Friday, 25 September 2015

Children On the Run - reviews of The Wolf Wilder and The Blackthorn Key

There is always that moment in Katherine Rundell’s books where the main protagonist makes a break for it – leaving aside all that is familiar to risk everything and RUNS.

I love those moments.

In her debut ‘The Girl Savage’ Wilhelmina Silver is sent from her idyllic, wild life growing up in Africa to an English boarding school where she fits in about as well as a hyena. She runs away from authority and girls who scare her more than any lion.

There is that great moment where odds stack up against staying, until the balance finally tips. The huge risk of setting off into the unknown becomes a better option than the fate of staying, with the greater goal of achieving, saving or reclaiming what they love. It always makes for a great concept in a book.

In multi-award-winning ‘Rooftoppers’, it is also the authorities Sophie is running from. Raised in a quirky home, Sophie has grown into a free-spirited tomboy with a taste for Shakespeare and the unshakeable belief that anything is possible. But as the authorities doubt her quirky guardian is so suitable for a young girl, they flee to Paris in search of her mother, previously presumed dead.

Sophie finds friendship and help from the Rooftoppers,  - homeless urchins who live on the rooftops of Victorian Paris dodging among the gargoyles. Sophie learns to tightrope between buildings in a quest to stay a step- ahead of the authorities and find out if her mother is alive.

In Katherine’s latest book ‘The Wolf Wilder’, the stakes are cranked up even higher.

Set in the snowbound woods of Russia, Feodora and her mother live with only wolves for company, staying on the fringes of the taut age of the Russian revolution. In a world where there is a huge divide between rich and poor, the rich have taken to having wild wolves as pets. But if they turn savage, they are brought to Feo and her mother - wolf wilders, bringing them into contact with soliders.

When her home is threatened, Feo takes on a vile guard in the Russian army and her fearless spirit means that when he makes the mistake of taking away everything she loves, Feo will eventually march on the Russian capital, having roused by an army of children.

The huge stakes make this a terrifically exciting and engaging story. In a country of such huge divide, revolution is brewing and when Feo is caught up in the fight, suddenly, having wolves on your side can make you very sought after – for good reasons and by bad people. 

It is a story of revolution and adventure, about standing up for the things you love and fighting back, rich in language and lore and with a spirited protagonist you will be rooting for all the way.

Katherine Rundell’s writing has won her own legion of followers and this will undoubtedly win her many more. She writes brilliantly compelling, touching yet exciting stories with heart-warming endings.

Her gutsy heroines are always pushed to the limits, but find strength and courage beyond measure. This one is published as a gorgeous hardback edition, complete with atmospheric illustrations (find out how they were created) by Gelrev Ongbico. This is a book to treasure in every way.

Moving on to the second of my favourite autumn reads for middle grade and tweens, there are similarities in ‘The Blackthorn Key’ by debut author Kevin Sands.

This also features a protagonist relying on his own wits as he goes on the run, pursued by the authorities in the historical period of Restoration England, when the country is unsettled and still divided following the English revolution, when Cromwell ruled instead of a king.

As well as a great historical setting, this novel is a gem because it is also full of potions and explosions, coded messages and clues.

Christopher is apprenticed to master apothecary, Blackthorn. When his master is murdered, Christopher, is determined to find out who committed the crime, and why, but then discovers he is the main suspect.

His master is not the only apothecary to have been targeted, and he’s left his clever apprentice a series of clues. Can Christopher solve them before his master’s sinister and ruthless enemies?

With coded clues to solve, hidden vaults and libraries, secret societies and a great hero who uses his knowledge of chemistry to escape, attack, bomb, inure and thwart his enemies, this is a clever, action-packed adventure. Explosive stuff!

Now knowing who are friends or foes, I love the bit where Christopher hides out in the only place he can think of, in the gutted remains of a building destroyed by fire, with a mad-man who believes his family didn’t perish in the blaze. Great creepy stuff!

Well-plotted, exciting and with a fascinating, original background, this is a terrific, clever, action-packed adventure 

If you want to know more about author Kevin Sands (and the seventy agents he sent this to in order to secure a deal) – find it here  

Both of these reads can be enjoyed by younger readers as long as they are pretty advanced with their reading, up to teens, librarians and adults!

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Pike - Anthony McGowan - Feature - Author Interview

Back in 2013 we were very luck to have run a 3D review of Anthony McGowan's Barrington Stoke YA novel Brock. As part of the feature we interviewed Anthony [press here to read]. This summer the sequel to Brock, Pike was published, so we have caught up with Anthony again, to ask him about writing sequels.

Do you find it difficult to reprise the voice of a novel when writing a sequel?

I found it pretty easy. I'd come to know Nicky better than almost any other character I've created, and he was very very real to me. He isn't actually much like me (being honourable, courageous, kind, and patient), but I became him while I was writing, and the skin was waiting, ready for me to don it again...

Brock and now Pike are both written in first person from the perspective of Nicky, did you find that Nicky had evolved or grown between writing the first book and the second?

