Category Archives: Review

Buffalo Soldier

What a book! Buffalo Soldier is my first by Tanya Landman, and I don’t know why I waited so long. A few weeks ago the internet was awash with praise for this book, and I was the only one who didn’t even have a copy… Luckily, hints work well and it didn’t take long for one to arrive.

It’s a sad book. Well, no, it isn’t sad so much as the reason all the really awful things that happen, is sad. That’s history for you. Set in the years before, during and after the American civil war, it shows us a very different America from the one we might know now.

Tanya Landman, Buffalo Soldier

Charley is a slave girl from the south. She doesn’t know her parents, and her master isn’t particularly fair, and his new wife is worse. The overseer’s son persecutes her daily. But then the Yankees arrive, and the black slaves are ‘freed.’ Only, life appears to get worse, and Charley sees so much that is bad, that she steals the clothes off a dead man and disguises herself as a boy and joins the army.

That’s when she discovers how truly bad and unfair and insane the world can be. She works hard, as a new kind of slave, and no matter how much she tries to get herself killed, she survives when her friends don’t.

Tanya covers the history of black slaves and Indians, and the ruling ‘whiteys’ as well as the emerging US by showing us what the world looks like from Charley’s point of view. Her life is so bleak and so difficult, that neither she nor the reader can quite trust the slight ray of hope when it finally appears.

But to have a story book happy ending to what could very well have been a true tale of a young black slave and soldier during the second half of the 19th century, doesn’t seem quite right.

What makes this book so special is that even someone who craves happy endings can love it. The good parts are so very good that they carry the overwhelmingly bad parts. That’s a difficult thing to do, and that will be why everyone was talking about Buffalo Soldier.

The Lost Thing

I’d like to be found by someone like the boy in Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing. If I was lost, I mean. To be found by someone who seems to care that you are lost. Someone who will look after you, while recognising you need something else, and who will then attempt to find what you need. Deep down.

A bottle-top collector might not be your first choice of saviour – unless you are a bottle-top – but it is someone who is used to finding things, and then doing something about them. You could do worse.

I don’t think he has a name. The finder. Or the lost thing, for that matter.

But, anyway, the finder finds a large and lost looking thing on the beach. He takes it home when it becomes obvious no one else is going to claim it. His parents object, but soon forget again. He feeds the thing and leaves it in the shed.

Recognising it needs more than he can give it, he tries The Federal Department of Odds & Ends, but is warned that it’s a bit of a dead end for things. He takes the thing somewhere else, and finally it seems to have got to a place where it belongs, where there are other equally odd things.

Shaun Tan, The Lost Thing

It is an odd little story, but a good one. And Shaun’s illustrations are out of this world, as always. I was gripped by a desire to tear the pages out of the book and frame them for my walls.

So far I’ve managed to resist.

Scam on the Cam

Cambridge, Cambridge… what’s going on? More crime. Another young detective. Another college theologian. I’m beginning to feel Cambridge might not be as safe as the romantic view of this place of learning would have you believe.

Clémentine Beauvais, Scam on the Cam

Clémentine Beauvais sends her Sesame Seade out into seedy Cambridge for a third adventure, Scam on the Cam. As the title suggests, it’s water based and it’s about the famous boat race. The poor young men who row for Cambridge are dropping like flies. Who is poisoning them and why?

Or are they falling ill for some other reason? There are frogs, and a handsome young boy from one of the other schools in town. There are ze zieves. (thieves, you know) It’s enough to make Sesame shplutter.

I love the humour and the use of language (and she is French! Young, too…) and there is nothing about this rather innocent crime series and its 11-year-old detective that makes it unsuitable for old people. Quite the contrary. I hope the quality of the writing isn’t wasted on the young (like so much else).

(Illustrated by Sarah Horne.)

Dead Silent

Have I said this before? There isn’t enough crime in YA fiction. I don’t know why. Crime is so popular with us ‘slightly’ older ones, that I can’t see why there isn’t more straightforward murders offered to YA readers. Sharon Jones’s Dead Silent is like a breath of fresh air, as long as you like your corpses coming thick and fast.

Very briefly, I worried that my promised murders were going to disappear in a haze of teen sex, but it didn’t. Not having read the first Poppy Sinclair book (Dead Jealous) I didn’t know what to expect.

Sharon Jones, Dead Silent

Poppy is in Cambridge with her boyfriend Michael, who has an interview for King’s. She has sex on her mind, and whereas he wouldn’t mind, the murders rather change the pace of romance. Poppy’s dad is chaplain at Trinity, and it’s in his chapel that the trail of bodies begins. After that they are all over Trinity.

