Tag Archives: book review Saturday

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Uncommoners: The Crooked Sixpence’

It’s wonderful to read a book which leaves you feeling, with every page, that you’ve just drunk a large cup of warm tea (or coffee, or hot chocolate, or whatever is your comfort beverage of choice) – not to suggest that The Uncommoners is cutesy, or twee, or in any sense bland. It’s not. What I mean is, it’s such a great story, so well told, that it just leaves you feeling satisfied, completely happy with your lot, and glad to have made the acquaintance of so many great characters in such a perfect setting. I don’t think I’ve read a better Middle Grade fantasy book in a long time.

The Uncommoners: The Crooked Sixpence is the debut novel of Jennifer Bell, who happens to be a fellow Greenhouser. She and I share an agent, though we don’t know one another in real life (so my review isn’t in the slightest bit biased!) I heard about her book several years ago, through our agent, and I’ve been dying to read it ever since. It was well worth the wait.


The fabulous cover of Jennifer Bell’s ‘The Uncommoners: The Crooked Sixpence’ (UK paperback edition, Random House 2016)

The book tells the story of Ivy Sparrow and her older brother Seb, who we meet on the dramatic night their beloved Granma Sylvie is rushed to hospital after a fall. Their parents are both at work and can’t get to the hospital for several hours, so Ivy and Seb need to look after Granma as best they can. While in the hospital, Ivy notices a strange man with very odd hands who seems to be looking for someone; he gives her the creeps, but eventually she and Seb have to go home. But when they get there, they find the place ransacked and – weirdest of all – a feather, suspended in midair, leaving an eerie message scratched into the wall of Granma’s kitchen.

Next thing they know, a coach and four complete with black plumes is arriving at their door and they’re being pursued by a strange man who appears to be some sort of police officer – though one armed with a toilet brush instead of a gun – and they’re being helped to escape through a suitcase by a strange boy named Valian. They end up in a place called Lundinor, which exists beneath the London they know, and is a teeming market for ‘uncommon’ objects – everyday things (like toilet brushes) which have secret powers to do odd and unexpected things. Here, a yoyo can defeat a selkie, and bells can speak.

It turns out that Granma Sylvie – who has lost the memory of her life before Twelfth Night, 1969, when she was involved in an accident as a young woman – is far more complex and intriguing than the children first thought. They are thrown headlong into a mystery tying their family to the fate of Lundinor, a generations’-old conspiracy, and the adventure of their lives as they try to get to grips with this strange new place and the scary new truths about their family.

Oh, and that’s not mentioning the fact that their parents are kidnapped somewhere along the way, threatened with certain death unless Ivy and Seb return the Great Uncommon Good, an object which they’re believed to have stolen – but of which they’ve never heard a word before their adventure begins. Can they uncover the truth, save their parents (and their dear Granma), and sort out the complexities of Lundinor, before midnight?

This book is fantastic. It’s wonderfully written, perfectly paced, full of excellent touches of folklore, particularly the lore of London (the bells of St Clements, for instance) and peopled with fantastic characters. Seb is so ‘real’ I felt I knew him personally; Ivy a wonderful, brave heroine. Granma is wonderful, as is her old-new friend Ethel. The baddies are superb (and genuinely frightening). But the best part is Lundinor. I adored everything about this ‘other’ world, which reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s London Below. It was so well described and perfectly imagined that it felt like you were walking its streets as you read. It’s a book i didn’t want to end – and one for which I’m glad there are sequels in the pipeline!

I don’t tend to give ‘star’ ratings, but this one is an Uncommon Ten, and no mistake. I couldn’t recommend it more highly. Brava, Jennifer Bell!

Book Review Saturday – ‘One’

Sarah Crossan’s One is a novel I fully expected not to like. I hope, if the author sees this opening sentence, that she isn’t offended; it will come as some comfort, no doubt, that I soon learned the error of my ways. I’m not convinced by novels written in verse, you see. I appreciate the effort it takes and the precision of language and even the pretty layout on the pages, but still. Something in me wonders if it’s necessary.

Well. One is such a beautiful story – and so deeply emotionally engaging – that the format in which it’s told hardly matters. By saying this I don’t mean to undermine Sarah Crossan’s artistry and achievement; the book is a piece of finely crafted writing. What I mean is, it soon won over even this hardened anti-poetry cynic. Eventually I forgot I was even reading. The story played out in my mind as though someone else was narrating it, or I was watching it on a screen. I think this effect was probably due to the skill with which the words were laid out on the page. In some ways it’s sparse, and in others so rich and rewarding that it ensures One is a book which lingers.


Image: independent.co.uk

One tells the story of twins Tippi and Grace, named for Hitchcock’s favourite actresses. They are pretty, intelligent, interesting and loving girls who do well at school and who have dreams of happiness, crushes on boys, and desires for their lives. They are also conjoined, their bodies united below the waist. They have two hearts and two sets of lungs, but only one pair of legs. Their life is a constant tension between how they see themselves – as a pair of individuals – and how some others see them, as a unit. As the book opens their family is facing financial ruin, and the girls’ medical treatment, which is expensive, is eating away at their resources. So, for the first time, the girls have to go to public school – and they also have to make a choice which will mean some money coming in, but which will also take away the last vestige of their privacy.

In a book like this, of course the plot is going to be somewhat predictable. We have a pair of conjoined twins; naturally, the idea of separation is going to arise. It’s not necessarily something the girls want (though of course it’s something they’ve thought about), but it gradually becomes evident that it is something they need to consider, and fast. The story then takes us in an unexpected and heartwrenching direction – but I’m not going to be drawn on that.