In Brock, Nicky is almost saintly - he hardly ever loses patience with Kenny, and heroically copes with all the problems in his life. In Pike, I wanted to add some complexity, making him a bit more human and flawed, without losing the fundamental decency that makes him special. And in Pike there's a sort of reversal, in that Kenny is more active, and at times behaves like the older brother he is, despite his learning difficulties.

How hard is it fitting back story from the first book, Brock, into the second, with the tight word count of a Barrington Stoke novel?

Rather a lot happens in Pike - as well as the basic treasure hunt plot, there's a lot of family and character development, and it was quite taxing fitting it all in. Luckily Barrington Stoke have given me a few more words than they normal allow. As for the back story, I wanted the book to stand on its own, as well as working as a sequel, and it's always a challenge in that situation to get the balance right, whatever the word-count.

In Pike, you see both Nicky and his brother Kenny develop, and their family story unfold. Will be seeing more of Nicky and Kenny in future novels?

After I finished Brock, I knew that I wanted to revisit Nicky and Kenny and their world. I had a vague idea for the plot almost straight away, and was champing at the bit to tell it. I don't feel quite the same now. I'm certainly not repelled by the idea of going back to them for the third time, but, at the moment, I don't have a 'story' for them to tell. It's probably worth pointing out that the Pike and Brock actually form a sort of loose trilogy with The Fall - the main character in The Fall plays a minor part in Pike, and achieves a kind of redemption in it for his earlier sins.

What is your favourite thing about Pike?

Obviously it's the relationship between Nicky and Kenny, which is perhaps the thing I'm most proud of creating in my career as a writer. But the setting is also very important to me. It's based very closely on the small town/large village where I spent most of my childhood - Sherburn in Elmet in North Yorkshire. It's not a beautiful place, and has taken a battering over the years, but it has character and resilience. And pubs! The Bacon Pond is a real place, as is the little wood where Nicky and Kenny rescue the badger cub in Brock. And the library and librarian are drawn from life.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Pike - Anthony McGowan - Feature - Editor Interview with Mairi Kidd from Barrington Stoke

Back in 2013 we were very luck to have run a 3D review of Anthony McGowan's Barrington Stoke YA novel Brock. As part of the feature we interviewed his editor Mairi Kidd [press here to read]. this summer the sequel to Brock, Pike was published, so we have caught up with Mairi again, to ask her about editing sequels.

Is it any easier or harder to edit a sequel than the first book?

Different books present different challenges and with a sequel, a series or a companion piece, there is a little added challenge in that it's important to ensure continuity across all of the installments. In my experience, though, authors get to know their characters and setting so well in series that the first drafts of second and third installments are often stronger than early drafts of the first book. Perhaps editors of George R R Martin-esque sagas would give you a very different answer, though!

As a children’s book editor / publisher, do you have a time frame in which to publish a sequel for it still to appeal to the readers of the first book?

When it comes to big commercial 'continuities' - like the Twilight series, say - it's a case of the sooner the better. The idea is that you want to catch the readers who loved the first book, and because children grow up so quickly, you really do have to move fast. We publish series such as Tom Palmer's Rugby Academy in this way to create anticipation and excitement - in that case we published installments every six months, and publication dates were linked to rugby seasons.

On the other hand a later sequel can give the original book a new lease of life and introduce it to a new generation of readers. An extreme example of that is To Kill a Mockingbird, sales of which are apparently up 6600% since the publication of the sequel was announced.

Why do you think children/teens like sequels so much?

I think it's human nature to want more of something we love, and that's even more true of children, who are in a learning-heavy phase of development and can really benefit from revisiting familiar content. That's why young children love to return to the same book over and over again. With a series, the first book does the hard work of introducing the characters, setting and so on, and future installments can take the story and the characters further and further. Think Discworld, where Granny Weatherwax starts out as a minor character and becomes a force of nature.

I do think there's a danger that commercial considerations can result in slender ideas being overstretched by sequels that are unnecessary in creative terms. For my money The Hunger Games is an example of a book that didn't really need two sequels, and I don't think she's really in control of the sequels to the same degree. And personally I hate books like Mrs De Winter or Death Comes to Pemberley that take a gorgeous novel and try to weave in a sequel that necessitates untying the ends the novel has neatly tied up. It's like a published version of the sort of online fan-fiction that needs to know what happens in the bedroom between Jane Eyre and Rochester. Although speaking of them, Wide Sargasso Sea is an example of a very good revisiting because it challenges the very fabric of the original. Maybe that's the key to those sort of sequels - you can't love the original too much.

Why did you choose to commission a sequel to Brock?

We didn't actually ask Anthony for one; he offered the idea. In many ways I don't think Pike is a sequel to Brock - they feel to me like stand-alone books featuring the same characters. On some levels I love Pike even more than Brock. There's a moment when Nicky thinks about the fact that he takes the 'big brother' role as Kenny's almost-minder but actually he's the little brother and right there and then he wants his big brother. It broke my heart. In a good way.

What is your favourite thing about Pike?

