Category Archives: Review

A sword called Keith

Well, in the end it wasn’t. Called Keith, I mean. But it could have been.

Piers Torday’s There May Be a Castle is the most wonderful of books, even with no Keith in it. Instead he has a boy called Mouse, who is small and full of imagination. And this story set on what is mostly Christmas Eve, after a car crash involving Mouse and his family, shows the importance of loving your toys. Because if you do, they will love you back.

And toys are good. So is family, of course. With the help of his beloved toys, 11-year-old Mouse discovers what matters most in life, at a time when it seems all might be lost.

Piers Torday, There May Be a Castle

The car crash turns the story into a journey for Mouse, and also his older sister Violet, as they independently try to find their way somewhere safe. Like a castle.

Both of them discover all sorts of truths they’d been too busy bickering to notice.

This was a delight from beginning to end. Although I wasn’t prepared for the end. I would have been had I paid a little more attention to start with. But I still enjoyed this book as I hurried through the cold landscape, along with a dinosaur and other useful beasts.

The Rasputin Dagger

In memory of the Russian Revolution of 1917, Theresa Breslin has written a wonderful historical novel, filled with fear and violence, starvation and romance.

Theresa Breslin, The Rasputin Dagger

The title might be The Rasputin Dagger, and Rasputin and the Tsar family do feature in the book, but this is mainly a story about normal people – brave, normal people – during a time of great upheaval and danger.

16-year-old Nina has recently been orphaned and must leave her home to go to St Petersburg to seek a new life. There she meets medical student Stefan, as well as the Royal Romanov family and the charismatic Rasputin, who seems to be running the show.

There is a war on with Germany, and there is serious unrest at home. Lenin wishes to return to Russia and the soldiers want to survive so they can return home too. The Tsar is weak, and the people hate Rasputin.

By some strange coincidence, Nina owns a jewel-encrusted dagger, which is the twin of one belonging to Rasputin. One of the daggers is said to carry a curse.

The readers feel the cold, and we can imagine ourselves in the early morning queue for bread. The poor need medical help they can’t afford, and the soldiers who return are in a bad shape and require more than the doctors can give them.

This is a lovely, historical, romantic adventure, with nice (yes, nice) people doing the best they can under appalling circumstances. And even though you know that both Rasputin and the Royal family will soon be dead, and Lenin will take power (and you know how that worked out, too), you still wonder how it all will end.

Lulu Gets a Cat

Anna McQuinn shows how children can prove they will manage something they want very much. In this case it’s Lulu who loves cats (I counted ten toy cats in her room!), and who really, really wants a real cat.

Anna McQuinn and Rosalind Beardshaw, Lulu Gets a Cat

By pretending that one of the toy cats is real, she shows her parents that she understands the work involved in having a live animal to look after, and her mum gives in. (They – nearly – always do, don’t they?)

So after some reading up on facts they visit the cat shelter, where one of the cats ‘chooses’ Lulu. Plenty of shopping for cat things later, it is time to pick up Lulu’s new friend.

This is lovely, and should inspire children that maybe they can influence what happens in life.

Thin Air

Michelle Paver has done it again. She’s managed to persuade me that she’s really John Buchan and Erskine Childers in one, blended with a bit of Kipling. In Thin Air the reader is – once more – transported to the 1930s, and this time it’s to climb Kangchenjunga. And as if that’s not enough of an ordeal, the mountain is haunted.

Thin Air is an adult novel, but only just. There is nothing unsuitable for younger readers keen on climbing and adventure, and who don’t mind being scared by the ghost of Kangchenjunga.

Michelle Paver, Thin Air

Dr Stephen Pearce is a last-minute replacement as the medic in the climbing team which consists of his older brother Kits, his brother’s best friend and two military climbers; one of whom is described as ‘a shade off in the vowels’ compared with these rather snobbish sahibs.

They are to follow the same route as a famous – but disastrous – climb almost thirty years earlier.