The book’s power is in the way it depicts the relationships between its characters. Everyone in Grace and Tippi’s family has something going on, including their sister (who suffers from an eating disorder, and who I would have loved to read more about, and their father who struggles with alcoholism), and I really enjoyed that Crossan doesn’t make Grace and Tippi the ‘odd ones out’, the token disabled people in an otherwise perfect family. I loved the way she describes the girls’ nascent longing for love and romantic connection, their complete integration with one another, their deep and unfathomable love for one another, the depth of the decisions they must face and how there is, in truth, no right answer to any of their complex challenges. I’m still not quite sure what the poetry brought to the story, but I just know that I loved it, and that the book will live with me for a long time. I happened to read it as I sat in hospital just beginning the process of labour (my child was born the following day) and this gave it a deep resonance for me, too. I could connect powerfully with the ideas of fetal development and birth, touched on at the book’s start, and the feelings of the girls’ mother both as she learned the truth of her daughters’ condition and what it would mean for them, long-term, and also the reality of the situation they find themselves in during the course of the story. The truths in this book (including the difficulty of dealing with medical complications, the effects it has on other members of the family, the reality of alcoholism, unemployment and family dysfunction) are fantastically well realised, and the whole is saved from bleakness and despair by the wonderful characterisation and the strength of the sisters’ connection.

In short, this is a book which doesn’t take long to read, due to its form, but which will live long in your mind and memory. It’s affecting, emotional, beautiful, and above all true, in the sense that all good literature is true. It encapsulates life in all its complexity and unpredictability, in all its joys and sorrows, and it is beautiful.  A definite recommendation.

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Book of Learning’

The debut novel of E.R. Murray, The Book of Learning, published earlier this month by Mercier Press, is a complex and fast-moving tale. Set between West Cork and Dublin, it makes great use of the urban/rural divide, showing its heroine Ebony Smart at home in nature and at sea in the big city, unsure of herself and having to learn a new way of life when she is transplanted from one place to the other after the death of her beloved grandpa. Unluckily for Ebony, this sad event takes place on her twelfth birthday, and even more unluckily, she barely has time to catch her breath before her whole life is uprooted.

Image: ermurray.com

Image: ermurray.com

Learning that she has an aunt she’d never heard of before, and told by a sniffy ‘Judge’ that she must go to live with her instead of being allowed to stay on her grandfather’s farm where she has lived all her life up to that point, Ebony finds herself in an entirely new world. Living on the top floor of an old Georgian house in the heart of Dublin city, one in which all the windows are nailed shut and every creaking door and whispering floor has a different secret to tell, she is at a loss what to do next. Her ‘uncle’ Cornelius – his relation to Aunt Ruby somewhat dubious – seems more animal than human, and her aunt is full of strange tales, trying to get Ebony to believe she is part of a group of people who can reincarnate, but that something dark and unexplained has begun to threaten their way of life. She meets a strange, shadowy man named Icarus Bean who warns her that she is not safe, along with a boy named Zach Stone who seems to have unexplained powers (and who becomes her only human friend – but can he be trusted?) but she relies completely for company on her brave, intelligent rat, Winston, whose constant presence is her only comfort.

In her aunt and uncle’s study, Ebony comes across a small book bound in metal covers. Calling itself The Book of Learning, a panel on its back cover reads ‘Property of Ebony Smart’. This, naturally, comes as some surprise; Ebony has never seen it before. She smuggles it out, determined to get to the bottom of its secrets. It soon transpires that the book shows different things to different people; where it explains something of Ebony’s past history to her (though, naturally, leaving much unexplained!) it seems to show something completely different to Zach, something painful and frightening. Through using the book, and through uncovering some of the secrets of 23 Mercury Lane, her new home, Ebony learns she must get to the bottom of a murder which has been committed. The only problem is, she’s not sure which murder. She fears it may be that of her grandfather, who – despite medical opinions which say he died of natural causes – she feels was killed, and by someone she knows. Then, chances are the book is talking about another murder altogether, one rather closer to home – the murder of Ebony herself, carried out in one of her past lives. But how to solve a crime committed over two hundred years before?

As it becomes clear that the Order of Nine Lives is not a figment of Aunt Ruby’s imagination, and that Ebony not only belongs to it but has lived before, many times over, the mysteries surrounding it grow ever more complex. Eventually Ebony is led back ‘home’ to Cork, where a strange black rose planted and cultivated by her grandfather turns out to be more than a simple flower, but the key to her destiny – but can she put the puzzle together in time to save herself, her family, and Winston, who has been kidnapped by person or persons unknown?

My favourite aspect of this book was the settings it used. It’s clear that the author loves both Dublin city and the countryside of Cork, and this affection comes through in her evocative descriptions of Ebony’s house, St Stephen’s Green (where Zach lives), the Botanic Gardens (where the headquarters of the Order of Nine Lives is located) and the National Library (where Ebony goes to research her past selves), as well as the natural beauty of her grandfather’s farm. The perilous voyage Ebony takes near the book’s conclusion is grippingly described, and the details of countryside life add a wonderful air of realism to the Cork-based scenes. However, I admit to a certain level of confusion in relation to the mythology of the families who have the power to reincarnate – it took me several reads of the relevant parts of the book to fully get to grips with the system of reincarnation (which takes place in a ‘sky world’ named the Reflectory, access to which is supposed to be tightly restricted) and I wasn’t entirely sure of the connections between the Nine Lives families and the balance of power in the universe. I also felt, at times, that Ebony has a dangerous tendency to ignore her ‘inner voice’ (which seems to pop up just when she needs it but which, nonetheless, is normally jettisoned in favour of her doing what she feels like) which is not always advisable! Having said that, she is a brave, undaunted character, determined to get to the truth surrounding her grandfather and herself, loyal and devoted to her friends (particularly Winston, who I loved), and I had to admire the way she copes with the sea-change in her life.