That scene between Nicky and Kenny is just one of the many in which Anthony - and to a degree Nicky - lets Kenny grow. That, for me, makes the novel fantastically uplifting. And of course a pike bites someone's privates. What's not to like about that?

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Review - Pike – Anthony McGowan – Barrington Stoke - Review - Challenged Reader

Anthony Mcgowan and Barrington Stoke have published the much anticipated sequel to 2013 award winning book BROCK, [press here to read our 3D review of Brock]. In Pike, we return to the world of Nicki and his older brother Kenny a year after they saved a badger pup from a grizzly death by baters. The boy’s lives have improved; their dad has a job, a girlfriend, but money is still tight so the brothers enjoy the simple pursuits in life, like fishing in Bacon Pond.

It’s by Bacon Pond where there adventure starts, when their Jack Russell gets into deep water, and Nicki goes into to save her, he sees something lurking under the murky water; a hand, and a watch. The watch is a Rolex, and only one person in the town has the money for one of those, ‘Mick Bowen’. And Mick went missing after Nicki and Kenny’s dad told the police that the stolen goods found in their shed last year belonged to him.

Nicki hatches a plan, to get the Rolex and fence it for cash to help his family. Together the boys build a raft out of a palette, Kenny following Nicki loyally, and all is going well until their endeavours stir up memories from a happier times - feelings which were buried deep. When Nicki confronts his dad about why their mother left, the boys bond fractures.

Nicki continues his plan to plunder the Rolex, and we see the boy’s relationship evolve and reverse as Kenny becomes more of a leader looking out for his younger brother.

Like Brock, Pike is an engaging tale, with its sparse word count it evokes lovely images and explores further the themes of family, secrets, determination and resilience. It’s also a refreshing change to read a book which is about working class children living on the breadline rather than middle class privileged children.

Pike is great read for challenged young adult readers, but also as a quick read for more advanced readers too.

We'll be posting more PIke features in the next couple of days, with both an interview with author Anthony McGowan and Editor Mairi Kidd.

Friday, 4 September 2015

One – Sarah Crossan Review by Adult and Child

Adult Review

I’ve been a fan of Sarah Crossan’s work since I reviewed ‘The Weight of Water’ for our 2013 Carnegie coverage [to read press here]. I’m not the only one, as she made it on to the Carnegie shortlist again this year with Apple and Rain which Claire reviewed a few weeks ago [press here to read].

One of the things I love about Sarah’s work is that she tells her story through verse, initially I was concerned that it may make the novels stodgy and difficult to read but I could not be more wrong. As the poems are short they minimise description therefore getting to the action, story and emotional heart of book without long wordy passages making them easy to read.  Each poem tells an extract of the story, together building up to deliver the whole story. Using this unique form of storytelling, Sarah Crossan tackles subjects which become dark and gritty in a little and engaging way.
Sarah’s latest book, ‘One’ is told in this way, it brings you into the mind of teenager Grace, displaying her insecurities and all her teenage anxieties  as she deals with her complicated family life and her twin sister Tippi. Being sisters and twins, Grace and Tippi have a strong bond, they have all the issues any other siblings face, and a good few more besides as they are conjoined. One, shows Graces inner feelings as she and Tippi venture to school for the first time, and as her family’s situation spirals when her mum is made redundant, and with medical bills piling up her Dads drinking problem worsens, even their younger sister Dragon has to work.

Seeing her family struggle, Grace persuades Tippi to allow a journalist to make a documentary about them, but as the camera’s begin to roll Graces secret is unveiled, and her health begins to fail, jeopardising both her and Tippi’s life.

One, is a moving story, it depicts the complications that life brings being conjoined, but it also explores the themes of family, love and individuality. 


Child Review by Gigi aged 13

One is about a pair of ischiopagus tripus (sharing the same legs and torso) conjoined twins. They are called Tippi and Grace and the book is about they way they live together and how people are prejudiced to conjoined twins. One of the most significant thing about One is the sisters’ constant struggle to be individuals. They are always thought of as one and this book shows you what this must be like. Then when Grace develops heart problems they have a choice to make. Be separated and risk death, or don’t and know that it is definitely coming. At the same time they are also adapting to school and their lives are being filmed to make a documentary. But this book also touches on other issues and areas of discrimination such as HIV and anorexia. It gives you an inside view of how people live with these conditions and what their lives are really like.

One of my favourite things about One is the way that it is written. It is in first person in Grace’s point of view but is written in a way that is set out like poetry and each chapter is a different poem but yet it is not quite poetry. But poetry always makes you feel and it is the same with this book. It was compelling and I read it in one sitting. It is bittersweet in many parts but this just adds to the effect of the ‘almost poems’.

One is an amazing book and I would recommend it to everyone of about year seven and above. I love the way it is set out and the fact that it draws you in and makes you feel like you are there, so that you have to keep reading even while you're eating pasta at the supper table. Sarah Crossan is becoming one of my favourite authors, as I also love Apple and Rain, but this new book is even better.