Category Archives: Review

Escape to the River Sea

It is always very nice meeting favourite characters again. Especially those from a really good novel; people you’ve perhaps wondered about after reading their story. You want more, and if someone other than the original author has written ‘more’ then you might be quite happy with that as a solution as well.(I remember finding Ben Gunn in the library when I was a child. Never mind who wrote it. There was more!)

Here is Emma Carroll’s take on what might have happened to the characters in Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea. They really were characters you wanted to meet again.

I was pleased to see what happened to Clovis, who is now a proper adult, seeing as it’s just after WWII. He has taken in 11-year-old Rosa from Austria, along with other evacuees. The arrival of Yara, a young and quite unusual woman, eventually takes Rosa to the Amazon, following in the footsteps of Maia, all those years ago.

WWII has had an effect in Brazil as well, so it’s no longer the same. Neither are Finn and Maia, who are now also proper adults. In my opinion, perhaps too much of properness. (But then, Anne Shirley grew more sensible with age, so perhaps this is inevitable.)

What follows is an Amazonian, post-war adventure, featuring new children in recognisable surroundings. As a story it is fine, and fun, albeit lacking Eva Ibbotson’s magic.

Friends Like These

The title of Meg Rosoff’s new novel – Friends Like These – should be seen as a warning that things will be dark, and somewhat sordid. Certainly, the cockroaches are not fun. But I suspect Meg knows of what she’s writing. Unlike her heroine Beth she wasn’t 18 in the 1980s, but most of us were 18 once, and Meg will know what a hot summer in New York might have entailed. Sweat, cockroaches, drugs and sex. And friends.

Sort of friends.

Beth meets Oliver and Dan, and her new best friend Edie, when she arrives in Manhattan for an internship as a wannabe journalist. It’s about being rich or poor, Jewish or WASP; knowing your way around or learning as you go. Edie knows everything, and Beth is happy to let her lead, to have a new, really good friend.

I’m sort of Beth, and I wonder if Meg is too, but I couldn’t possibly tag along like that, agreeing to every crazy idea Edie comes up with. Beth works hard, and has to play even harder, just to keep up.

I loved most of this book. As you’d expect. Perhaps not that part in the middle where I was sure Beth would be going straight to hell. But after that I was able to see what Beth was capable of, and Edie too, and I could breathe again.

Is this a YA book? Not sure. It’s about teenagers, doing teenagery stuff. But it’s historical, too, and I wonder if the doings of the 1980s are more for us who lived through those times, than 18-year-olds today? Beth is an innocent behaving like a mini adult. And Edie, well…

It is interesting, this seeing how others live, be it the non-judgemental Beth or the manipulating Edie.

Overboard

Sara Paretsky has managed to put both her late husband as well as her dog into Overboard, her latest crime novel. Those are among the lighter points in what of necessity has to be a dark book. Even Covid, which features naturally, is nowhere near as dark as the situations caused by certain human beings. If one can call them that.

Chicago continues to be an interesting backdrop to V I Warshawski’s detecting, but what was once ‘merely’ a city with much crime in it, we now see what it has become through the behaviour of so many ruthless and powerful men. In that it mirrors what goes on in many other places, but it does mean that when reading Overboard you don’t feel that everything will be all right in the end, because it just seems impossible that so much bad can be turned into good, even by someone like V I.

We meet two separate teenagers with problems, and the positive thing about their age is that we see what they are capable of achieving, and you hope Sara won’t kill her young characters. We also reconnect with others from V I’s past; both crooks and decent people, which adds depth to the story. She knows things about these people, making their relationships different from a detective simply hunting bad men. Because they are mostly men.

It’s the weaving together of strands about money and greed, immigrants fearing for their very existence, old people who are mistreated, the persecution of Jews, the criminal intent of the police, the homeless, torturers, the press, and V I’s own fears and hopes that makes Sara’s story so great.

Because even if it can’t end with everyone living happily ever after, you do get a sense of satisfaction when good and ordinary people get together to put wrongs right. Please let there be many more books like this!

Tisha and the Blossom

I too am tired of hurrying up. Just like Tisha in Tisha and the Blossom, another gorgeous picture book by Wendy Meddour, with illustrations by Daniel Egnéus.