There’s enough intrigue (and motorbikes, and boats, and accidents, and gruesome deaths) here to keep boys entertained, and enough hard-nosed, determined, hot-headed and brave displays of girly brilliance here to keep girls hooked, and enough complexity to challenge even the most accomplished of readers. The Book of Learning is the first part of a trilogy, and it’ll be interesting to see What Ebony Does Next  – and who will survive to join her!

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Maloneys’ Magical Weatherbox’

The first thing I’ll say about this book is: it made me laugh, people.

Image: goodreads.com Artist: Erwin Madrid (erwinmadrid.blogspot.ie)

Image: goodreads.com
Artist: Erwin Madrid (erwinmadrid.blogspot.ie)

It made me laugh because it’s a madcap, rollicking tale, but also because it reminded me so much of the zany weirdness of Flann O’Brien, whose novel At-Swim-Two-Birds is all over this work, and the linguistic artistry of Pat O’Shea, whose masterwork Hounds of the Morrigan has a similar feel to the dialect and dialogue on display here. In terms of the sheer unpredictability of the plot, the rich peppering of myth, mysticism and barely-controlled insanity which flows through it, and the pure belly-shaking fun of it, these two literary giants live on in Nigel Quinlan’s work. It’s so Irish, but it’s meta-Irish; Gaelic in a knowing, tongue-in-cheek way, at once honouring and taking the mick out of the traditions which, deep down, underpin it.

This isn’t to say you need a degree in English literature to appreciate it. Far from it. All you need to get on board with this book is a working sense of humour and an ability to leave your sensible shoes at the door.

Nigel Quinlan’s The Maloneys’ Magical Weatherbox (Orion, 2015) is the story of the Maloney family, who live in the Irish Midlands. They are siblings Owen, Neil and Liz, along with Mum and Dad, and they run a B&B to make ends meet. However, that isn’t their real role: Mr Maloney is the Weatherman, one of four very powerful beings who exist at the corners of the world and whose role it is to usher one Season in and another out at the appropriate times of year. If this job isn’t done, and done correctly, chaos and all manner of nastiness will ensue. The book is told through the alternating viewpoints of the two older children, Neil and Liz, both of whom are fun and interesting – but particularly Liz, who is a little firecracker armed with a bow and arrow, full of life and a fiery sense of the injustice of the world. I loved her, and I loved how her narrative arc ends up. The story begins just as Summer is supposed to become Autumn, and the family are preparing for the change of Season – but then, for some reason, it doesn’t happen. The expected chain of events doesn’t take place. Instead, they get a Tourist named Ed who turns up out of the blue looking for a room, and two cracked old hags begin to wander in the wood, and a Bog Beast turns up out of nowhere – and to top it all off, the neighbours begin to act very strangely indeed…

Ed is a tourist of magic who knows all about the legend of the Weatherman and is delighted to have found him. The inexplicable hags are straight out of Irish legend (via the aforementioned Flann and O’Shea), changing shape and appearance as the story goes on, and delivering some of the laugh-out-loud dialogue that this book is full of. I’ve read some reviews which compare them to the witch characters in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, but as a lifelong fan of those books I have to admit I didn’t see any resemblance between Pratchett’s witches and these powerful gals at all. They’re far more like the triple-aspect goddess Morrigan in Pat O’Shea’s work, fast-paced and sometimes nonsensical dialogue and all. The Bog Beast (who becomes Neetch the cat, adopted wholesale by the youngest Maloney) is sometimes a terrifying creature and sometimes a tiny kitten, but always interesting to read about. The evil Mrs Fitzgerald, who (along with her brutish husband John-Joe and their odious son Hugh) is the baddie of the piece, is never less than compelling, and her connection to some of the other characters in the story is interesting. The Fitzgeralds live beside the Maloneys, though they’re hardly ‘neighbourly’, and the families have a long and twisty relationship which goes far beyond the usual issues about land ownership and boundary lines and who left grass clippings on whose lawn, and the sort. I really enjoyed reading about the families and how they are connected; these connections deepen as the book goes on.

Some of the book’s mythology – by which I mean its use of the weather and the changing Seasons as a motif – is a bit confusing or vaguely explained (particularly Mrs Maloney, who seems to be a figure of some power in her own right but who we never really learn about properly), and I wasn’t always on board with the need for the role of a Weatherman at all, or why such an arrangement between the powers of nature and humanity was ever arrived at. But this isn’t even important, really. The sheer fun of the story and the relentless pace of the goings-on is more than enough to keep any reader invested. I had so many moments when this book made me genuinely laugh, and I hope the humour would translate well whether you’re an Irish reader or not (though I do think an Irish reader might get a little more out of it than someone of another nationality), and I was particularly amused by the Shieldsmen, who were the traditional guardians of the Weatherman before being unfortunately exiled some years before. When we first meet them, their fast-paced dialogue and verbal eccentricities just carry the reader away, and despite the fact that they’re completely ‘out there’, they were among the most memorable characters for me.

