader find their own way through the dilemmas and trials so common to this age-group. The author clearly has a great grip on tech, and young people’s use of it, and the story feels authentic and apposite.

A good read, highly recommended. Put one in the teen’s Christmas stocking!

(An American text, this was sent to me by the publicist in exchange for an honest review). Published by Scholastic, and  currently available in hardback and kindle.)

The Wolf Road by Richard Lambert

wolf road
Fifteen-year-old Lucas survives the car accident that kills his parents, but amid the horror and devastation, the image that floods his memory is of the wolf on the road, the wolf that he believes caused the accident. Uprooted, and moved to the Lake District to live with his estranged Nan, he discovers that there too roams a wolf, killing sheep in the hills and, now, coming for him.

Lambert’s poetic prose skips between the lyrically descriptive and the pace of an action thriller in his boldly imagined tale of loss and grief, with just a hint of magical realism. He possesses the mind of a teenager with lithe agility, fully empathetic of Lucas’s mood swings, his reticence, his taciturn manner, and his truculence, enhanced even more by the dreadful grief from which he suffers. Yet this protagonist is unfailingly easy to sympathise with, even when he makes his glaring teenage errors.

Lucas grows ever more maniacal in his obsession with the wolf, but this is set against his growing affinity with nature and the hills that surround his Nan’s cottage. As time passes, the characters in his peripheral vision – the bullies at school, a girl and her father on the neighbouring farm, all grow more familiar, and set the scene for a dramatic climax.

In the end, though, Lucas’s restraint spills over into the plot, and the denouement is less visceral than one might imagine – the ending more inclined towards the realism of grief rather than the neat winding up of the storyteller. This is grief both profound and buried, like lost wildlife under the snow-clad mountain. The book’s quiet and intense main thread is both powerful and eerie, lingering in the mind long after the turning of the final page. A filmic book with a poetic undercurrent.

For ages 14+. The Wolf Road is published by Everything With Words and is available from all book stores.

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: A Retelling by Tanya Landman

jane eyreI first came to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte as a naïve impressionable teenager, and like many before me, read the book as an exciting gothic coming-of-age, willing Jane on, admiring of her ability to use her intellect and shrewd judgement to succeed, and feeling desperately that I wanted her to have a happy ending. ‘Reader, I married him,’ was a pivotal and satisfying point in the novel.

It was only a few years later, when I realised Jane Eyre was simply the first stepping stone on a reading footpath that led to the literary exploration of giving the madwoman in the attic a voice.  An understanding that the shut-away first wife, Bertha, was in fact representative of both the treatment of women, and a symbol of colonialism, and from there it was a swift leaping across the stones to The Yellow Wallpaper, and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and of course Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. But above all, it was Bronte’s hauntingly dark gothic draw, the story of Jane’s development, the appealing beginning with Helen’s tragic death, and the consequent love for a dark dangerous brooding man that pulled me in and made the biggest impression.

Unfortunately, the Victorian prose of Charlotte Bronte can be a barrier to some, particularly those who are reluctant readers or struggle with dyslexia. Not usually one for abbreviations, adaptations or deviations from the original, with this retelling I sensed that Tanya Landman is actually opening up the text to a group of readers who otherwise wouldn’t have seen it through.

What’s more, the reader and purist is in safe hands with Landman. She understands how to condense the prose of the original, whilst staying true to the plot, although of course picking the key elements and components and having to lose others. But images of import remain: Jane reading on the window seat behind the curtain, the fire at night in Rochester’s room, the laughter emanating from the attic, the fortune teller, the desperate ruins of Thornfield across the moors.

And despite the brevity of this new text, the characters shine through. Helen is good and true, Adele frivolous and actually slightly more endearing than in the original, Mr Rochester cool and aloof, yet prone to mood swings. Landman also captures the vanity and privilege of Miss Ingram, seen through Jane’s eyes, and cleverly gives clues of plot and character to the reader through use of repeating images (the window seat), and the understanding of how people present differently depending on who they are with.