I’d just not thought very much about mindfulness, and now I realise it’s what we should do. I mean, if we want to. It’s this being pushed to hurry up and do this, not forget to do that, or be too late for that other thing.

We need to stop and sniff the flowers, ‘waste’ some time, be with each other.

Tisha is small, but she says stop, when she needs to. And that’s what her parents need, too.

Sometimes just sitting is the best. Staring into space, or being a little silly.

Try it! I’m going to have to pop out into the garden, and try not to mind the pigeons…

The Friendship Bench

It’s just typical You get to the friendship bench and there is already someone sitting on it!

Although, as we learn in Wendy Meddour’s picture book The Friendship Bench, that’s the whole point. You need a friend? You go and sit on that bench, and see what happens.

In this case it’s Tilly who has no one to play with at her new school. And guess what? Neither has Flint. That’s him, on the bench, when Tilly turns up. They suspect the bench might be broken, until, well, until it becomes clear it’s not.

This is precisely the kind of really kind picture book many of us need today. Wendy’s words are wise, and the pictures by Daniel Egnéus are rather beautiful.

I really want a friendship bench myself, now, and the kind of kind teacher who will suggest I go and sit on it.

But at least we have the book.

The Reluctant Rebel, A Jacobite Adventure

Like ‘most’ people, I have known ‘all’ about Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora MacDonald and ‘over the sea to Skye’. Thanks to Barbara Henderson and her new historical novel The Reluctant Rebel, I now actually ‘know’ something. Lots more, in fact.

I raced through the book, to find out what happened and how. Even when you might know the ending, and how the bonnie Prince never became King, it’s exciting.

We see the story unfold through the eyes of Archie MacDonald – who lost his father at Prestonpans in 1745 – beginning just before Culloden in 1746. Which I knew to have been a disaster, but you don’t learn so much from history books. Well, I don’t.

His master’s three sons are fighting, and not everyone returns home. At least as important, if not more, is Archie’s cousin Meg, a maid at Borrodale. She’s brave and intelligent, even if she does seem to have a crush on the Prince.

Their paths cross the Prince’s, several times, and they are called on to help him escape. Just staying alive is difficult. Because of his father and because of the shock of the bloodiness of Culloden, Archie isn’t sure he supports the Prince’s cause any longer. Soon there is a price on his head as well, which can be tempting for someone who is hungry.

This is a terribly exciting historical adventure, set beautifully to fit in with the real story, and feeling all the better for it.

A Kind of Spark

It is worse than I had expected.

No, not the book. The situation in general, in this life.

As a witch with an interest in autism, Elle McNicoll’s A Kind of Spark has been on my wish list for a couple of years.

I had not stopped to think at all. That is perhaps the mistake we so often make. Witch hunts and the dislike of people who are different, people who are autistic, have a lot in common.

Addie is an 11-year-old autistic girl, currently being bullied by her teacher, having lost her best friend, and feeling utterly alone. Well, she does have her family. Her older twin sisters, one of whom is also autistic. Probably Dad, too, a little bit, and I’m guessing his father as well.

Addie likes sharks. And when the witch trials in the past, which happened in their own village, become known to her, she feels it strongly. So strongly that Addie wants, needs, to do something about it.

But then there are the bullies. And the bystanders. Those who do nothing, or not enough. I kept feeling that even if the book has a happy ending – which it does – it has opened up a totally new way of looking at things. One that is not comforting.

This is a new way of looking at autistic children’s fiction. It’s necessary, but it is also bloody scary, if you’ll pardon my French.

Catching Fire: A Translation Diary

This is the most wonderful book! And it’s not even fiction. At least, I don’t believe it is. Daniel Hahn’s online diary on his work translating Diamela Eltit’s Never Did the Fire – as it became – from [the] Spanish into English (I’ll go without the ‘the’ there.)

You will remember – yes, you will – that I wrote about the diary last year as it was actually happening.

So, why would I read the same thing all over again, in book form? Well, because another translator I happen to know sent it to me. And it was pure luck I hadn’t already bought it myself. Because I wanted to read it again. Not so much as the companion piece to Never Did the Fire, but because this is like sitting down with a dear friend; someone who is funny and intelligent and you just want to spend more time with them and you want to be entertained by their thoughts, and they have a fun and different way with language.

