Category Archives: Review

The Roman Quests – The Archers of Isca

It is reassuring that I am not yet too old for Caroline Lawrence’s books. Occasionally I wonder if I will be, seeing as I’ve been reading her Roman mysteries for well over a dozen years. But I am still a child at heart.

Caroline Lawrence, The Roman Quests - The Archers of Isca

The second of four books set in Britain in AD 95, we follow the eldest boy, Fronto, as he sets off to be a soldier. It’s what he always wanted, albeit perhaps not quite like this. In Rome he could have been an officer, while now he must begin at the bottom. But for a boy who likes rules and knowing what’s happening and what he should do about it, army life is perfect.

Meanwhile, his two younger siblings continue as they were, living with the local people. At least, until Fronto’s little sister Ursula is kidnapped.

As with all Caroline’s books, this story educates as it entertains. I have learned more about life in Roman Britain through these books than I ever did from more historical texts. What’s more, I suspect I might remember facts for longer as well.

There are Druids and Romans, we learn about Roman baths and Boudica’s famous battle, and we find out how people lived; what they ate and how they worked and prayed.

And we are getting closer to knowing what happened to Miriam’s twin boys.

The White Fox

I know, and you know, that Jackie Morris makes gorgeous picture books. She can paint real and imaginary animals in a way to make most adults actively CRAVE the art in her books. But I must admit to liking her new book for Barrington Stoke much, much more.

The White Fox is – obviously – about a fox and Jackie captures the arctic fox that finds itself in Seattle absolutely perfectly. What made me even happier were the industrial cityscape illustrations, which is the kind of thing I go for, and I adore the way they appear in this book. If there is to be any tearing out and hanging on walls, this is it.

Jackie Morris, The White Fox

The story is simply wonderful. It’s about a young boy called Sol, who lives in Seattle with his father, but he is not happy. He hears about, and then finds, the fox down in the docks, and the two feel as though they belong together. Sol dreams of going back to Alaska, to meet his grandparents after many years apart.

And in the way of stories, especially those about children and animals, something magical happens. It’s also quite ordinary, in a way, but so beautiful. Considering this is a Barrington Stoke Conkers book, aimed at those who don’t read so easily, it becomes even more poignant. Small and perfectly shaped, with purple silk bookmark and everything.

(I hardly ever mention the word stocking filler, but The White Fox is definitely one of those.)

Space Team

This is Galaxy Quest as though it had been written by one of ‘my’ many crime writing Irish boys; Eoin, John, Declan. Except it wasn’t them, but their crazy cousin from across the water, Barry J Hutchison. Barry has been tinkering with some adult writing for a while, and he is under the impression that adding a J to his name will mean his littlest fans won’t accidentally find themselves in space with a ‘cannibal’ who swears a lot.

Space Team is very funny, and not too sweary, as there is some kind of translation system set up between the different species of aliens which not only translates but cleans up the worst four-letter words. Just as well, since that lone J is not going to fool anyone. Us fans can tell it’s Barry.

I had a lot of fun reading this. Galaxy Quest, Star Trek, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Take your pick. There are bits of everything in here, and you find you don’t mind too much that Earth is no more and neither are we. Cal Carver survives, and what an ambassador for humankind he is! Teaming up with a group of criminally minded aliens, it becomes his job to save the universe. Or some such thing.

Barry J Hutchison, Space Team

Setting off on a junky spaceship, the team have a task, at which they must succeed. Or die. The question is, do they have the right skills? Are we in safe hands? Actually, it doesn’t matter, since we are all dead. At least I think we are.

The lesson here is that it’s good to be cheerful and to try and do your best, for the team and for the universe. There are a lot of bad aliens out there. This is hardboiled space humour at its best.

Reckless 1 – The Petrified Flesh

When asked whether they rewrite their novels, authors generally say no. They might no longer like what they once wrote, but a book stays the way it is. With Reckless, the first book, Cornelia Funke has rewritten a lot, according to her. Something on every page. And it’s true, if she really felt that she hadn’t done the best she could for various characters, especially as viewed from the sequel, that could be reason enough to ‘tamper’ with the previous one.

So, this is a review of the second version of Reckless, The Petrified Flesh. I like it. I might, of course, have liked the older version too.

Cornelia Funke, Reckless 1 - The Petrified Flesh

Jacob has found a way through to another world; the world of fairy tales, but not a cutesy one. In fact, it’s really pretty tough and gruesome a lot of the time, with dangerous plants and strange animals and even stranger ‘people.’ He’s happy there, until his younger brother Will follows him through and gets cursed and is about to turn into stone.

He has to help him and he has to try and stop this if at all possible. We meet many of the people Jacob has got to know over the years, and some new ones, and all are pretty difficult. But as with all magic, some things are harder, but you can also do some quite handy stuff with it.