What Landman does particularly well though is convey the character and emotions of Jane herself. Jane Eyre has an impeccable self-awareness, and it’s this sense of self that comes through and reaches a modern audience. Jane is ever-aware of her own identity, her shortcomings, her desires, and Landman keeps all this within the text in her first person narration, with tiny inflections of simile and metaphor to guide the reader through.

Virginia Woolf expressed Jane’s sense of self as: “some untamed ferocity perpetually at war with the accepted order of things which makes them desire to create instantly rather than to observe patiently.”

Jane is a character of unflinching agency, moving with passion through the novel, seeking newness and adventure, acting upon her curiosities – and Landman captures this sparky energy, this spirit, and makes her seem historically accurate yet presciently modern too.

Of course not everything can be transplanted to this retelling, but an essence of wisdom remains – Jane recalls the wise words of Helen Burns as she visits her Aunt’s deathbed, albeit in a different way from the original, and some of the maturity of Jane’s perspective of looking at her childhood through adult eyes does surface. Landman keeps to the same pace as the original – in interrupting Jane’s love infatuation with Rochester by taking her away to her childhood home, and thus creating the same suspense, and also introducing the idea of a closure of her childhood and an advent into adulthood.

For greater depth, the original must be studied – the darkness of the slave trade, the evocation of Thornfield, the gothic genre, and the idea of religious forgiveness, but overall this is a smart and endearing version, eliciting the same emotions as the original, in all the same places. The prose sits well in its historical time period, and the story is as immersive as ever.

Jane Eyre is a novel that may have brought about a trail of other stories that gave voice to the madwoman in the attic, but it first and foremost gave a voice to that other visible and yet invisible woman – the plain woman, the orphan, the disinherited, the mere member of staff. And Landman does the original full credit by capturing much of the passion and understanding that Bronte gifted her heroine.

Reader, I enjoyed it.

With thanks to dyslexia-friendly publisher Barrington Stoke for my super-readable advance copy. You can buy yours here.

Small in the City by Sydney Smith

small in the cityPicture books are often banded together as if they were a simple genre. But even in one quick thirty-minute book club session at school, I can show my Year 6 cohort that picture books come in all shapes and sizes, are aimed at all different ages, can be about a multitude of topics, and really shouldn’t be all lumped together in a kinderbox. And really great picture books manage to traverse these different categories all in one book.

Small in the City by Sydney Smith (winner of the Kate Greenaway in 2018 for Town is by the Sea, and winner of many awards for Sidewalk Flowers) is ostensibly the travails of a small child in a big city. But delve within, and it’s a picture book about loss.

A small child, first seen on a bus, as on the front cover, travels into a large city, depicted with large steel skyscrapers, traffic, and many people. Wordless at first, the text begins a few pages in with Small’s voice, and at first the reader may believe that Small is talking to them, explaining the noise of the city and the busyness. But it very gradually becomes apparent that this internal monologue is not to you, the reader, but to a missing cat.

The text is observational but also advisory – explaining that the child feels empathy for the lost pet, and wants to guide them home with hope and clarity. The text initially feels as if it is advising the navigation of a big city, but it also merges with advice on life itself; beware of big dogs, look for friendly faces.

After a time, the reader sees that the child is putting up pink posters all over the city for the missing cat (readers will have to look back through the book to see where they missed this first time round), the cleverness of the child apparent in where the posters are placed – a fishmonger, for example.

But it is the cleverness of the illustrator that really shines through here. The child is an everychild – anonymous and gender-less, mainly seen from behind, or when straight on, with a body wrapped up against the cold, head-down. The city too is faceless – this could be any global metropolis.

The illustrations show Smith’s astuteness at perspective – the smallness of Small against the backdrop of skyscrapers, traffic, other people, construction works and telephone poles, even pointing towards the fact that taller adults might feel small against the enormity of the anonymous busy city. And with the search for something, there is an added dimension to the smallness, as if the loss of another can diminish a person and make them feel smaller anyway.

