Category Archives: Review

Love Frankie

The long awaited ‘gay novel’ by Jacqueline Wilson is finally here. Over the years Jacky has written about almost everything, keeping track of what her fans need stories about in order to help them in their own lives. And, obviously, to entertain them.

Love Frankie features a 14-year-old girl, Frankie, living with her two sisters and their mum, who has MS and is recently divorced from their dad. So just from a normal point of view, there is much to worry about. And then Frankie finds herself falling in love with Sally, the girl who until that very moment has bullied her and been thoroughly unpleasant to her.

Everyone around Frankie warns her that Sally will be up to no good, but she can’t help the way she feels.

As an old and wise witch I found myself agreeing with them. We don’t feel that same sex romance is wrong, but we all felt that Sally was wrong for Frankie.

Nevertheless, we see the ups and downs of their relationship. I kept hoping for another love interest for Frankie, while most of her family seemed to hope for happy ever after with the lovely boy next door. So did he.

It’s well done, with nothing too easy, or too difficult, and with Jacky’s normal school type issues with children and teachers and homework, and at home there are the serious concerns about mum’s MS and having to spend weekends with their dad and his new girlfriend. All of it typical of life today for Jacqueline’s fans. You can tell she knows what she’s writing about, which of course has always been the case. And she’s on your side.

The Bear, the Piano, and Little Bear’s Concert

I read this to Daughter the other evening, when it was time for bed. It went down well. She’s a recent convert to these lovely books by David Litchfield about the piano-playing bear. I’m sure much younger children will also love this last instalment featuring the piano in the woods.

It’s a bit sad. Well, it has to be, so it can get better. I’m sure young readers instinctively understand this.

Bear continues playing the piano in front of audiences, until, well, until he doesn’t, and instead goes home to the forest. But he misses his old life and his friends, and he is sad.

Things improve when he has Little Bear to bring up and teach things. She is a lovely young bear, and when she comes across the piano in amongst the trees, she wants to know what it is. And then she hatches a plan…

It’s lovely. For an older reader like me, it’s easy to predict how it will work out, and probably also for a younger reader. But it is just as satisfying. Very beautiful, as are David’s gorgeous illustrations.

Starting school

Where do the years go? It feels like mere months since Boy Tollarp came to the Resident IT Consultant’s and my 60th birthday lunch. He was five weeks old at the time. Now on social media I see him wearing a blazer and tie and – admittedly – school shorts, as he starts school this week.

He’s not alone in this. Even a year like 2020 has children going to school for the first time. And it can be scary. I remember my first day, and I remember Offspring’s first days. Also scary. At least to me.

So books on what to expect and how to deal with any little problems are a useful thing. The two picture books I’ve just read will probably not become long term classics, but if they help a few children now, that’s enough to make me happy. It’s often impossible for the adults to guess which books will turn out to make a real impact on their small child. These are both lovely and might do the job.

Today I’m Strong, by Nadiya Hussain and her illustrator Ella Bailey, shows us a child who is often happy going into school. But not always. Some days she is bullied at school and would rather stay at home. She talks to her [toy?] tiger, who looks pretty much like Judith Kerr’s tiger, except less likely to eat you up. And Tiger provides her with the solution, and one day she goes in and deals with the bully, firmly and maturely.

So that’s that.

In My School Unicorn, by Willow Evans and Tom Knight, we meet another young girl, about to buy her first school uniform, and feeling worried about her life changing. In what looks like a magic uniform shop, the proprietor slips her a unicorn to keep with her at school. It’s a little thing, but it helps. School turns out to be fine, and one day that unicorn can go on to some other child.

Both books are diverse, and there is a [single?] dad looking after the unicorn girl. I’m hoping these books will help many young children as they begin the rest of their lives. And the usefulness of tigers and unicorns should not be ignored.

Beauty Sleep

When you wake up after a sleep lasting over forty years, what do you expect to happen?