Will’s girlfriend Clara wants to help save him, and Jacob’s, well, girlfriend, Fox who is a shapeshifter, is forced to look on as Jacob puts himself in danger yet again. It’s exciting, and excrutiatingly tiring, reading about what they have to do in this odd world. It’s enough to cure you of any fairy tale hankerings you may suffer from.

Reading at this stage, where you know there is both a sequel and a soon to be published third instalment, you know that if things can be sorted out it can only be temporary. Besides, in fairy tales there is so much more that needs to happen. Because it can. Because you want it to.

The Night the Stars Went Out

I’ve been waiting months to tell you about this picture book! The Night the Stars Went Out is just so beautiful and has such a heart warming message at its core, that you have to love it.

Suz Hughes, The Night the Stars Went Out

Suz Hughes has been published before, but this is her first picture book as both author and illustrator. The story is about Alien who looks after the stars, and that is a huge job. And then one night all the stars go out. It is pitch black and Alien doesn’t know what to do.

Luckily he has the Star Helpline, and they point him in the direction of Earth, and off he goes.

You can learn a lot from unexpected trips and the people you meet. And that’s what Alien finds, too. Cooperation and friendship are both very important. Feeling happy. Remember this, and long may your stars shine.

(I never believed in those cleaning products anyway.)

Saga’s saga

Never underestimate the entertainment value of history, and especially not the history all around you, where you live. I hinted earlier at having read the manuscript of a children’s book, written by a friend. That sort of thing can be quite awkward, as they could turn out to have written something really appalling. But I felt safe with Ingrid (Magnusson Rading) because not only is she both interesting and intelligent, but she had already written a gorgeous coffee table book about our shared summer paradise. So I knew she could write.

And unlike the young witch who used to imagine herself writing a Famous Five type book set in Haverdal, because there were so many intriguing settings all over the place, where villains could roam and all that, Ingrid not only stopped dreaming and set to work, but she chose a much superior format; a quiet fantasy adventure set in today’s Haverdal with time travelling to the past, using much of the research she did for her other book.

Jättastuans hemlighet – as it is currently called – is about a girl called Saga, who just might be Ingrid’s as yet unborn granddaughter. Saga’s gran bears a suspicious resemblance to someone I know, as does her grandfather and the cottage where she’s come to stay for a week. Jättastuan is a sort of cave near the beach, and Saga’s gran shares a secret with her on that first day.


And before you know it, Saga has been transported to the 17th century, where life was pretty hard. Instead of your normal time travel, Saga actually becomes Ellika, a girl who lived back then, and we see the family’s struggle to survive bad winters and failing crops. Learning about history like this brings it to life and makes it relevant in a way that pure facts never do.

There is time travel in the opposite direction too, with some hilarious descriptions of life today, as observed by someone from five hundred years ago. And when the reader has loved, and suffered with, Ellika’s family, we meet some much more recent historical characters from about a hundred years ago, set in and around the quarry that covers much of the area. So that’s more people to love and identify with, and more facts that come alive.

I think any middle grade reader would love this book. I’d have liked it when I was ten. I certainly enjoyed it now. And I wouldn’t mind more of the same (I believe Ingrid has ideas for another period or two from the past). If children still learn about their local area for history at school, Jättastuans hemlighet [The Secret of Jättastuan] would be a fantastic resource for teachers. And what could be better, education and fun all in one go?

Very local children would also enjoy knowing exactly where Saga goes, as I did. It’s an added bonus, but not essential. But as has been said recently, we like to find ourselves in books, and this will firmly place Haverdal children in literature.

The graphic Northern Lights

I must admit I didn’t expect to be enthralled by Northern Lights, The Graphic Novel, volume two (what happened to volume one?), by Philip Pullman. Also by Stéphane Melchior and Clément Oubrerie, who have adapted and illustrated, respectively. And finally Philip Pullman again, and Annie Eaton, who have translated it back from the French.

I did like it. Happily I know the story well, so starting on volume two was no disaster. The graphics are great, especially scenery such as the north where Lyra meets Iorek, and the hauntingly beautiful but scary setting of Bolvangar. It is quite illuminating being able to see the characters with their daemons. It sort of brings home the closeness in a way the book didn’t, nor the film.

Northern Lights, the graphic novel, volume two

Otherwise it is rather like a film adaptation of a book in that the book is so long and you have to cut and edit to make sense in a smaller format. To some extent it suffers, as all such adaptations do, but it also gains something, and I guess that a graphic novel like this will make His Dark Materials more accessible to less confident readers. As in films, I was surprised by how the characters look, as this is different from how they are in my mind.

But yes, here we meet Lyra and the others as they arrive in Trollesund, and we stay with them until they fly off in Lee Scoresby’s balloon. The harrowing scene showing poor little Tim with his fish replacement for his lost daemon is still as upsetting. Lyra’s spirits are there for all to see, and we are more aware of how angry and scary Iorek was when Lyra first encountered him.

Knowing little about the background to this graphic novel, I assume Stéphane and Clément are fans, like so many others, and that this is why they have begun such a mammoth task. That’s the kind of spirit I approve of!