Category Archives: Review

An Island of Our Own

This is the best book Sally Nicholls has written – so far – and she has written some really good ones.

Sally Nicholls, An Island of Our Own

An Island of Our Own is that perfect thing; a tremendously good children’s book. Written as though by 13-year-old Holly, who is an orphan, living with her 19-year-old brother Jonathan who is official carer of her and their brother Davy who is seven, Holly wants new school shoes and Davy wants a bike. And for his pet rabbit to get well.

This costs money they don’t have, especially as they live in London, and when their rich great aunt Irene dies, they embark on an only slightly crazy quest for their inheritance. As it says on the cover, this really is a book about home-made spaceships, lock-pickers, an exploding dishwasher, and Orkney (my second Orkney book in a short time). But most of all it’s about love, and resilience.

Jonathan makes a far better ‘parent’ than many ‘real’ fictional parents, and it’s heartbreaking to think of this boy who was all set to go to university and had to give it up, and who cries in secret when he can’t find the money they need to pay for Sebastian’s (that’s the rabbit) care or the effects of the dishwasher incident.

Holly is a wonderful girl, ever the optimist and very clever at working out how to solve things. She reads Sherlock Holmes, and Agatha Christie, whose novels might be for adults, but ‘even Agatha Christie never kills twenty-two kids in one book, like they do in The Hunger Games.’

There is something so very light about Sally’s writing. Her topics are serious, but she turns everything into sheer delight, and you smile and you cry. And you want to read the book again.

Stars Shall Be Bright

Catherine MacPhail, Stars Shall Be Bright

In memory of the lost children of Maryhill, who died in the Quintinshill Rail Disaster exactly one hundred years ago today. We don’t know their names or what they were doing on a train full of soldiers going off to war.

Catherine MacPhail has a theory, which she shares with us in this Barrington Stoke story, Stars Shall Be Bright. She reckons they were siblings James, Belle and William, who set off to find their dad who was a soldier.

Their mum has just died and to avoid being taken into a home, James decides to take his brother and sister on a trek to find their dad, lying in order to get away from a ‘well meaning’ neighbour.

They hide on a stationary train, which soon fills up with over 500 soldiers, travelling from Larbert to Liverpool, on their way to Gallipoli. Near Gretna Green the train was involved in a three train crash, with 225 soldiers dead, 246 injured, and 65 walking wounded.

And then there were the bodies of three children.

Lovely (yes really) story, but awfully sad.

The Fugitive

The fifth Theodore Boone is here! I have to own up to still enjoying these junior John Grisham books very much. And that cliffhanger I could see at the end of the first book, which then didn’t materialise? Well, it’s here now. And matters continue to wobble near the edge of the cliff as we leave Theodore and have to wait for the sixth and last book.

Strattenburg’s most wanted man is back. Theodore goes on a school trip to Washington, and accidentally comes across this suspected murderer on the run. Because Theo is Theo, he knows what to do to prove it’s Pete Duffy, and the point of the book is not the catching of Mr Duffy, so much as the trial he needs to face.

John Grisham, The Fugitive

Because it’s the law that Theo the miniature lawyer is passionate about, and it’s important that young readers learn how the law is – supposedly – there to take care of you and keep you safe. The town of Strattenburg is not perfect, but it does its best.

Pete Duffy is not the loveliest of men, and nor is his defense lawyer, or his ‘helpers.’ Some people will go to any lengths to escape jail, and one of the witnesses for the prosecution in particular has to stay brave and remember his duty. But will he? Can he? The case is so difficult that Theo begins to doubt his calling.

The usual interaction with Theo’s parents, Theo’s favourite judge, and some pretty nifty action from uncle Ike.

Outcaste

This is so good. Outcaste is the impatiently – by me anyway – awaited sequel to Ellen Renner’s Tribute. I’m not sure how Ellen does it, but she certainly knows how to write a marvellous story.

Ellen Renner, Outcaste

Set in a fantasy world, Zara has been forced to leave her home, a place where magic rules, and she is now a refugee along with several groups of non-magic people. Being a mage is not good, and Zara needs to work hard at hiding her natural talents.

Her father, the Archmage is wanting to catch her, after she tried to kill him. But sometimes it’s not the people with magic who are the worst. It seems some of the other peoples have traditions that are not terribly attractive either. The refugees are heading to the homeland of Aidan, the boy she has fallen in love with. And her problems won’t necessarily be over when she gets there.

Outcaste is not a book you can easily describe. It’s a book you want to read. Now. (But read Tribute first.) It has a love story to die for (not that you want anyone to die), and that in itself is rare enough these days.

I’ll be thinking of that love as I wait for another book from Ellen, be it another sequel or something else. Anything else. This is what YA should be like. And in Zara’s friend Twiss, we have a young girl character of almost Dido Twite-ish proportions. I would very much like to see more of her.

Read Me Like a Book

You get this warm glow of happiness towards the end of Liz Kessler’s Read Me Like a Book. It takes a while for her heroine Ashleigh to find herself. At times it looks like she won’t, or if she does, that things might be grim. But this is Liz Kessler, and you’re safe with her.