So. Plotting isn’t this book’s strong point, but it more than makes up for that with superb characterisation, cracking dialogue and a great depiction of a flawed but realistic family, prepared to do anything it takes to support and protect one another. The humour and the pace of the action are the cherries on the cake. A definite recommendation for anyone willing to try something a bit different, and for any kid out there who likes Doctor Who, or who is looking for a story which will make them laugh – guaranteed!*

*Refer all claims in relation to this guarantee to Nigel Quinlan, c/o anyone but the proprietress of this blog!

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’

I started re-reading Patrick Ness’ incomparable ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy earlier this week just because it has been years since I last treated myself to it, and it is one of my all-time favourite stories to boot. I began to read it before the current media focus on the ongoing refugee crisis, and before Ness himself began this incredible fundraising campaign, which has (at time of writing) made over £200,000 available to Save the Children UK in order to help the struggling refugee families. But, in light of these developments, I’m writing this review with the aim of encouraging anyone who has never read the Chaos Walking books to buy and read them – or, indeed, any of Patrick Ness’ books. He has written many. His endeavours to help the dispossessed have made the last few days bearable for me, and (I’m sure) for many others. I know of no better way to support him than by – firstly, and obviously – donating to his cause, but also buying his books, and those of the other authors who have pitched in to help. The success of his campaign has truly been an amazing thing to witness and be part of.

In any case. On with the review.

Image: booksandrelatednonsense.tumblr.com

Image: booksandrelatednonsense.tumblr.com

The Knife of Never Letting Go (Walker Books, 2008) tells the story of Todd Hewitt, the last boy in Prentisstown. He is weeks away from turning thirteen, a birthday which will mark the moment in which he becomes a man, and – apparently – when his whole life will change. Because the newly-fledged men (who were once Todd’s contemporaries) stop speaking to him and including him in their lives once they pass their own thirteenth birthdays, he is friendless at the book’s beginning, save for his formidable, loyal, loving and clever dog, Manchee. He lives on a farm with his foster fathers, Ben and Cillian, who have raised him as their own since the deaths of his parents many years before.

The story is set in the future, where colonisers and settlers (presumably from Earth) have come to a ‘new world’ in search of a free and peaceful life, one free of discrimination. The planet they arrived on had a native population, known as the Spackle, whom Todd has been raised to believe are now extinct. The Spackle were dangerous, responsible for a virus which killed the women of Prentisstown, including Todd’s mother, and most of the men, and which caused the men who were left over to suffer with Noise, which essentially renders their every thought audible to anyone around them. Privacy is unknown. A man’s thoughts – even while he dreams – are broadcast, appearing like clouds of pictures around his head and as a ‘soundtrack’. The virus also made it possible to hear the voices of animals, so every beast, from Manchee to the livestock in the fields, are also broadcasting their thoughts, simplistic and repetitive as they might be. This means that Todd’s world is filled, edge to edge, with constant sound, the Noise making peace impossible to find, blending together to make a torrent of meaningless babble which must be aggravating, even for those who are used to living with it. Then, one day, as he explores a swamp not far from his home, Todd and Manchee come across something they’ve never known before: a patch of eerie silence, which shouldn’t exist…

As soon as Todd discovers this silence, his world changes. Ben and Cillian urge him to leave, straight away, telling him that he must reach another settlement – even though Todd has been raised to believe Prentisstown is the only settlement on his planet. In the confusion of his leaving, the men of Prentisstown attack Todd’s home, putting his fathers’ lives at risk, and he is pitched out alone into the swamp (where the crocs live) with only Manchee and a backpack, containing his late mother’s journal, to keep him on the right path. Thus begins an adventure whereby Todd finds himself meeting the most unexpected person possible, being chased by an army, and discovering why, exactly, his status as the ‘last boy’ in Prentisstown was so important.

This book is filled with brilliant characters (human and animal alike – I defy you to find a fictional dog more memorable and lovable than Manchee), and some of the most gripping, realistic – despite the literally otherworldly setting! – and emotionally affecting dialogue and set-pieces in modern fiction. It’s incredibly evocative, using slang and non-standard spelling to evoke dialect and accent, and as taut as a guitar string. The tension never lets up, the stakes never fail, and in Mayor Prentiss, Ness has created one of the most well-rounded and interesting baddies I’ve ever read. It is violent, immediate, blood-thirsty in places, and in other places it can be genuinely terrifying, because it confronts the darkest impulses in the human heart. But it also throbs with love – that between friends, between a boy and his dog, between a long-lost mother and her adored son, and that between a pair of tender foster fathers who give their all for the child they have sworn to protect. It truly is a book which promises much and delivers on it, and one which more than stands up to a re-read. It deals with issues like slavery, injustice, genocide, religious fundamentalism, sexual and gender-based inequality, colonialism, power imbalances, tyranny, and more, and all in the form of a brilliantly written, masterfully crafted tale. This is a book which tells of other worlds, ones intended to surpass and improve on our own, but which bear all the ill fruit of our own weaknesses.

YA literature is all about vampires and werewolves? I think not. Read this book, be amazed, and you’ll immediately find yourself craving its sequels. It’s a challenge, and my gauntlet is thrown!

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Black Lotus: The Samurai Wars Book 1’

With thanks to the publisher, Chicken House Books, and the author, Kieran Fanning, for organising a complimentary copy of this book for me in exchange for a review. Cheers, big eyes (as Ghost would probably say)!

Image: chickenhousebooks.com

T Image: chickenhousebooks.com

I’ve never read a book quite like The Black Lotus before, which is a fantastic thing to be able to say of a debut novel. It’s really a story which has something to offer everyone, and which takes in so much, imaginatively, that it has a cinematic quality which adds hugely to the enjoyment of reading it. The action is fast, the dialogue is fun, the characters are great and the settings are diverse, interesting and well-imagined.