There are close ups, use of a wider lens, all capturing the intimidating nature of the city. This is not claustrophobic, but rather atmospheric. Dangers are implied rather than seen in desolate dark alleys. All angles are covered – looking up, looking down, looking out from a bus. Darkness is all around, and ever approaching as the day draws in – there are black shadows that dominate a vignette, stark plant shapes against a criss-cross window, an extreme close up of a traffic signal, mainly black in its squareness.

But conversely there’s an interesting growing familiarity with the city. Initially, the reader may feel as if the child might be lost – their smallness an indicator of their lack of direction, but this child demonstrates a knowledge of the city – as if they have been searching a long time or repeatedly, or perhaps it is their home town. Yet, the feeling of smallness persists – the city is held at a distance, the child is shut out. The church in which the choir practises is seen only from outside, the person who always plays the piano in the blue house is also anonymous, seen from behind, glimpsed blurrily through the window.

Even the reader is kept at a slight distance – there’s an amazing illustration of the child reflected in a series of mirrored glass panels on a building, the pastel traffic reflected behind, and a slight distortion of the image in the mirrors, the slight wobble that feels both real and haunting. More brilliance in the picture of the child on the bus; the close-up of a woman’s hand on the rail near the child, too close for comfort; the reflection of the city in the window of the bus, as well as the view through the bus to the city the other side, and the silhouettes of adults standing on the bus.

The day may start cold and sunny, but as the child moves through the pages, snow begins to fall. Now the picture blurs again as the streets are seen through increasing snow, red taillights standing out, sleet tyre marks on the road.

So then the illustrator’s detailed knowledge of the city appears – the child is shown positioning their back against the warmth exhalation of a dryer vent.

The text is shut off from the pictures – Small in the city is also alone in the city. Text appears only in the white gaps between the pictures, the illustrations themselves separate within hard black ink frames, locked apart from each other. There’s isolation here, and acute poignancy.

And yet there’s a juxtaposition between the griminess of the city, the urbanity of it, and the child’s calm pace and advice, and the peaceful hush as the snow falls. The lack of panic and anxiety, and the gentle determination of Small. As the blizzard blurs and the darkness increases, the heartfelt loss of the child is what’s felt, until towards the end there’s a glorious illustration of the child walking towards a female adult, with matching bobble hat signifying their kinship, and then Small’s confident resignation in the arms of a comforting adult.

The brilliance of course, is that although the book is about a missing pet, a child in a city, it’s also about the devastation of loss, the moments of waiting, the anticipation of return. Adults will see the emotional depth, young children will look for the pink posters, the hint of a cat, the draw of the city, and those in between will marvel at the detail in the artworks, the intelligence of the text. Most will notice the packaging of this tall book – a skyscraper itself.

Reassured, the final page gives a resolution, but the heartfelt haunting of this wintry book never quite dissipates. Exceptional. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Walker Books for the review copy

Sofia Valdez, Future Prez by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts

sofia valdezI have a soft spot for the Questioneers, the series of picture books that includes Rosie Revere, Iggy Peck and Ada Twist. They started a STEM revolution all of their own, and their now distinctive look, complete with graph paper background, is a constant presence in any good library or children’s bookcase.

With the latest in the series though, Beaty has captured the zeitgeist, deviating slightly from science and focussing on politics. Here, she points to the hope that children can provide, especially in the face of poor management and inept leadership by adults. With a nod to inclusivity and equal rights by both author and illustrator, Sofia Valdez’s first policies focus on the environment, namely waste management and green spaces.

Sofia is quite rightly disturbed by the landfill site in her neighbourhood, especially when she sees its dangers. She decides it’s time to replace it with a park for her community, but finds that facing city hall is harder than she thought. It takes determination and the support of her neighbours to see it through.

Of course there are repeating themes here from the former picture books on Rosie Revere and crew, including determination and putting in the hours, but there are new themes springing up all the time. Sofia walks to school with her Abuelo, and this cross-generational relationship is of the utmost importance. Moreover, bureaucracy reigns large at City Hall, and author Beaty and illustrator Roberts have both had great fun exploring the humour and ridiculousness of sprawling officialdom and red tape. Of course, the book rhymes, as per the rest of the series, and Beaty plays on the idea of having different departments in different rooms, with silly names and fun numbers.