Daniel is modest about his abilities. (Maybe.) He doesn’t mind mentioning all that he doesn’t know [yet], or musing on how he might solve another stumbling stone he’s stumbled across. I think I hadn’t quite understood that a professional translator might read a book they are about to work on, knowing only half the words or not understanding what the author meant, like the 13-year-old witch read Agatha Christie in English. You are propelled forward by a wish to get somewhere, and you learn as you go. Though I have to say that Daniel being equipped with a Chilean stepfather is a very handy thing. Under the circumstances.

I was also amused to learn Daniel has lots of incomprehensible gaps in his manuscript, once he’s ‘written’ the first translation. It’s what I have when transcribing an interview, having no idea what my victim just said there. But my advantage is that I can cut out the worst. I imagine Daniel needed to keep what was in Diamela’s book; ‘Plugging the gaps makes what looked like sheer linguistic carnage begin to resemble a piece of continuous text’.

So, this is my random meander through a really fun diary.* And I’d say that unlike with some books, this one got even funner** on a second reading. Daniel talks directly to the reader. He also chats to himself.

I could read it again, again.

I have to say: read this book! Even if your friends aren’t in it, or if you know nothing about languages. It’s like having the loveliest of friends pop in for a visit.

*He doesn’t really favour footnotes. But they are amusing. He also very kindly put me in one. Or did he? No, he didn’t. But still. It’s one of my favouritest footnote tales. And he mentions people I know.

**Channelling Daniel’s style of making words up.

Wished

OK, I need to start by mentioning that 65[ish] is not all that old. But I can see that the three children in Wished by Lissa Evans think so. We can even appear a bit boring, and who’d want to spend their half-term at the house of an ‘old’ neighbour? Well, she might be under the impression that WiFi is a type of biscuit, but she is so kind as to want to supply them with their wished-for biscuit.

And there is that word, wished-for, which is what this whole, wonderful book is about. That, and a very smelly cat. I loved Wished, and I don’t even like cats that much.

It’s when you hit your [reading] rock bottom and feel that nothing truly good will ever come your way again, and then a story like Wished arrives and it’s all you can do to not swallow it whole, in one sitting (which would leave you with not so much to read again), because you simply must.

Birthday cake candles. They can be wished on. Did you know that?

Here we have siblings Ed and Roo, needing to be removed from their own house for the week, and then there is Elastico, aka Willard, from the house behind Miss Filey’s. She’s the one with the biscuits.

It takes virtually no time at all for the children to somehow light a candle – because it’s what you do in a strange house, isn’t it? – and discover that wishes come true, if only for ten seconds. And then you need to organise yourselves a bit so that wishes are handled carefully, and at some point you need to explain to adult people why the sofa looks as if someone set fire to it. And the cat smells. Did I mention that?

What can I say? Except to quote the last sentence of chapter one; ‘What happened at Miss Filey’s house was beyond imagination’. I feel so happy just saying that. I could read the book all over again.

Miss Filey is not boring, even if she doesn’t know about WiFi. But the cat does smell. And the world can be quite wonderful sometimes. Like this book.

Perfectly Weird, Perfectly You

Or ‘A scientific guide to growing up.’ Camilla Pang is autistic, and a scientist, and she combines the two in her book of advice to young autistic persons. I’m glad Camilla found her solution to life in science, being able to make sense of this weird world we live in. I hope that her scientific advice will work for her young readers too. It seemed sensible to me, but I wonder if someone of a non-scientific bent won’t get it, and that someone ‘being’ autistic believes they can’t use her advice because they are not.

But it’s always good to read about people like yourself, to discover you are not alone, and that occasionally it’s that girl in the school playground who is wrong, and that both of you may wear the same cool shoes.

For someone like me who likes a good case history, this book is that. You read to discover what Camilla’s life was like, and her thoughts about how this thing is like that other thing, and therefore it all makes some kind of sense.

And it’s far too common for teachers to write off the ‘weird ones’, to believe that higher education is not for them. So for anyone who’s been told not to get ideas above their station, it’s useful to know Camilla got a PhD. So there.

(Illustrations by Laurène Boglio.)