Did dad do it? That’s the question. And why are the bright young third years behaving so strangely? Can Poppy really speak to the dead? Are the angels real?

This is very nicely – if atypically, I trust - Cambridge. Snow. Students. Professors, policemen, a Dean and even a Master. Lots of surprisingly helpful and friendly porters at all the colleges.

Great fun and quite exciting by the time you have suspected almost everyone of being the murderer. Blood on snow looks so striking, don’t you think?

William

I have been reliably informed that little boys get a lot less coverage in picture books. It’s those pesky, pretty pink girls who get in the way.

Claire Harrison and Felicity McElroy, William

So here is William, to make up for all that. He is brown. (He’s a monkey.) And he is everywhere. If he can, he will.

And no matter what he does, his mum points out that she loves him. (I never realised I had to do that. I felt that my love would be obvious. Although Son never swung from trees, as far as I can recall.)

Claire Harrison’s book, with pictures by Felicity McElroy, is very colourful. I was going to say no pink at all, but there are dots of pink here and there. But it’s mostly ‘all the other colours.’

And that of course, is what is missing from so many toys and clothes. Pink is not the only colour. And boys get a raw deal, with more boring colours, and not much to match pink. Boy-pink, so to speak.

Let’s hear it for boys!

Long and narrow

Three picture books, all about animals who are long and narrow.

Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross, Boa's Bad Birthday

It’s poor Boa’s birthday and all he wants is a nice present or two. But can he play the piano? No. Or wear mittens? Sunglasses? It’s the thought that counts, according to his mum. But he’s still disappointed. Until one friend gives him something… Boa’s Bad Birthday by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross is as enjoyable as you’d expect. Jeanne knows how to convey feelings with just a few words. And a boa with tears in his eyes? Well.

Sofie Laguna and Craig Smith, Where Are You, Banana?

In Where Are You, Banana? Roddy somehow loses his dog called Banana (dachshund, I’d say). The family look everywhere, but no Banana. Not until Roddy hears a noise and looks more closely so he can see where Banana has disappeared. How to get Banana back, though? Lovely story by Sofie Laguna, and great illustrations by Craig Smith, which convey a boy’s love for what is actually a fairly ugly dog.

Dianne Hofmeyr and Jane Ray, Zeraffa Giraffa

Finally we have the true story of the giraffe in Africa who became a gift for the King of France. The book follows Zeraffa’s journey from Egypt to Paris, a trip where everyone comes to see this strange animal as it passes through. They all love Zeraffa, and none more than the Princess in Paris. And on warm evenings, if he looked south, Zeraffa could almost imagine himself back in Egypt.

Rather sad, really, and so strange you would barely believe it actually happened. Exotic illustrations by Jane Ray accompany Dianne Hofmeyr’s words.

Wendy Quill Tries to Grow a Pet

Growing a pet is something I have to admit to never having tried. There are limits. But Wendy Quill – and I believe Wendy Meddour’s alter ego – will always start crazy schemes like that.

Wendy (the Quill Wendy) wants to be a vet, and having a couple of pets already counts for nothing. She needs more. Her parents say no. The invisible dog isn’t much use, so Wendy starts growing some alternate pets. Nits, frogs, whatever will come.

With the help of her best friend and no direct hindrance from her family, she sows the seeds, so to speak. And she’s more successful than you might imagine.

Wendy Meddour and Mina May, Wendy Quill Tries to Grow a Pet

This is a totally crazy story, made all the more fun for the illustrations by Mina May, age 12 (see, she’s a year older this time). It’s a quick read, but the time you need to study all the pictures means you could be a while.

The Hangman’s Song

I had to forcibly remove The Hangman’s Song from the Resident IT Consultant’s hands because James Oswald likes to revisit old crimes. It’s very nice and it adds to the continuity of his Inspector McLean books, but oh the spoilers! (And someone has not yet read The Book of Souls, so must be protected from finding out who did it and how and to whom and did anyone at all survive?)

James Oswald, The Hangman's Song

You see the crime being committed in these books, and rather than taking away from the suspense, it adds to it. Especially when you see the murderer at it, again and again, with the police none the wiser.

In The Hangman’s Song, someone is making people hang themselves. And because the police department is headed by ‘an idiot’ and because there is money to be saved, you don’t investigate ‘suicides.’

Tony McLean wants to, but has to fight for it. He isn’t exactly flavour of the month, and also ends up at the receiving end of practical jokes. Because he is wealthy, and that is annoying.

I can see James Oswald building up some regular characters, who might be trustworthy. I hope so, in some cases. It’s just when they are odd in some way, you don’t know if they are the next bad guy, or your new – fictional – best friend.

