Friday, 30 October 2015

An Island of our Own and The Lie Tree reviews

We start a look at the great feast of wonderful writing for children that is the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize shortlist by starting with a couple of adventure stories - although neither are quite your traditional adventure stories.

An Island of our Own - Sally Nicholls

After the death of their mother, Holly and Davy are being brought up by their eighteen-year-old brother, Jonathan. They have been struggling to look after themselves and each has had to grow up very fast. 

They all put their own needs on hold while their priority becomes the fight to find a way to make ends meet, get everyone to work or school on time, put food on the table and stay together.

You might describe Sally Nicholls 'An Island of Our Own' as starting off with almost a Jacqueline Wilson feel. It makes you believe you are heading for a quite serious family story. 

But things quickly change. 

It is clever and unexpected that the siblings' journey becomes a road-trip search for treasure and adventure. Their latest quest develops not as one of day to day survival but how to crack codes and travel to the other end of the country.

Jonathan, Holly and Davy get on the trail of clues left by their great-aunt which may lead to buried treasure - and they desperately need that money. And whereas none of them felt they could ask for help before - suddenly all their friends, acquaintances and family (well, most of them)  pitch in with helpful suggestions and all sorts of canny ways to find out where their eccentric aunt might have buried her money and get to the next clue.

It's great to see a writer that has the courage to be so unexpected and take the reader in a totally different direction from where you think you are going at the beginning. 

The book is a really joyful modern take on an old-fashioned adventure story, but with a really bold and original feel. It can be thoroughly enjoyed as a fabulously warm contemporary road-trip, treasure-hunting adventure - or as a family drama, and will appeal to readers of both.

And probably what is the most satisfying is that by the end of the book it has, indeed, all been about how the siblings are going to cope, cleverly delivering the message that communities can be there to support, but often people don't know how to ask for, or to offer help. While the most fun is had with the mad ways everyone has to try to solve the aunt's cryptic clues. 

This has been a big hit with independent booksellers and was voted the winner of the Independent Booksellers Week Children's Fiction Award  2015. It is really great to see that other judges, too, have picked this out as a really outstanding book. 

The Lie Tree - Frances Hardinge

In Frances Hardinge's 'The Lie Tree', Faith also finds herself with an unexpected adventure on her hands.

Faith would love to be a scientist and serious, like her father. She rather despises her mother's fripparies and choice of pursuits. But in Victorian times, this is definitely a man's world and Faith may know a lot about science, but she has much to learn about society.

Faith can be more intelligent than most of the people around her and know and learn plenty, but it's a real challenge to be taken seriously, particularly when she becomes convinced her father has been murdered. 

But she discovers what women can be good at - manipulating and working behind the scenes and secretly doing things no-one would expect a woman to do. She sets about covertly trying to find out what her father was really working on and who might have guessed his secret.  

Without any of her enemies knowing, she gets closer to bringing her father's studies to fruition, while also plotting how to reveal what really happened to her father.

This is a page-turner with a serious heart. It's a thought-provoking and imaginative tale that manages to weave a historical scientific adventure with a thread of feminism and fantasy. Not an easy thing to pull off, but Frances Hardinge does it with lashings of style.

These are both great stories that can be enjoyed by anyone who likes a good mystery - but they both cleverly weave in some serious themes and the layers make them both really enjoyable, very clever, and seriously impressive reads.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Desert Island Books – what would you choose?

Boy there has been a lot of head-scratching around the country for the latest Books are My Bag campaign. And I have been scratching with the best of them.

Bookshops are challenging everyone to pick just eight books they would take if stranded on a desert island. Yes, just eight.

Impossible right?

This was difficult enough, but as I noticed as I scribbled mine down that many of my choices are for adults, I thought just for Space on the Bookshelf I thought I would challenge myself further and pick my eight books by just sticking to children's books.