This time Liz is writing for older teens, and the reason Ashleigh has problems is that she is gay. She doesn’t know when the book starts, at the beginning of her last year at college, in the Uppper Sixth. Even though she lands the desirable boy from the party she’s gone to, she’s not happy. And it takes her a while to work out why.

Liz Kessler, Read Me Like a Book

School is not much fun either. At least not until they get a new, young English teacher, and Ashleigh falls in love. But the teacher is female, and while Ashleigh’s infatuation is good for her essay writing, we know nothing lasting can come from a teacher-pupil relationship.

At times the reader and Ashleigh are both looking round at her friends and acquaintances, wondering if any of them are gay, and might be girlfriend material. Young love is generally not easy, and when you don’t know what sex to direct your longing at, it must be far worse.

Things at home are bad, with Ashleigh’s parents close to splitting up. But even that can lead to a few silver linings. You just don’t know what’s waiting for you.

I really hope Read Me Like a Book will both entertain and help young readers, whether or not they are uncertain of their sexuality. It’s a book I’ve been looking forward to since I first heard it was being published, and I can’t believe we’ve not been ready for gay YA before.

On being lovely

It’s really tough being so lovely.

When I was a student of English at university I was informed by one of my British lecturers that you should never use the word ‘nice.’ It was an insult.

But I do use it, because I find it nice (!) and useful, and intend no bad meaning when I do. It’s like ‘interesting.’ That is also a negative word. It’s the word used by the Resident IT Consultant whenever I used to cook a meal with mustard for flavouring. (He likes mustard, as do I. I just seemed to have a knack for getting it wrong.)

But ‘lovely,’ well that’s another thing. That too is bad. Maybe. When I mention someone as the ‘lovely XX’ I mean it. The real lovely, not the insult. But it does appear to be shorthand for how to seem polite while actually meaning the opposite.

Lovely, isn’t it?

Bloggers are lovely. This is how we are addressed in countless emails from publishers’ publicity departments. ‘Hello lovely bloggers!’

Blogging itself has become an ugly word in my eyes. I used to describe myself as a blogger, but these days I will use any euphemism I can, given the particular circumstances, to describe myself in some other way. I don’t want to be herded into a group of people I have little in common with (apart from the fact that we all write blogs). Nor do I want to be despised, by anyone.

I’m a writer, or I review books, or I write for Bookwitch. I don’t blog.

There is nothing – well not much – wrong with chicklit. But it is not my religion. At all. Not long ago I was informed that I am a #banshee. No, I’m not. Not even close. If you can identify the book that it is connected with, I can only apologise, and point out that this PR effort turned me right off the book in question.

I’m not playful. I’m sure you can all agree with that. I’m an old fogey, but can still read, and hopefully provide OK-ish reviews.

Was very surprised some time ago when there was a blogging award, and how one author wrote about his introduction to the blogging world, and its enormous importance, by his publisher. They may have said the bloggers are important, but that’s possibly only as true as the fact that half of us were made into banshees. Lovely banshees, but nevertheless.

What I sense when getting those ‘hello lovely bloggers’ emails is that we are a nuisance. Too many of us, too greedy for books, but can’t be ignored – yet – and might come in handy one day. And we are all young and full of fun.

Humbug.

Even my own blogging software knows I’m a writer of few brain cells. It has had a new posting page for some time (so I suppose it’s no longer new, really), which makes posting so much easier. Apparently. I took several looks at it and couldn’t work out how to do what I wanted to do and what I had been doing for eight years, and found I could still switch back to the other kind of page. But it’s getting harder and harder to get the software to allow me to revert. When I fail to remember to use the secret route there, I am greeted by a chirpy message saying ‘beep beep boop’ which drives me bonkers. And it calls out ‘lookin good!’ as though I need the reassurance, and as if it can actually read and judge these things.

Grrr.

Pike

Anthony McGowan had his work cut out to write another book about his two characters from Brock, that would be anywhere near as good. I adored Brock and its lovely badger, and the two brothers Kenny and Nicky. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t sure it was possible to return to the same world and write more.

He did it, though, and Pike is every bit as wonderful, and I’m so pleased for dyslexic readers in particular, who now have this marvellous story to look forward to as well.

Anthony McGowan, Pike

Kenny and Nicky go fishing in the nearby pond – where there is a gruesome, but funny story about a naked boy and a giant pike – and they get wet, as boys do. Nicky also thinks he’s found ‘treasure’ and plans to go back for it. Cue more stupid ideas and much more getting wet and dirty. He knows he needs to keep Kenny safe, but in the end Kenny is the smart one.

Pike features more of the local crooks, people who drop out of society for various reasons, and also shows why we need our libraries. Nice to see Anthony fitting that into his story. And there is their missing mum and what might have happened.

This is just so heart-warming and satisfying! It’s good to see someone like Nicky look out for both his difficult older brother, and their yappy, annoying dog. You love them because they are yours. Like we love Pike, because he is ours.