For all the horror in the crimes; the senseless killing and maiming, this is very enjoyable. Edinburgh is the right size city for this kind of thing to work well in; both small and large. And McLean is the right kind of detective.

This is the kind of crime novel I could read all the time.

 

Tomorrow Can Wait: Exploring Europe With Our Autistic Child

When Monika Scheele Knight first told me about her book, I was only paying attention to the travelling. I felt it was a very ambitious – perhaps too ambitious – task to undertake with an autistic child. Easier to stay at home, I thought. But, each to their own.

German Monika lives in Berlin with her American husband Scott and their 13-year-old son John. Her book about travelling with John is self published (at least the English version, as I understand it), and exists in two languages. Once I’d begun reading, I had to ask her what language they use at home, feeling it unlikely they could be bilingual with a mostly non-verbal boy. Her reply was that John does understand some English, as it’s what she and Scott use, so she reckons he is a non-speaking bilingual child.

As soon as I had started reading, I also understood why they travelled, and why Monika needed to write about it. After meeting the mother of a 30-year-old autistic son who refuses to go out, effectively imprisoning her in the home, Monika vowed to travel with John to try and prevent that fate for herself. As a toddler John was reasonably willing to go out, if it was on his terms.

So she set off for Rhodes for a week on her own with John, and it went well. What I particularly like is the way Monika and Scott realise they need to take things slowly and not force John (unless absolutely necessary), which means holidays where they occasionally do ‘nothing’ or just a little, like eating lunch bought in the local shop in a deserted children’s playground.

And it’s not just about travelling. In each chapter about a different place they visited, Monika writes about John’s autism in general, how he develops, and what life with an autistic child is like in Germany (much better than in many other countries, I’d say). She muses about various theories, as well as the history of autism, and the murder of handicapped people in the war, and how people treat them when they are out and about. The older John gets, the easier it becomes for strangers to realise he’s behaving oddly because he is not normal, rather than being a badly brought up child.

John auf dem Fahrrad

(This rather lovely photo of a smiling John, in Holland, was taken almost immediately after a major meltdown, which is such an autistic way for things to work out. I have borrowed the picture from Monika’s blog, as it was used for the back cover of the book.)

You feel exhausted following the family round Europe. All the driving, or having meltdowns in airports, or moving things out of John’s reach, or stopping him from hurting himself, seem like an endless lot of hard work with no respite. And I’m sorry their experience of Sweden was so poor.

I find case histories irresistible, and this book is one big case history. Very interesting and very inspiring.

The Letter for the King

Guest review by the Resident IT Consultant:

Tonke Dragt, The Letter for the King

‘Looking for something escapist to read, I came across Tonke Dragt’s The Letter for the King (Pushkin Press). The publisher, and the author’s name, led me to suspect that this must be a translation. And I was right.

Tonke Dragt was born in Dutch Indonesia in 1930, spent several years in a Japanese prison camp and came to the Netherlands with her family at the end of WWII. The Letter for the King was her second book, published in 1962. It was very successful in the Netherlands where it sold over a million copies and was chosen, in 2004, as the best Dutch children’s book of the last fifty years. It has been widely translated but only made it into English in 2013.

Ever since Swallows and Amazons and Treasure Island I have been captivated by books which contain maps. I even drew my own map for Kidnapped, and when I showed it, aged 12, to my English teacher he lent me his personal copy of The Lord of the Rings. But that’s another story.

The Letter for the King starts with a map of the Kingdoms of Dagonaut and Unauwen. I assume it is the author’s as she is credited for the illustrations, and was an art teacher. I found myself referring the to map quite often as I read the book.

Tonke Dragt, The Letter for the King

It’s basically an adventure story set in a fantasy medieval world which owes a greater debt to Le Morte d’Arthur than to Tolkien. Tiuri, the sixteen-year-old hero, finds himself suddenly tasked with the challenge of secretly delivering a letter across half a continent. The story follows his development as he deals with the difficulties along the way and tries to decide who he can trust. He learns that first impressions can sometimes be misleading, that help can come from unexpected directions and that hindrance sometimes arises from misunderstanding.

The fantasy is relatively realistic. There are no mythical creatures and there is no magic. Putting geography, and history, aside it feels more like historical fiction than fantasy. Though I think the characters take baths more often than would have been the case in any medieval period!

One strength is the clarity of the language for which, presumably, the translator, Laura Watkinson must take credit. I found it easy and enjoyable to read and it doesn’t feel dated in the way that English books published fifty years ago often do.

I was pleased to see that Pushkin plan to publish its sequel, The Secrets of the Wild Wood, in 2015.’