Category Archives: Review

There’s a Dragon in my Backpack!

Tom Nicoll and Sarah Horne, There's a Dragon in my Backpack!

I loved Tom Nicoll’s first book about the Mini-Dragon, who came to Eric via a Chinese takeaway meal. These things happen.

This made it hard to ignore* the second story about clever little Pan, so I didn’t. Eric has this annoying neighbour who goes to a fancy private school, and Toby always wants what Eric has. In this case the dragon.

Except he doesn’t quite understand Pan isn’t a toy dragon.

Anyway, it is Show and Tell at Toby’s school, and well, you can guess. Toby wants Pan to come so he can show off. Eric says no. And then…

Well, there’d be no story and no book if what happened didn’t happen.

Eric has some good friends – Min and Jayden – and they meet a couple more unflappable children at the Show and Tell. People who understand that you help others.

This is fun! And Sarah Horne’s illustrations are just right.

*I know I’m too old for the regular interest age for this kind of book. But I don’t care. It’s got a Mini-Dragon.

After Tomorrow, again

Quite a few books, and the reviews thereof, could do with being mentioned a second, or third time. Some of them become worryingly [even more] topical at a later stage. Gillian Cross wrote such a book; After Tomorrow, which I read four years ago. At the time it touched me deeply. Now it touches me more, and it scares me how much more realistic the situation has become in a few years.

‘By turning a situation round 180 degrees, you could find you don’t agree with yourself. If I were not an immigrant, I would most likely find it easier to cast a suspicious eye on all those foreigners flocking to Britain. Heaven on earth, and everyone made so welcome, too. What’s not to like?

Besides, the other lot aren’t quite as nice as we are.

Gillian Cross has done this. She sends her characters in After Tomorrow to France. The situation in the UK is desperate. Food is scarce and anyone caught hoarding gets rough treatment from gangs of raiders; their food taken, their homes smashed up and people injured, raped and even killed. There is a website naming the Scadgers, telling others where they live.

Matt’s family are branded scadgers, and his grandfather dies after one such attack. His mother and stepfather make belated arrangements to leave the country and escape to France before they close their borders to the British.

(When I’d got this far I felt more anxious than ever while reading ‘mere’ fiction. I began calculating what I had in my freezer. First with a view to survival eating it, and then with fear because someone would come and punish me for it. I was halfway to leaving the country myself. Where to, though? Who would have me? Yes, I know. But perhaps that would no longer be possible.)

Some of them get away, on what is virtually the last lorry convoy to leave. And on arrival they find only those with children are allowed in. People scheme and lie in order not to be sent back. They have no food to begin with. Nowhere to sleep.

Eventually there is a refugee camp set up, of the simplest kind. They are given food vouchers to shop for. Bartering becomes a new way of surviving. Matt brought his grandfather’s bike, and the lorry driver who drove them to France has grand ideas for it.

The locals hate and distrust them. Most of the refugees don’t speak French. Most don’t want to learn, either.

Now, take all these facts and change the nationalites. Even you, who are normally so fair minded, might think it sounds perfectly normal and only to be expected. But not if it’s you in that muddy field, needing antibiotics that you can’t afford. If the doctor gets there on time.

How far away are we from this kind of scenario on our doorsteps? Sometimes I think we are almost all the way to it. I hope not. And I still can’t decide whether to fill my freezer some more, or to eat most of the food.

Just in case.’

For myself I am currently not concentraing on muddy fields or the possible lack of antibiotics. But I am thinking of most of the other things.

Written in Bones

Someone please get Tony McLean a winter coat! With a hood. And gloves. The man’s useless and he’s forever going out on murder hunts freezing, slipping from unsuitable footwear. It’s not good for him.

James Oswald, Written in Bones

It is already time for the seventh McLean mystery, and this one is surprisingly normal, apart from the issue with the dragon. But you don’t need the supernatural when you can have one cold, and only recently unsuspended, Detective Inspector out on the streets of Edinburgh.

As is customary with James Oswald’s crime novels, you first meet the murder victim and can hear their thoughts as the end comes closer. This one is spectacular. Think ‘tree in the Meadows taking the place of your kebab skewer’ and there you have it.

McLean has the same unpleasant boss as before, plus some new and promising looking constables to help solve the latest of the many puzzling crimes he always seems to find. Emma is back, but will it last?

Between many turns in and out of hospital for almost everyone, Tony looks for the reason the corpse was skewered, and if there really was a dragon.

Maresi

Maresi, The Red Abbey Chronicles, is one of the most feminist books I’ve read. It’s perhaps not surprising, as Maria Turtschaninoff – despite the name – is a Swedish speaking Finn. I don’t think you could easily publish a book in the UK with some of the content you find in Maresi.

Maria Turtschaninoff, Maresi

I’d heard about it before it appeared in English translation, and I’d had this irrational thought I wouldn’t read the Pushkin Press version, but go for the original instead. And then, of course, I didn’t.