The most galling aspect for Sofia is the clerk’s quick dismissal of her as ‘only a kid’. In our current times of Greta Thunberg, this is clearly highly ironic. Sofia doesn’t turn away from this, and in an insightful way asks the clerk what she would do if she were in Sofia’s shoes.

After a daunting presentation, a plethora of ideas, a march and a petition, surveys and budgets and more, Sofia’s dreams become a reality. Her diverse community receives a much-wanted green space.

This is a feel-good picture book. It demonstrates the power of the individual to make a difference, but also the power and meaning of a community. And it pulls together the strands of science and creativity – change is brought about only after an individual has a vision.

Beaty impressively keeps the tight rhythm and rhyme that gave her such success with her other picture books, and Roberts’ expressive illustrations add humour and bite to each scene. As well as the blatant message, and the plot-driven text, it’s worth a longer linger over the illustrations. Sofia’s bedroom betrays her character, the mountain of trash is telling in itself, but most of all the community is portrayed in all its glorious differences and similarities. Children will love spotting Rosie, Iggy and Ada. Definitely one to add to your collection. Who knows, books such as these may inspire a better calibre of leader in the future.

With thanks to Abrams books for the review copy.

Vote Sofia Valdez, Future Prez here.

Nevertell by Katharine Orton

nevertellMany a children’s book has been set in a snowy landscape with chasing wolves and stretching vistas, from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken to Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder, promising the romance of ice crystals and the danger of snapping jaws. Of course, there’s nothing romantic about the punishing Siberian prison camps under the reign of Stalin, which is where Orton has chosen to set her debut children’s book, Nevertell.

Lina, born inside one of these Siberian prison camps, has never seen the outside world, so when the opportunity for escape is presented at age eleven, she grasps it wholeheartedly, despite having to leave her mother behind. However, Lina and best friend Bogdan are soon pursued not by Soviet guards, but by ghost wolf hounds and a dangerous sorceress, who lives in a Frozen-esque ice palace and bears a resemblance to Baba Yaga and The Mistress of Copper Mountain from Russian folk tales.

This is in essence an adventure story across the snowy tundra of a Russian winter, and Orton’s lyrical writing interweaves the magic of the landscape she is describing with the thrilling pace of a chase. Her descriptions of cold are indeed chilling, and the frozen fractals feel both dangerously icy but also wonderfully enchanting, as if the reader is spellbound by the cold as Lina and Bogdan are by the sorceress.

“The sky itself stretched cloudless and pale, like a flawless frozen lake. It all felt upside down, as if the sky had switched places with the earth while they slept and now they were wading through yesterday’s storm clouds.”

As well as the escape to freedom, Lina is on a quest to discover her heritage. She sets out on a path to Moscow to find her grandmother and discover what she is like, all the time wondering who in the left-behind camp is her father. What becomes apparent through the telling is the importance of family – both in their presence and their absence, and how belonging is so key. Separation was a cruel punishment oft inflicted by Stalin.

There are familiar children’s books tropes in Nevertell: a chase across countryside, a fierce and loyal friendship between the protagonist and a sidekick of the opposite gender…but where the novel stands apart is the terrific juxtaposition between the harshness of Russian gulags and Stalin’s reign with local folklore and fairy tales, which conjure a different kind of adventure story.

The idea that creativity was stifled in Stalin’s Russia, that a repressive regime sought to shut down any telling of fairy tales and folk stories is barbaric – after all freedom of thought and imagination are some of the most precious assets of being human. Orton plays with this idea of repression, and of course sets it free by taking Lina and Bogdan away from the harsh realism of a Siberian prison camp and placing them within the magical realms of a sorceress, even if that magic can also be used for harm.

Orton also plays on the importance of objects – again a device taken from native folk and fairy tales, in which one thing can be of such import – be it a house of chicken legs, or simply a stone. Lina wears a stone around her neck that provides pulsing warmth in times of great cold and throbbing heat in times of danger. The sorceress relies on her cape for much, but it is also in the human realm that objects are important: a winter coat, a bag of vegetables, a horse for transportation. These are essential elements of survival: food, warmth, shelter.