Top of the list obviously is reserved for Harry Potter. But unlike lots of people who have been tweeting they would take the whole set – I am sorry but that is CHEATING. That is not one book. That is seven (or eight if you include the new illustrated version).

(No apologies for the shameless opportunity to include pictures of the magnificent new illustrated edition.)

Arguably, you could just take the whole Harry Potter collection for your eight books and have done with it. Choice made. And a sound idea because they just score the highest ever as books you want to read again. And again, which might be jolly useful on a desert island. It is stopping I have always had a problem with.

My son was set some dangerous English homework this week based on just a small section the first Harry Potter book and just had to re-read just that tiny bit. But oh no, that was it. Then he just couldn’t stop.

‘Why is it that so many books I like I wouldn’t want to read again but with Harry Potter I always want to re-read them again, every time?’ he asked me.

This what they call a Very Good Question. I think the easy answer is JK Rowling is a genius. But really – how does she do that? Perhaps on my desert island I might find time to finally get an answer.

But I cannot seriously take all eight books by one author.

. . . I mean,if entire collections are allowed, it is tempting to go for Skulduggery Pleasant as well as/instead of?, because you actually get more books and more words.

In fact, if we were allowing author collections then a complete Dickens and a complete Jane Austen are definitely up there – because they do these in children’s editions don’t they. So these count – right?

So my ideal list looks something like this at the moment:

  1. Complete Harry Potter (including the illustrated edition)
  2. Complete Skulduggery Pleasant
  3. Complete works of Charles Dickens
  4. Complete works of Jane Austen
  5. Douglas Adams Hitchhiker's trilogy (five books that only count as three! I am getting good at this)

That is a seriously nice lot of pages. I think I might just about be happy with that on my desert island. Most of them are kids books (sort of).

It is also possibly closer to about 50 actual books (sigh). 

And I haven’t really got started yet. Roald Dahl? I think so.

I have decided choosing eight books is, in fact, far too difficult, so I am probably going to just do a longlist while I whittle them down to just eight. This may take some time.

I need some criteria. 

Books I would want by my side are definitely  those I would happy to read again and again and ones also that are nice and chunky.  (I wasn’t planning on using them to fend off starvation, I think am assuming if I am stranded there for a long time there will be readily available delicious food, but if not I am definitely taking The Hunger Games because I will need all that great intel about catching and eating wild animals.)

I can't just have classics. I also need favourite current reads and one that I can happily re-read, and in children's books that definitely means something by Marcus Sedgwick or Meg Rosoff or Frank Cottrell Boyce.

I am thinking this might have to be ‘Broccoli Boy’ just because it is so unbeatably funny and I think I would need some humour on my desert island. I am pretty sure it will be ‘She is Not Invisible’ by Marcus Sedgwick, which is quite unlike his usual style, no whiff of the Gothic about it. But a sublimely good thriller with a main character who is blind and has to kidnap her younger brother to be her ‘eyes’ when she takes off to New York, convinced her father is in trouble. It also manages to be about maths, which is a superb achievement for a thriller and definitely is worth re-reading.

And talking of current favourites My most recent discovery are Jonathan Stroud’s totally brilliant and very scary ‘Lockwood and Co’ that I am recommending to anyone who will stand still long enough. I think I may have to take ‘The Hollow Boy’ because I haven’t read that one yet but I just know I am going to love it. Taking a book I haven’t read yet is going to be such a treat.

All right. Eight. Just eight.
I think it is going to be:

  1.  Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  2.   Skulduggery Pleasant Dark Days (because Valkyrie is so brave)
  3.  She is not Invisible
  4. The Astounding Broccoli Boy
  5.    Lockwood & Co: the Hollow Boy
  6.  A classic, either ‘Bleak House’, ‘Rebecca’, ‘Persuasion’, or ‘Little Women’
  7.   Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

I am nearly there.

Only, thinking of ‘Little Women’ does make me realise I only have UK authors on my list, which surely cannot be right.

I think I may just have to start all over again.