The first character we meet is the one who turned out to be my favourite – Ghost. He is a thirteen-year-old boy living in a favela in Rio de Janeiro – or, at least, a version of Rio de Janeiro which exists in a reimagined future, one in which a villainous Empire has spread across most of the world. The realities of life under this regime are skilfully expressed, particularly when Ghost speaks of the giant statue of Jesus which used to loom over the city; this gently sad reference to the Christ the Redeemer statue, immediately familiar to every reader, helps to site the story and also underline the dangerous new world we’ve entered. Ghost, we soon learn, is a boy uniquely well equipped to deal with his hardscrabble life. As well as his innate intelligence and courage, he also has a talent; given the right conditions, Ghost can become invisible. He calls this Bleaching, but he doesn’t quite know how he manages to do it. As the book opens, he is involved in a robbery, experiencing a close brush with the long arm of the law, until he encounters a mysterious man with a patch over one eye. He thinks he has shaken off this new pursuer, only to find he will not be evaded quite so easily.

We then switch to an Irish setting, meeting another teenage boy named Cormac who is on the run from bullies. In his attempt to escape, he demonstrates that he, also, possesses a superpower – one which allows him to run so fast that he can scale walls, or overtake almost anything on the flat. He, too, encounters the strange one-eyed man, who – as he’d done to Ghost, back in the favela – gives him a black flower. The final teenager is a young girl named Kate who lives on the streets of New York, alone since losing her family to the Empire. Her special ability is that of communication; she can speak to animals, and she also has a remarkable facility with human languages. As we might expect by now, Kate also encounters Makoto, the one-eyed man, who also recruits her into the Black Lotus by giving her the strange dark flower and telling her she, and her skill, will prove indispensable to their struggle.

But what is this struggle, and who is behind it?

Makoto is a member of the Black Lotus, a resistance movement which has struggled for centuries to keep the power of the Japanese Empire at bay. Its members guard the Moon Sword, an object of immense power, and have done for over five hundred years, keeping it from the clutches of anyone who would wish to use it to do harm. The youngsters learn gradually about the movement and their roles within it, training as ninjas (or ‘shinobi’), coming into contact with all manner of cool technology and equipment as they explore their new home of Renkondo, the underground HQ of the Black Lotus. All is progressing smoothly, until the Moon Sword is stolen from the heart of Renkondo and taken somewhere that nobody can follow – nobody but Ghost, Cormac and Kate, at least…

The story leaps through time, from city to city, utilising technology and equipment from sixteenth-century Japan and modern-day America, as the children race to recover the stolen sword. They each make use of their ability, but far from being a ‘get-out-of-all-situations’ card, the plot clearly shows the limitations of each teen’s power, whether it’s the toll it takes on their body or the sheer near-impossibility of what they’re trying to do. Throughout, they must rely on their friendship, learning to rebuild trust when it shakes (as it inevitably does), looking past the obvious, putting together clues and figuring out which adults are on their side and which are not, all the while keeping one step ahead of the Empire and its fearsome leaders. The showdown in New York is great, with unexpected help coming from a fantastic source, and the book finishes on a high note, with plenty of plot threads tied up perfectly – but leaving enough unanswered to whet the reader’s appetite for a sequel, all the same.

I particularly enjoyed Ghost’s verbal ‘tics’, or his tendency to misunderstand English phrases, which means he often mangles his words. I also felt he had the most interesting and emotional backstory, which was used to great effect through the book. He is naturally hilarious, and several scenes with him had me giggling aloud. I thought Kate was a strong and interesting character, though it did bother me slightly that her looks and figure are dwelt on at several junctures in the book; she is only thirteen, after all, and this sort of description, to me, feels unnecessary. As well as that, she is capable of being an anchor character without also needing to be ‘blonde and beautiful’ – the boys’ looks aren’t considered important to their roles! Cormac is a typical Irish teenager, and I enjoyed his fiery temper and courage. I also thought his special ability was wonderfully utilised and well described. The story also makes great use of incidental and more minor characters, particularly Savage, who stole my heart – but I’m not saying any more about him. You’ll have to read the book to find out why.

This is a great read from an Irish author, and one I’d recommend for anyone of perhaps 10+ looking for a fresh, unexpected and exciting adventure story which takes in multiple settings and voices, showcasing diversity and great storytelling. And if you’re still not sure, why not check out this interview with Kieran Fanning for an insight into the book, its background and the process of writing – I hope you’ll soon be as big a fan of Ghost as I am.

Book Review Saturday – ‘Shadow of the Wolf’

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

This book came highly recommended from some very highly reputable sources. One of them was a bookseller whose opinion I hold in high enough regard as to be comparable with Chaucer’s himself; the other was a knowledgeable and well-read Twitter follower who gushed about it in enthusiastic tones when I said I wanted to read it. So, that sealed my fate.

To be fair, though, I was sold as soon as I heard it was a retelling of the Robin Hood myth, and that it had elements of Alan Garner and Mythago Wood in it. We all know how much I adore Alan Garner, but I also adore Robert Holdstock’s marvellous Mythago Wood, and so I was hooked long before I ever had the recommendations. Not just hooked – sinkered. Beyond all hope.

Now, of course the problem with books which are highly recommended is this. Sometimes they live up to expectation, and you’re left foaming at the mouth once you’ve finished, frantically pressing the tome into the hands of all who know and love you. And sometimes – they don’t.

Shadow of the Wolf is not a book which left me foaming at the mouth. Having said that, it’s not bad – it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a while, in fact. But somehow, it left me a bit sad inside, probably at the idea that there was so much in it which was good, but somehow I remained detached from it, overall.