The Red Abbey is a kind of nunnery, on an island, somewhere. Most of the character names and all the place names are made up ones, so it’s hard to place the abbey geographically, but I sort of imagine it in the Baltic. Contrary to so many set-ups in fiction where you have adults teaching younger ones, and it tends to be a cruel place with much punishment, as well as bad feeling between the ‘children.’

Not here. It seems to be an ideal place in what is a strange world, where the women teach the girls how to become like them; wise and strong. You hardly ever get that in books.

12-year-old Maresi is the narrator, and she tells of their island from when Jai turns up one day. Jai has escaped a bad past, and unfortunately she brings her past to the island, as they are invaded by a group of bad men. (This is all surprisingly anti-men, even though they acknowledge that some men are all right.)

You suspect the worst, but matters go in a different way from what you’d think, and the women’s strength grows and impresses.

In a way, this isn’t the kind of story I tend to go for, but once started I couldn’t leave it. Very interesting. And there are more to come.

Please enter

The other week I got so furious with everything to do with immigrants not being wanted, that I hunted out a book I’ve had lying around for about seven years and read it.

The book was Floella Benjamin’s Coming to England, which was first published twenty years ago, and tells the story of what it was like for her when she came to England in 1960 at the age of eleven.

Floella Benjamin, Coming to England

At first I was afraid it was going to turn out that Trinidad had been paradise and England was not, but their idyllic life in Trinidad turned sour when Floella’s parents had to leave four of their six children behind, as they didn’t have enough money for all at once. Life for those left behind quickly became hell, which presumably made the reality of England less bad, even if it was cold and grey and unwelcoming.

Through hard work and love they prospered and did well, and as we know, Floella has been very successful. But it wasn’t for England opening its arms and being friendly and giving things away freely, even then.

The facts of this book are more pertinent than ever. The style is rather wooden and boring, but that is outweighed by how important it is to read.


And then, I’d not had time to read the Guardian Weekend two weeks ago, so first picked it up a week late, to find Floella Benjamin the subject of their Q&A page. And the reason she was, was that the book has been republished again.

If that’s not witchy, I don’t know what is.

Mårbacka

It took me a while to work out what Mårbacka was. As a child I’d read another Selma Lagerlöf autobiographical book with very nearly the same title. I was reluctant then, but as a book-starved young thing, there was no way I could ignore even a boring looking book for very long, and once I began reading I loved it.

Selma Lagerlöf, Mårbacka

This time I felt much the same, except this new translation – by Sarah Death – does not look boring. It’s very pretty with its red roses on the cover. But I thought it might go over the same ground (I suppose it does, but not so it matters), and I really don’t feel I ought to read it in anything but the original.

But once I got past that bit of snobbery, I discovered it was fun, in a quiet Swedish kind of way. Disconcerting, too, as I feel that this was more or less my life, one hundred years earlier. I wonder if this is something that many Swedes are afflicted by? I grew up in a small family with not much money, in a town. Selma was part of a larger and wealthier family in the countryside.

It could have been my life too. And the anecdotal way of telling us about her life is a good technique. It’s almost like a regular column in a magazine. And like them, entertaining and partly truthful while also being helped along with some embellishments to the truth.

As I was reading, I couldn’t help stopping every now and then to consider what the original might have said. A bit as with subtitles when you don’t need them; you still look for something. (I might have gone differently with the vörtbröd…)

It’s charming, and funny, and it shows the reader what Sweden was like before the big move to the towns, before socialism and before Ikea. It’s about building a new cowhouse, the Swedish way of celebrating birthdays when you can’t prevent the whole county from turning up uninvited, about having your old, former maid come to tea, coming face to face with a kelpie, dreaming of the King coming to visit, and how it took days to travel from Värmland to the West coast.

I can see that if I had been awarded the Nobel prize, I’d have done exactly what Selma did and done up my childhood paradise. After all, she only did what her own father worked on before her. What most of us would do if we could.

The Liar’s Handbook

To be perfectly honest, I was a bit reluctant to read The Liar’s Handbook, even though it’s written by the excellent Keren David, for the equally excellent Barrington Stoke. I think I didn’t want to face any liars, just at the moment. Who does?

Keren David, The Liar's Handbook

River – yes, really – is a boy who lies. He seems unable to stop the fantastic lies from falling out of his mouth and into the ears of people who are getting a little tired of all the lies. There is trouble with school, but he has a cool mum.

The trouble with mum is she has a new boyfriend called Jason, and he is someone River really doesn’t trust.

I could tell early on what the plot was likely to be. It’s one you’ve come across in the news in the last few years, and I’m surprised no one else has written a novel based on this. Maybe someone has, but not like this; about living a lie.

This is about Jason, mum, River and his long time disappeared dad, River’s friend Kai, football, and saving the world in general. The stupid things adults do.

The Liar’s Handbook is absolutely marvellous, and once again I’m so happy to find another great book that is also dyslexia friendly. More please!

(And the physical book has beautifully rounded corners…)