And, well, maybe they shouldn’t have.

This is such a marvellous tale of adventure, and you feel alternately exhausted by the climb and scared of whatever, whoever, is lurking out there in the snow. You admire the sherpas for their skills and patience with these strangers who call them coolies and yak-wallahs, and look down on the very men there to help them potentially become famous. If they succeed. Maybe even if they don’t.

If they survive.

The period feel is superb. As is the rising tension in the sahib camp.

You’ll not get me up there.

Memorial

The trouble with time is that it passes. When I was younger I felt it completely natural that soldiers from WWI were still alive. Now it is the people who fought in WWII who are barely still with us. What was once very big, ceases to have relevance to new generations. Whatever it is, it feels hard for those who do remember; that the thing that changed their lives so completely gets relegated to the history books.

Gary Crew and Shaun Tan, Memorial

In Gary Crew’s book Memorial, with illustrations by Shaun Tan, this is evident. It is not a new book, but a re-issued classic, almost. First published in 1999 it shows us a young boy who visits his (Australian) town’s memorial to The Big War with his great grandfather, and the personal memories this man still has, of those who fought with him, and those who didn’t come home. And of the planting of a tree next to the statue.

Then we meet his son, the boy’s grandfather, with his own memories of the next war. And the boy’s father, who was in Vietnam. A lot has happened under the tree; at the various homecomings, but also in everyday life.

The trouble is that the tree has grown quite big, and its are roots damaging the road, which by now is much busier than it was. And the council wants to remove it.

Can you remove a Shrine of Remembrance?

Or is there something else that people remember you by?


Reading this book now, another 18 years have passed, and the kind of family continuity it describes is no longer possible. Soon this boy will be able to tell the story to another generation, but it will be someone who hasn’t met the former soldiers.

Quest – the Aarhus 39

Quest is the ‘younger’ half of the two Aarhus short story collections, edited by Daniel Hahn. I use quotation marks, because I am less convinced of the age ‘gap’ than has been suggested. Yes, it is a little younger than Odyssey, but I felt many of the characters in Odyssey were not proper YA material; they were children who tried out older behaviour.

It’s not important, as both collections offer a great range of stories from all over Europe. As with Odyssey, the authors are occasionally quite famous, and so are the illustrators, and I’ve come across several of the translators before as well.

Quest - Aarhus 39

Of the 17 short stories in Quest I chose to start in the middle, because I just had to read the one by Maria Turtschaninoff first. I might have a crush on her. The story, The Travel Agency, did not disappoint. In fact, I could want to read a whole book based on it.

It’s unfair to pick favourites, but I did enjoy Maria Parr’s A Trip to Town, about a girl and her grandma. And as for Journey to the Centre of the Dark by David Machado; you’d do well to have a hand to hold. In the end it didn’t go quite as far as I kept being afraid of, but I’d be happy to offer my idea to anyone who feels like writing scary stories.

The Quest stories are not as dark as in Odyssey. Maybe that’s why they are offered as children’s stories. And perhaps that’s why they suited me better. But, in short, I can recommend these two collections as a starting point for fun with unknown [to you] names in children’s literature.

The Ghost in Annie’s Room

It’s the anticipation that does it. I thought this story by Philippa Pearce was going to get quite scary at some point. And when it didn’t happen immediately, I expected it soon. And then shortly afterwards.

Philippa Pearce, The Ghost in Annie's Room

It wasn’t all that scary. I think. Unless I missed something. But that doesn’t matter, because as I said, it’s the expecting it, thinking that the ghost will jump out at you any second now. That’s scary.

Emma goes on holiday, staying with Great Aunt Win, and getting to sleep in Annie’s attic room. Emma’s brother helpfully informs her the room is haunted. And yes, there’s the noise in the night, and the shape in the dark.

There’s thunder.

And…

(Cosy illustrations by Cate James)