However. One thing it does do extraordinarily well – better than nearly any book I’ve read – is create a sense of place. And not just any place, but a forest so alive, so real and menacing and beautiful and bountiful and terrifying and strange that it is, in every sense, as much a character as any of the humans. Of course it’s Sherwood Forest, but it’s made up of many other forests which overlap and intermingle and merge, which made my heart glad as it recalled the heavily-forested reality of the Middle Ages in which the book is firmly set. It places a small boy, Robin Loxley, in this forest, and it shows him being lost beyond all hope of finding right in its heart, and then it shows us how he survives. It takes characters with the same names as the ones we know – Robin, and Marian (here Marian Delbosque, which I felt was particularly appropriate), and much later Will Scarlett and the Sheriff of Nottingham – and gives them entirely different stories from anything we’ve ever encountered before.

And all this is brilliant.

But I felt that, at times, things just went too far.

A lot of the book takes place in the forest itself, with Robin learning how to master it and interacting with the dread, powerful and mythical forces he finds within it (particularly the fearful Lady of the Forest, who gave me the creeps big time), and dealing with the enormous setbacks he faces once he loses his family, and then Marian, in turn. As well as simply keeping himself alive from one day to the next and one season to the next, he has to work out what has happened to his loved ones, and why – and whether he has any chance of ever getting them back. I enjoyed the scenes where he is in training with Sir Bors and his boys, because they were so well-described that I felt like I was watching them unspool in front of me; I enjoyed the scenes with the creatures in the forest, and I thrilled to the hints of medieval myth and legend which thread through their depictions. I particularly enjoyed the way in which Tim Hall uses the myth of Robin Hood’s prowess with a bow and arrow, and how it is reimagined here. But, every now and again, the book pushed the story down a path I couldn’t believe, and I found it hard to walk those paths. I also felt the sheer evil of the evil characters veered into the overblown at times, though one scene near the end of the book rescued the Sheriff from caricature, for me. He shows a depth of character and layers of complexity at a vulnerable moment which made him more ‘alive’, and I appreciated that. Other evil characters aren’t so lucky, and remain one-note throughout.

This book does ‘have it all’, on some levels. Drama, romance, action, gore (and it has that in actual spades, so be warned), mythology, psychology, historical ‘reality’, tension, terror (veering into horror at some junctures), friendship, honour, people banding together in order to survive (I wouldn’t go so far as to call it ‘Merrie Men’, or indeed ‘Merrie Lasses’), and it’s clear that the author knows not only the legends, but also the historical period, intimately. You’ll smell the sweat and blood, you’ll taste the food, you’ll feel the strain of the bowstring, and you’ll hear the sounds of the forest all around.

But, for me, I was left feeling somewhat hollow and unsatisfied at the book’s close. Lots is left unexplained (because sequels, but it’s annoying), and I felt as though I had nobody to root for, as I didn’t particularly like anyone. I think this might be the problem: I found it hard to connect to the characters in this story. Perhaps that’s me; perhaps not. I’ll let you decide.

So, I’d recommend this book, but with reservations. It’s marketed as ‘YA’, but I’m not sure I’d place it there. Robin and Marian are young in it, but that doesn’t make it a YA book. It’s historical fiction; it’s mythological retelling; it’s an adventure story. In many ways, it’s beyond definition. Certainly, it’s memorable. Give it a try.

Check out a preview of the book at the publisher’s website, and see if it’s for you.

Book Review Saturday – ‘Ironheart’

As you may or may not know, I’m a person who has written an adventure story for 8-12 year olds which is largely set in the Frozen North, a place peopled with all manner of weird and wonderful creatures and natural phenomena to take readers’ breath away (well, hopefully at least – and I promise to return the breath afterwards, once I’ve finished with it). Ironheart is… well. Ironheart is an adventure story for 8-12 year olds largely set in the Frozen North, and there are plenty of weird and wonderful creatures in it, not to mention natural (and unnatural) phenomena, and it certainly takes the breath away at times.

Image: panmacmillan.com

Image: panmacmillan.com

Having said all that, it’s as different from my book as two books can be, I think. It really made me realise that two stories can have incredibly similar settings (in both cases, a post-apocalyptic world which mixes elements from a possible future and an alternative past), and some similar characters (a spirited young girl whose quest to find a missing parent drives the plot) and still be different. Which is great. Reading Ironheart turned out to be quite a strange experience for me, though, mainly because of my own book and its long, complicated, messy and rather painful trek to publication, but also because there were so many things about it I loved, and I couldn’t help but compare it to my own work, sometimes to my own detriment.

Putting all this aside, though, Ironheart is a great read, and one I’m glad to have finally experienced.

Ironheart tells the story of India Bentley, who lives, along with her sister Bella and their odious stepmother Roshanne, in a version of London which has been irrevocably damaged by floods and environmental decay. The girls’ father, John, is missing, presumed dead, in Siberia, where he had been working as a prospector for oil. In this future London, food is at a premium, and there seems to be no respite from the damp, and the cold, and the grimness of life – and India’s life is hard enough, what with her dreadful stepmother and the creepy old man to whom she (India) is to be married. Thaddeus Clench (the aptly-named ‘groom’) is a creature on a par with Professor Pennyroyal in Philip Reeve’s Predator Cities novels, a pure streak of teeth-juddering horror, interested only in self-preservation. I hated him intimately, which goes to show how well he’s written. Just as India seems beyond help, the explorer and old-tech hunter Verity Brown, along with her marvellous friend Calculus (an android, mind, not a robot) appear in her life, looking for information about her father, and India sees her chance. Not being anyone’s fool, India gives her stepmother and Clench the slip, and escapes with Mrs Brown and Calc.

