Category Archives: Review

The Hippo at the End of the Hall

What a lovely book this turned out to be! Helen Cooper’s The Hippo at the End of the Hall, was one of the books Linda Sargent ‘sourced’ for my own reading pleasure, rather than duty (it’s really not so bad…), and it certainly was pleasure.

It’s apparently Helen’s first novel, but she has an illustrious past as a Kate Greenaway medalist, which shows in the drawings that adorn every chapter in this Hippo story.

Helen Cooper, The Hippo at the End of the Hall

Set mostly in an old-fashioned, small museum where you will find exhibits such as stuffed animals, so old that they are worn out and a bit dusty, this is a sweet and fast-paced mystery featuring young Ben who lives with his mother, in almost poverty after his father died some years before. Ben receives an invitation to the Gee Museum with the milk one morning. (Whereas it had really been delivered by the bees. The invite, not the milk.)

Helen Cooper, The Hippo at the End of the Hall

When he gets there, he finds that not all the long dead exhibits are totally dead, and that the museum is in danger and it is up to Ben to save it.

This is a true children’s story with a pair of deliciously ghastly baddies, lots of fine – if dead – animals, an elderly museum owner, and Ben’s mum, who is real heroine material. And, erm, a witch.

Can’t say more than that. Read the book and let some pleasure into your life. It worked for me.

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The Great Big Book of Friends

How I love these Great Big Books of… with words by Mary Hoffman and those loveable illustrations by Ros Asquith! Here is their latest one, The Great Big Book of Friends.

Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith, The Great Big Book of Friends

Friends are so important, but unlike family, or bodies, say, you might feel you don’t have any. But don’t worry, Mary explains that you probably do, anyway. And if you don’t, that’s OK, too.

You can be friends with your grandma. Or with the cat. You can have an imaginary friend, or a special blanket, or book. Or you can have friends all over the world; maybe lots that you’ve never met. Yet.

Here is advice on how to get a friend, and on keeping your friend. They point out that even when you’re really old, like your parents, you can stay friends with someone you’ve known all your life. Maybe because your parents were friends.

There are so many possibilities.

Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith, The Great Big Book of Friends

Both the words and the pictures in this book are so encouraging. They make you feel normal when maybe you believe you are the odd one out, who will never be like everyone else.

Go on, chat up the human being over there! Could be the best thing you ever did. And maybe they like frogs as much as you do.

I do hope there will be more Great Big Books.

Another Brooklyn

Astrid Lindgren laureate Jacqueline Woodson’s most recent novel, Another Brooklyn, is a short adult novel, which would almost work as YA if you wanted it to. It reminded me of Raspberries on the Yangtze by Karen Wallace, which I felt was more of a children’s book for adults.

Jacqueline Woodson, Another Brooklyn

Another Brooklyn is poetic, with beautiful language. Almost too much so. It’s about four young girls growing up in Brooklyn in the early 1970s, as told from the point of view of one of them. I recognise the period, but obviously not the setting.

In a way, though, I reckon us outsiders have seen these streets in films and feel we know them anyway. All four girls have some sort of issue, like being motherless, having too strict a family, being the child of a teen mother. But they love each other and live very much in each other’s pockets for a number of years, until age and development takes them away again.

We see how they go from quite young, to mid-teens, experimenting with boys, with the expected results. It’s an interesting period, both in the world and in their lives.

Money in the Morgue

Is this a sudden interest; modern writers either finishing the book of a dead author, or writing a brand new one in someone else’s world? Or has it always been happening?

Here we have Money in the Morgue, started by Ngaio Marsh during WWII and finished rather more recently by Stella Duffy. I haven’t looked for the seam, where new meets old. I preferred to simply read and enjoy, which is what I did.

Ngaio Marsh and Stella Duffy, Money in the Morgue

Having been concerned that it was a dying author’s last chapters, it was a relief to find they were from a long time ago, even if that does make you wonder if Ngaio Marsh was less keen on the whole idea and put the story away for a reason. But it does put the pressure on today’s author to get the period feel right. I think maybe at times the characters in this wartime New Zealand Midsummer Night’s Dream drama talked a little bit modern.