At times the magic is complex, at times simple, as are the relationships, but there’s a shining simplicity to the images of growth and gardens that frame Lina’s story. The idea of being able to conjure magic within a garden has been used for decades in children’s literature – a garden showing the flourishing of the heart and soul, the blossoming or growth of a forbidden fruit actually proving to be sustenance and food for thought rather than evil temptation. Orton sets up the magic vibrancy of fruit vines against a Siberian snowy backdrop and it is with strong images such as these that her power as a storyteller glitters most strongly.

The reader is left with an array of visuals – ice crystals frozen from wintry breath, a fluttering moth, a shadowy girl, an ice palace. With a startling cover illustrated by Sandra Dieckmann, interior illustrative snowflakes and more, this is a winter read with staying power. You’ll be as enchanted as if you had been captured by a sorceress. A perfect wintry read. For ages 8+.

With thanks to Walker books for the review copy. You can buy your own copy here.

The Apartment: A Century of Russian History by Alexandra Litvina, illustrated by Anna Desnitskaya

the apartmentNot all good books have to be new ideas. Sometimes the brilliance is in the execution. When I first started working at Dorling Kindersley publishers, one of the big titles was A Street Through Time by Steve Noon, which time travels a street to the Roman times, through history to the industrial revolution and Victorian England. Recently a documentary series on the BBC showed a similar concept – A House Through Time – with historian David Olusoga painstakingly researching a single house through different eras.

So The Apartment is not unusual. Except that this oversize piece of non-fiction for children is exquisitely presented, with so much information and curiosity within its pages that it feels as if it were recreating the concept afresh.

The illustrations and text follow the story of a six-bedroom apartment in Moscow from 1902 to 2002, showing the reader not only who lives there and why, but also their personal stories, political changes and upheavals, and the cultural choices and developments that then rippled from Russia across the world. Events in Russia are documented and remarked upon first and foremost according to their impact on the inhabitants of this apartment, but there is also a wealth of extra material.

A double-page family tree opens the story. This large extended family features the inhabitants of the apartment, and also indicates which pages of the book each person appears on. This handy tool helps the reader to navigate, particularly when some of the names may be tricky for an English readership.

The book opens with Irina Muromtseva in 1902, a young child moving into the apartment with her family and their dog. The cutaway apartment shows the different rooms and belongings, with annotations to characters and objects. There’s a fictional feel to the narrative, a first person introduction citing smells and emotions, but there’s a non-fiction feel to the rest, documenting the type of belongings the family had, the technologies of the time, including here a hot tap, and the inhabitants’ professions and general way of life.

Interspersed between the generational page cutaways – in which the current child of the family gives their impression of what is happening – there are double pages that explain the historical and political landscape, and show the reader smaller illustrations of particular objects and scenarios – from speech bubble vignettes of political or philosophical conversations, to types of pens for letter-writing, tree ornaments for Christmas celebrations, types of money and even recipes. This broad spectrum highlights a whole life – the feelings about war and revolutions, about communism and leadership, but also about the day-to-day: from embroidered school collars to samovars and newspaper articles.

Further on, the apartment is split as more families move in and share the space. Then more lives are documented, and the apartment sees arrests, deaths, a wedding, the advent of a telephone and television, men in space. The text introduces terms such as glasnost and perestroika, documents Stalinism and the Thaw, right up until the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

There are so many features in the book. There is of course an extensive glossary, timeline, bibliography and more. There’s a search and find game to see which objects survived how many years of change. But my favourite is the Afterword, explaining how much history and social history we glean from mere objects in everyday homes. And how for some of Russia’s history, there were things that could not be talked about. Could not be mentioned. And how books such as this can open these conversations.

We often say that to know who we are, we have to know where we came from. Our personal histories can provide a focus and explanation for how we see the outside world. And this book is a perfect example of how fiction and nonfiction can mesh and explore, can explain and provoke understanding. The text is dense, the pictures intricate, but it is a world waiting to be explored. All within one apartment.