So begins an adventure which brings India to Angel Town, an outpost in frozen Siberia, where she meets enemies and friends alike, loses something precious, and realises what a friend she has in Calculus, a giant metal man who was once a killing machine and who now dedicates his existence to keeping her safe. She becomes part of the crew of a ‘rig’, a diesel-powered vehicle which chugs its way into the icy wastes in search of treasure and oil (or whatever can be found) and learns the truth about her father, and why he was really in Siberia. He wasn’t simply looking for oil, of course; his true quest was to find Ironheart, a mythical place where the secrets of the old world were kept, and which may hold the key to the future existence of the planet. And, of course, there were others on his trail, including the villainous Lucifer Stone and his hapless, trigger-happy son Sid, who try to thwart India at every turn…

The only thing I didn’t thoroughly enjoy about this novel was the fact I felt, particularly near the end, that it was trying to do too much. The story lost me a little as it drew near its conclusion, and I think it had something to do with the secrets surrounding Ironheart (about which I’m giving away nothing, no siree, lips sealed here). I couldn’t help but think there was so much crammed into the last hundred pages or so that it made the action seem a bit rushed and perfunctory, which was a real shame. There were characters who weren’t developed enough, and legends I’d love to have heard more about, and issues (like ecology and conservation) which could have been heightened further if the focus had been changed slightly.

But, in every other respect, I loved this book.

India is great, and so is the spunky Mrs Verity Brown (I’d happily read a series of books simply about her!) and I adored the brave, clever and loving Calculus, and his relationship with India. I thought Sid (despite being a dreadful little twerp) was a sympathetic and troubled character whose less-than-appealing characteristics were perfectly understandable when one considered his father, and I loved Captain Bulldog, and even Mrs Chang (if she was a little on the stereotypical side). It was the characters who made this book so good, for me. They were all fully-rounded, well described, and clearly realised, and the dialogue (more often than not) was great, which always wins me over. Even though the plot and pacing didn’t quite work for me as the book drew to a close, I’d still recommend this book as a fast and exciting read which should grab the imaginations of boys and girls (of all ages) alike, and which has enough thrills, tension and mystery to keep any reader satisfied. I’ll be back for the sequels!

Book Review Saturday – ‘Phoenix’

S. F. Said is quickly becoming one of my auto-buy authors. His previous works, Varjak Paw and The Outlaw Varjak Paw, are beautiful adventure stories about discovering one’s own inner strength and learning to rely on friends (themes I love in children’s books), and his newest book, Phoenix, takes a look at some of the same issues, but in a vastly different way. Instead of the back alleys of a frozen city, seen from a cat’s-eye view, we have the most massive canvas of all opening up before us – the galaxy itself.

Image: sfsaid.com. Artist: Dave McKean.

Image: sfsaid.com. Artist: Dave McKean.

This book tells the story of a boy named Lucky who lives with his mother on a planet named Phoenix. His father, a famed military captain, is far away beyond the Spacewall fighting against the terrifying Alien race known as the Axxa, but despite this he seems ‘present’ in so many ways, as he is rarely far from Lucky’s thoughts. As the story opens, Lucky is dreaming. He feels himself soaring into the immensity of space, surrounded by stars, and an unknowable power begins to stir inside him – but when he wakes, he finds his clothes and bedsheets turned to ash. His mother reacts with terror, and a strange sort of foreboding, as though this was something she knew was going to happen one day, but she won’t explain what’s going on to her terrified son.

They go on the run, but in their efforts to leave Phoenix they are stopped. In the ensuing struggle, Lucky realises his mother is not everything she appears to be, and he barely escapes with his life. His unlikely rescuers? A crew of Axxa civilians, who agree to take him with them, anywhere but Phoenix. And so begins Lucky’s quest, not just across the galaxy, but also into the secrets which have surrounded his entire life. Are the Axxa really as bad as he’s been led to believe? Who, exactly, is his mother, and where did she get her jaw-dropping military skills from? After all the waiting and wondering, is his father really somewhere behind the Spacewall? And why does he feel, in his dreams, as though his entire body is filling up with the power of the cosmos – and what does it mean?

This book is immense. It’s a work of art. Stuffed full of the most beautiful drawings by acclaimed artist Dave McKean, who also brought Varjak Paw to life, it’s a memorable and moving intergalactic journey, the epic scale of which is mirrored in microcosm by Lucky’s internal voyage. He goes from being a lost and scared little boy to a person of such strength and self-belief by the story’s end, and the final few pages of this beautifully realised book are just perfectly imagined and written. As he travels across the universe in the company of his newfound friends, meeting Startalkers (people with the ability to ‘hear’ and communicate with particular stars, feeling what they feel) and prophets, Aliens and Humans, fantastic creatures and terrifying enemies, Lucky learns how much he has been kept from all his life, and how hard his parents tried to protect him. But, of course, as with all stories like this, he has to shuck off the mantle of protection and begin to take responsibility for himself, making his own decisions and coming to his own conclusions – and he does all this in style. He learns the secrets of his father’s astrolabe (a feature I loved), which is a mysterious navigational tool with the power to show its user the best route through the immensity of space to any point they wish to reach (and we finally find out why, whenever Lucky asks it to show him how to get to his father, it takes him off the ‘edge’ of the map, something which nobody had believed possible), and he gradually comes to terms with the depth and significance of his cosmic power.