But the crime – theft of a thousand [dollars?] – seems rather mild compared with current tastes in crime. There might have been a murder. Deaths, anyway. I’d almost forgotten crime could be so civilised, even with Roderick Alleyn at the helm. Had completely forgotten that a good detective will be capable of advising couples in love what to do. I used to find that so romantic.

It all happens during one night, at a small New Zealand hospital, in the middle of nowhere. Midsummer – and Christmas – are about to break loose when the money goes missing and the weather gets dramatic, and the full cast of characters run back and forth all over the hospital, agonising over love and money, about going back to war, and soon the disappearing corpses.

Alleyn is on his own, with no Fox at his side, but does find a Bix instead. And he thinks of Troy, and what to tell her about the goings-on. All-in-all, a pleasant return to the past.

When the Mountains Roared

If author Jess Butterworth hadn’t dedicated her new book When the Mountains Roared to her ‘Grandma, who really did smuggle a kangaroo out of Australia’ I wouldn’t have believed it when it happens in her story.

Jess Butterworth, When the Mountains Roared

I loved this book, which is about loss and starting a new life somewhere new, and about animals. Lots of them. There’s the smuggled kangaroo baby and the leopard baby, and all the other animals Ruby encounters in India, when she is suddenly uprooted by her father, some time after her mother died. Her dad and her grandma are Indian, but Ruby considers herself Australian. How can she leave the place where she remembers her mum?

Ruby’s dad is to run a hotel in India, somewhere virtually in the middle of nowhere. She meets a local boy who also seems to love animals, and she slowly settles in, when some men turn up, acting suspiciously.

And because she is her mother’s daughter, Ruby simply has to protect the wild, and sometimes motherless, animals around the hotel – not to mention the little kangaroo in her room – and she will do what it takes.

It’s amazing what grandmas can do, too, when the going gets tough. This is another grandmother I wouldn’t mind adopting.

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge

The other thing I didn’t remember was Linda Sargent mentioning this book; Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, by Mem Fox, illustrated by Julie Vivas. I’m very fortunate, because Linda sent me a copy of this picture book about forgetfulness, so I could enjoy it. It’s my first book by Mem Fox, who I clearly recall being held and questioned when she went to America for a book event last year.

Mem Fox and Julie Vivas, Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge is a small boy, whose best friend is an elderly lady in the old people’s home next door, Miss Nancy Alison Delacourt Cooper. When he learns she has lost her memory, he sets out to find it for her.

You know how it is; every person you ask – in this case, what’s a memory? – will have a different answer. So he looks for something warm, something old, something sad, something to make you laugh, something precious.

And once faced with all the things the boy has gathered for her, Miss Nancy does remember. Wilfrid’s little gifts unlock old memories, and it seems Miss Nancy’s lost memory might have been – a little – found.

Very lovely.

The House with Chicken Legs

I rather envy Sophie Anderson her grandmother. Without that grandmother, we wouldn’t have had this quirkily titled debut novel, The House with Chicken Legs. But I can see that even without this marvellous story, Sophie’s Prussian grandmother would still be worth having. She was the one who brought with her, as one of very few belongings, a book of fairytales as she left Europe after WWII to settle in Wales, which is where she introduced Sophie to Baba Yaga.

A house that moves, and on chicken legs no less, felt vaguely off-putting at first. And I’ve never been sure of this Baba Yaga person. But I also knew I needed to read the book.

Sophie Anderson, The House with Chicken Legs

It’s a story about 12-year-old Marinka who lives with her grandmother, Baba Yaga, in this odd house, where they help guide the dead to the other side. Because of the house moving whenever it feels like it, Marinka doesn’t go to school and she has no friends. It’s really this which makes for the problems. Marinka wants to be normal, but her grandmother has omitted telling her one very pertinent fact that makes the girl even less normal than you’d think. (No, I’m not telling you!)

In a way this is your traditional tale of a child who wants something very much, disobeys old rules, causing something unexpected, and worse, to happen, and having to learn to live with the consequences.

I never expected to grow fond of a house. Especially not one with chicken legs. But when it…

Well, I’m not saying any more.

This is a warm and different story about finding yourself, and also about standing firm when you feel you must do something a bit different.

And all that food! I blame Sophie’s grandmother.