Laura was frozen some time in the late 1980s, suffering from an incurable illness, and now that it’s 2028 she’s awake, having to get used to all the scientific ‘advances’ that have been made. So it’s mobile phones and computers, and it’s getting your muscles to obey you when you start to walk again.

But what else? This thought provoking novel by Kathryn Evans is pretty scary, and surely the Mrs Coulter-like character can’t possibly be as awful as she seems?

Well, I’m not going to tell.

Set in and around a future Brighton, it’s both new and strange, but also reassuringly ‘old’ in a way I’ve not come across for years. I’d have expected the police to be worse. Also, the setting of a new school for Laura is less of the catty and more, well, mature.

At one stage I wasn’t sure I could face this future Laura was having to deal with. But if she could, then I would. This is so well written, and unusual. Makes me wonder why more novels aren’t written on this kind of topic.

The Siege of Caerlaverock

Barbara Henderson’s short novel about the [real] siege of the castle of Caerlaverock, near Dumfries in southern Scotland, is a fabulous adventure for any age. Once I’d started, I could barely put the book aside.

The year is 1300, and Ada, a 12-year-old laundress, is about to do something she shouldn’t. This act causes her to get to know the new Page boy Godfrey, and it brings both of them to the attention of the castle commander, who is not a nice man.

The Lord of the castle has gone away, looking for support, leaving his young Lady wife in charge. And then the English King turns up, with 3000 men, against the 60 or so left at Caerlaverock.

We learn much about how a castle like this was run, and how hard it was to be poor and powerless like Ada and her father. But this is a story about personal bravery and the fight both against the villainous commander and the King of England.

It gets very exciting, and it’s good to see female leadership and that eight-year-old page boys are first and foremost only eight years old, but with the courage to become a brave Knight one day.

And Kings, well, they never last long, do they?

After the War

The tears started falling right from the start of Tom Palmer’s new book, After the War. I missed The Windermere Children on television in January, so had been looking forward to Tom’s book. To say it’s an enjoyable book would be wrong. It’s very good, as always with Tom, and so important, especially now.

We meet three Jewish, teenage boys, who along with three hundred other children came to the Lake District in the summer of 1945, straight from the concentration camps.

The automatic reaction for the modern reader is how lucky these boys are, and how they must know that things will be OK from now on. But what you tend to overlook is what has been done to them during the war. Yes, we know about the camps and the loss of their families and the general awfulness of everything.

But here the boys are worrying whether they can really trust these people, whether they will really be all right now. Because being transported in large groups to somewhere new, where they are being promised better lives, food, and so on, has been done to them already. And we know what happened then.

When they arrive, the many buildings they see look a bit like the concentration camps. They have to remove their clothes, for obvious reasons, and they are told to wash, and they are deloused, etc. But this too rings a bell for the children. It has all happened before.

On the other hand, they have been given a piece of chocolate, for the first time since before the war. Maybe things will be OK?

To begin with they hoard the food they are given, in case they aren’t fed again. They even steal potato peelings, just in case.

But slowly, slowly, they learn to trust, they stop being hungry, they learn English. In fact, they are allowed lessons, which is something they’ve not been permitted for six years.

This is a beautiful book, telling us about something real. Until quite recently we would have taken this kind and decent behaviour by the British for granted. But whatever our future holds, I am so glad these children were given a future after all they went through in the war. And I hope there was much chocolate for them.

The Time Travel Diaries – Adventure in Athens

Every time I ask myself whether I might have grown a little tired of this, and how many fictional trips can a witch make to Roman times, or whenever, and still enjoy it?

‘Hvergang,’ as the Danes say, or every time, as I say [every time].

In Caroline Lawrence’s second time traveller book, Adventure in Athens, I knew how things were likely to happen, and they did, and it was still just as much fun. And once you get going, those old Greeks really are fascinating. Not to mention smelly.

Here Alex and Dinu and their families travel to modern Athens as a reward for last time. And, well, there is a portal through to ancient Athens, and their task is to find Socrates. Because that should be easy.