With huge thanks to fellow children’s book blogger ReadItDaddy, without whom I would never have discovered this scintillating book. And proof therefore of the power of the children’s book blogger.

Translated from the Russian by Antonina W Bouis. For curious children aged 9+ and curious adults. You can buy it here.

The Pearl in the Ice by Cathryn Constable

pearl in the iceSet in 1912 with an impending global conflict, twelve-year-old Marina is the daughter of a Naval Commander and a long-absent mother, so is often left on her own. The book opens with Marina up a plane tree in a leafy London suburb contemplating imminent boarding school. Yet, bound within Marina’s daydreaming and watery metaphors, is the inexorable pull of the sea, and before long Marina is swapping one train for another and heading to Portsmouth to stow away on her father’s ship.

But as with so many stories, all is not what it seems. In any way. This 1912 is a slightly alternate reality, with the enemy of the British the fictional Mordavians, and a battle over codes, transmitters and missing ships being waged near the fictional town of Svengejar near the very real Sea of Murmansk. By cleverly mixing reality with fiction, Constable creates a tangible landscape for her story, and makes sure that mentions of sea beasts and mermaids don’t feel as far removed as they should.

Much of the novel takes place aboard The Sea Witch, where Marina’s father is the captain. Discovered by the crew, Marina quickly earns her place on board, looking after the dogs who will eventually pull the sleds when the ship docks in the Arctic Circle. As well as painting an intriguing picture of life on board a ship, complete with sailors’ superstitions, roles and responsibilities, ropes and rigging, there’s also the tension of imminent war, codes and code-breaking, and the mysteriousness of her father’s real role in the conflict.

By basing her book half in reality and half not, Constable sets up some wonderful tension in her characters; the reader having to guess who is speaking the truth, and who not. Near the beginning, Marina makes fast friends on the train with a Miss Smith, whom she admires for her feminist outlook, her insistence that women are just as good as men. This modern sensibility takes a battering on the ship, where Marina is referred to as ‘Boy, 2nd class,’ as girls do not feature as seamen. But her respect and admiration for Miss Smith doggedly follow her through the story, and by the end her feminist beliefs are restored, although she learns that even the bravest feminist can be on the wrong side.

The main tension in the book though, is not Marina’s seafaring adventure, or the end quest to save her father, but more her understanding of where fantasy meets reality, and the true understanding of why her mother disappeared. This is most clearly borne out in the very frightening and gripping dream/memory sequence at the end of chapter three, as Marina’s earliest memory seems to be that of being nearly drowned in the bath. From this sprout ongoing hints as to who Marina’s mother really is. By the end, the book’s plot – filled with double lives, spies, and codes – bends to encompass a fantasy realm too.

For readers of this age group, there is solace to be found in reading of a girl’s search for greater independence, not just in knowing who she is and where she comes from, but mainly in where she is going as she makes the leap from childhood to adulthood, understanding the premise that not all adults are to be believed and that challenging them can reap its own rewards.

This is a far from watery novel – in fact like the dark shape that follows Marina’s quest across the seas – it has real bite. The characters are well-formed – Miss Smith rather glamorously reminiscent of shades of Mrs Coulter – and the messages behind the story strong and well thought-out. But it is the imagery of the sea and what lies beneath that leaves lingering visions in the mind: the power of a storm, the surging dance of the waves, and the ever-changing colours of the water above the darkness below.

For 9+ years.

With thanks to Nina Douglas and Chicken House publishers for my review copy. Catch up with the rest of the blog tour below. And you can buy your own copy here.

Prisoners of Geography: Our World Explained in 12 Simple Maps by Tim Marshall, illustrated by Grace Easton and Jessica Smith

prisoners of geographyThere’s much book reading in my house. But my husband is the one who consumes the most non-fiction: a range of topics from tech, feminism, history, sociology and more. One day a few years ago, he came in from his commute raving about his latest read – an intriguing look at our world called Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall. And although the ideas in the book are set out with supreme clarity, it was never going to make it onto my nine year old’s bedside reading pile.