The book has a deep ecological resonance, too, reminding its readers that we cannot simply take and use the natural resources offered to us (even on a galactic scale) without responsibility, as no matter how seemingly endless it appears, eventually every natural resource will become tapped out, and the result will be death for everyone. We learn about the ‘Wolf’ which is eating the stars, and the terrible toll this takes on the Startalkers, who must fade and die as their stars do. The myth of the Astraeus, the twelve immense beings – older and greater than gods – who live among the stars threads its way through the narrative and the art, and the huge themes of rending and destruction are counterpointed by Lucky’s realisation that, underneath it all, every living thing is the same, and Axxa and Human alike are more similar than different. He finds and loses love; he finds answers he didn’t know he was looking for. And eventually, he becomes the sort of man he could never have imagined.

S. F. Said is a hugely vocal advocate for children’s books and their power and value. His own work, Phoenix foremost, is a perfect example of what he’s talking about. This book is beautiful, imagination-grabbing, filled with themes of such scope and immensity that it simply has to be written for children, because it would be wasted on adults. As an object, this book gave me so much pleasure; it’s not just the story, which is good enough by itself, but the illustrations, which added to its visual and sensory appeal. It’s immersive and captivating and memorable, and one of my books of the year – in fact, probably one of my favourite books of all time. I heartily recommend it, for every child in your life.

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow’

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow is the debut novel of Katherine Woodfine, whose award-winning blog (focusing largely on children’s books) and job (working with Booktrust, alongside the UK Children’s Laureate) show her to be amply qualified to write a book like this one. It is a gentle, old-fashioned romp (all things I love!) through Edwardian London, following the adventures of a young lady named Sophie Taylor, who has recently gained employment in the Millinery Department of the soon-to-be-opened Sinclair’s Department Store in Piccadiilly. Period detail drips from every page, helped marvellously by the fantastic illustrations by Julia Sarda. I particularly loved the ones at the beginning of each new section, showing a fashionable young lady of the age wearing the last word in fashionable hats – which, of course, fits right in with Sophie’s new job.

And then there’s this stunning cover.

Image: egmont.co.uk

Image: egmont.co.uk

Pretty…. Anyway.

We first meet Sophie, who is fourteen, as she makes her way to Sinclair’s for a day’s training in advance of the shop’s grand opening. Sinclair’s is a store in the vein of Selfridges; large and opulent, situated over several floors, selling only the best of everything, and offering its clients a bit of luxury. It is owned by an American millionaire (again, as Selfridge’s was, back in the day) and despite being entirely fictional, it is described and written so well that the shop itself becomes another character in the story. I felt like I knew its twists and turns, its landings and corridors and polished wooden banisters, as well as I knew any of the people in this tale. Sophie immediately runs up against Edith, another shopgirl, who takes against her because of Sophie’s posh background. Sophie’s father fought in the Boer War, and they once had a large and impressive home. But through misfortune, bad timing, bad luck and a lack of foresight (none of which is her own fault), Sophie has been left alone and adrift in the world, with nothing of her previous life but a framed photo of her dashing father and a jug from her old bedroom. She has no choice but to start working and to take a room in a boarding house, and – as is entirely appropriate, given the book’s historical setting – she dives into these huge challenges with a sense of doing her duty, keeping an admirable (if extremely poignant) focus on the future and on where her life is taking her, as opposed to what she has lost.

She makes friends with Billy, a young man who works in the stables, and she also meets the slightly older and very exotic Lil, one of Mr Sinclair’s ‘girls’, whose job it is to model the merchandise and generally hang around looking beautiful. Lil is described regularly as being traffic-stoppingly stunning, but she somehow manages to be an interesting character on top of that, with plenty of intelligence and gumption of her own, and that was fantastic. Initially I thought her story arc would develop entirely differently, and I’m glad things didn’t go the way I’d expected. There’s also Joe, a runaway rag-tag street urchin on the wrong side of a vicious gang, who gets roped up in the central mystery of the book.

For, indeed. A mystery is afoot.

Sinclair’s grand opening is mere hours away, and an exhibition is planned to mark it, full of wonders and marvels. Central to the display is the marvellous Clockwork Sparrow itself, which is made of gold and precious jewels, and which plays a different melody every time it is wound. Sophie catches sight of it one evening as she leaves work, and is spotted in its vicinity by one of the senior shop staff. When the Sparrow goes missing later that night, suspicion immediately falls upon her, and as the book continues the net tightens around her. This is despite the fact, of course, that she’s entirely innocent – but who did take the Sparrow, and why? And what possible reason could they have for wanting to deflect suspicion on to Sophie?

The police aren’t interested in Sophie’s explanations or in her attempts to prove her innocence, and so it’s up to her – along with Lil, Billy and the shadowy Joe – to prove that there’s an answer to the mystery, and one which goes much further than mere greed. For the secret of the Sparrow is something far more important than its monetary value, and the reasons for its disappearance are much more important and dangerous than they first appear.

This is a clever, complex and interesting book, which drew me in from the first page. It is atmospheric and evocative and real, and I enjoyed all the characters, particularly anxious Billy who just wants to be left alone to read his boys’ own magazines and pretend to be a hero, and the sparky Lil who uses her own particular set of skills to get herself out of any situation. I loved its use of historical detail, its awareness of its setting, and its pacing, which gets tauter and more tense as the mystery draws to its conclusion. It was a quick read, for me, but it made me smile as it carried me along, and that’s the best recommendation I can give. It’s a great story, masterfully told, smoothly written and perfectly plotted. I look forward to the next book from its talented author.