I have to say, I grew quite fond of old Socrates. He was a wise man, and from now on I will remember this.

Not only did they smell back then, but many people were really quite violent. And I do not want to meet their dogs. Plus, the important thing for our young time tourists is to avoid interacting in such a way that the future changes, possibly meaning that they won’t actually exist, if they go kerpluff.

This is fun, and while it’s light adventure, you learn so much without really noticing. Perhaps our heroes are a tad unrealistically proficient in ancient languages, but this is fiction. They’re allowed. And so are we.

Where’s the Toilet Roll?

I can easily say that this is one book I never imagined I’d be ‘reviewing’. Mostly because I don’t think I could ever have imagined a picture book about toilet paper. Very important stuff, but still.

Based on a similar premise to the books where you search for Wally, here you have rolls of toilet paper to find. It’s a fairly poo-based book, and good if you like that kind of thing. Should keep the little ones busy.

Or as my 27-year-old said after she’d snatched it from my hands, ‘this is an excellent book. A brilliant excellent book.’

It would seem some people just don’t grow out of poo books.

End of Review

It’s not good news. The Guardian is about to stop publishing its Saturday Review.

It’s also not surprising. Costs everywhere, for everything, are escalating. Newspapers are not made of money any more than we are. You have to cut somewhere. It would just have been nice if the Review could stay. It means a lot not only to its readers, but to authors whose books are reviewed by them.

I understand that the other smaller parts of the Saturday paper are also disappearing, with plans for all to find some space in a new supplement. Hopefully this means that some of our most favourite bits will survive in some form or other. I know I have several that I really don’t want to lose.

Back in 2007 they published a lot of [paid for] blog posts. I know, because I was one of the paid people, having been introduced to the idea by Adèle Geras and Meg Rosoff who both wrote for the Books section. I also strayed into the film and television and music sections, because ‘I obviously knew so much about those subjects’.

It was fun. Chatting to other commenters was fun. Being able to earn the money to pay for my first laptop was rather nice. I know that the Resident IT Consultant would have been happy to pay, but for a non-earner like myself earning a bit of money was nice.

But I could tell when things went south. Most of their blogging needs were taken care of in-house. It was their version of not buying grapes every week when money gets tight. It’s just that as their purse shrank, so did ours. We’ve tried to be as supportive as we can. But it’s not enough.

Personally I am fine with there being fewer pages to the paper version of the Guardian. I like the idea of saving on paper; I don’t mean waste, but still it can be a lot of paper. The news  section could save some of its speculation on ‘what will happen’ to online pages. We will know soon enough what happens.

But I do like some of the more literary pieces on paper, and the recipes for things I won’t cook because I don’t have the latest outlandish ingredient. Some things are meant for paper. I won’t say whether I think the price could be allowed to be raised again, because I don’t know what people can afford.

Boy or girl?

It’s embarrassing. No one likes making mistakes, least of all me. But you’d think that when you read the new book by your favourite author – and in this case that would be Meg Rosoff – you’d be paying attention.

But no, I was so blissed out reading this wonderful holiday tale that I must have gone on holiday myself. Which will be why it wasn’t until I read one of the reviews on that Brazilian river site that I stopped and thought. Huh. Might the main character be a boy, and not a girl? What’s her/his name?

Yes, she could be a boy, couldn’t she? I discussed the issue with Daughter, who very quickly adopted the satisfying notion that she – the character – is a boy. The ending would make much more sense if she was, too. Besides, there is no name.

The next day on social media, where I had linked to my review, after saying how much he had enjoyed the book author Roy Gill asked what gender the main character is, pointing out she/he could be either. Or neither.

There was only one thing for me to do; ask Meg herself.

The girl is a boy. Although she had – that’s Meg – noticed that women over 50 tend to see a girl, and gay people see both options. And I’m definitely over 50.

Anyway, I blame the whole thing on it being the most perfect of stories.