And then, to my huge delight, Simon and Schuster advertised the fact that, with Tim Marshall, they were publishing a children’s version. And it’s now available from all good bookshops.

This book magnificently stretches across the curriculum, pulling together geography and history to explain why countries might act aggressively towards others, where the world’s resources lie, why borders and access to seas are so important, and how our human expansion across the globe has precipitated wars and hostility, peace and collaboration. An introduction and explanation of geopolitics for children.

The maps aren’t to scale but that’s not what they’re for in this book. In fact, some of the ideas of the maps work better when toyed with – one of the most intriguing maps in the book is ‘the true size of Africa,’ in which Marshall, Easton and Smith illustrate the actual size of the continent, cleverly fitting other countries into its space for relativity.

With other maps the idea is to offer a fresh perspective on their use and influence – a range of mountains may look pretty, but it also provides a barrier from one region to another, sometimes useful and sometimes not. Large coastlines may prove useful for trade but difficult for security. Huge resources may grow a country’s wealth, but leave it vulnerable to exploitation.

Marshall writes and explains these issues with lucidity and a greatly assured calmness. The text is accessible and coherent, even when dissecting the thorniest political moves. And in short chunks or paragraphs surrounded by numerous illustrations, so that the brain is kept busy, engaged, and informed.

The book deals with all major areas of the globe region by region, starting with Russia, and moving on through China, USA, Canada, Europe, Africa and beyond, looking at their geology and how this affects politics and economics. There’s a great caveat at the start of the book explaining how this book contains abridged ideas from the adult version and can’t cover everything, and for me, it worked in covering the major geopolitical issues of our time, (even though the paragraph on the reasons for European cohesion may make some Remainers wince in acknowledgement). This is, after all, a point of view rather than an out-and-out fact book.

This Illustrated children’s version adds a simplicity and accessibility to Marshall’s prose explanation. Each map has small graphics depicting major symbols and landmarks, such as The Great Wall of China, the Mojave Desert, the Amazon Rainforest, while the prose and captions explore why these are significant both geographically and politically. Rather marvellously, our understanding of the USA as a global superpower is illustrated by a map of military bases across the world, as well as the geography of its own country. And as well as maps, there are large full page illustrations to highlight key distinctive factors of a region. Africa is beautifully portrayed with a thriving city as an example, as well as a stunning illustration of the Victoria Falls. But there are smaller vignettes too – Europe’s industrial revolution, China’s navy.

Every page holds interest and provokes thought. Of course there are territorial lines, disputed areas, gas pipelines, oil refineries, raging waterfalls that hinder transport, and a dissection of how crucial pathways were opened up – the Panama Canal, the Northwest Passage.

Country names are written across the map in a kind of handwriting scrawl typeface which makes the image feel familiar and personal, and this touch matches the prose, which reads as if it is written by a great storyteller – slotting into that narrative non-fiction genre, which is so popular. The informality of the chosen typeface for place-names also emphasises the somewhat arbitrary nature of the countries – borders and names often imposed by faraway strangers, particularly in the case of Africa and the Middle East.

Marshall highlights the incredible importance of transport, from rivers to access to seas and therefore global trade, as well as land rich in resources and land fertile for farming. These are all things that are and will be affected by climate change, and the impact is there to see – floodplains and regions hit by fires, melting polar ice and more. But also, by pointing to these land attributes, Marshall pinpoints the geographical ties that bind humanity despite any cultural differences. We all need food, shelter, security, community and trade, and that’s why the world we inhabit is both small and large, and such a topic of massive import.

Why is Tibet important? Why is Bangladesh poor? Why is America a superpower?

This is one of the most important children’s books published in the past few years. Buy your curious children a copy, and entreat them to try to understand others. It’s a definitive tome for how we think about the world, and will open up their compassion to people from around the world – why we move where we move, how we use the world’s resources, and an insight into how the world’s geography might change with climate change and how we might have to adapt because of it. Fascinating, educational, vital reading.

With huge thanks to Simon and Schuster for the early review copy. Credit also to adapters Emily Hawkins and Pippa Crane.

Buy your own copy here.