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Review: White Horse; Yan Ge

White-Horse

White Horse

Hope Road Publishing, RRP £1.19, Suitable for ages 12-16

Publishers blurb:

“Yun Yun lives in a small West China town with her widowed father, and an uncle, aunt and older cousin who live nearby. One day, her once-secure world begins to fall apart. Through her eyes, we observe her cousin, Zhang Qing, keen to dive into the excitements of adolescence but clashing with repressive parents. Ensuing tensions reveal that the relationships between the two families are founded on a terrible lie”.

I like to think of books in translation as cultural exchange. They are an opportunity to experience the worlds that we are separated from by language; to visit cultures that may seem alien to us and to learn. With White Horse we get to visit a culture that is, literally, half a world a way, and in it we find that while culture and experience may separate us, humanity is universal.

This short novella, translated by Nicky Harman, peeks behind the closed doors and whispered conversations of a restrictive family environment to uncover the secrets within. It is a story that could happen in Paris, France or Paris, Texas. It could be Newcastle, New South Wales; Newcastle Tyne and Wear or Newcastle KwaZulu-Natal.  This time, though, it takes place in small town China. The cultural landscape is evoked beautifully and in the usual way – though food. Descriptions of meals, cooking and treats shared evoke the setting while character is revealed through dialogue. Yan’s characters have depth, warmth and humour, though they’re not always likeable.

White Horse is ultimately an entwicklungsroman, chronicling the growing sexual awareness of Yun Yun and her cousin, both in their own lives and the lives of others. As naïveté gives way to knowledge, the conservative hypocrisies and generational differences of the modern family is revealed. Yan’s real skill lies in her protagonists treatment of this situation; it is difficult to tell how much Yun Yun understands or even cares.

To delve to much in the the imagary of White Horse would be to give too much away;  this is a cerebral novella, reminiscent of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry or  Jostein Gaarder, but it is difficult to dicuss the narrative without at least touching on it. Chess appears as a motif and metaphor throughout the 30 page e-book but the major symbolic component is of course the white horse, a stalwart feature of both mythological and historical storytelling in China. Yun Yun processes the discomfort she encounters by envisioning (or perhaps hallucinating) a white horse, lending an air of magic realism to the tale. Gonsun Long’s famous paradox (can it be that a white horse is not a horse?*) is also recalled in the conflict of the story. Names and why we are who we are are not explicitly discussed but are alluded to. Perhaps Yun Yun needs to grow up a little bit before she can really tackle those questions.

With strong characterisation and some wonderful turns of phrase, White Horse is a quick but affecting read. 8/10.

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* Don’t be fooled, the fact that I am aware this paradox exists means that I understand it. I don’t. Not even a little bit.

Review: Prankenstein, Andy Seed

Prankenstein

Prankenstein

Fat Fox Books,  RRP £6.99 Pubished  August 2014. Suitable for ages 8-12

Publishers blurb:

“When Soapy’s granny is shot through the roof on a turbo-charged stair lift, he knows that something is not right. Someone, or something, is playing incredible, hilarious pranks – but who? Soapy and his friend appoint themselves chief detectives to solve the mystery and discover that the culprit is a hairy, superhuman figure with a shocking secret!

I hate giving books sparkling reviews. There can’t, I tell myself, be nothing critical to say. You’ve got to be honest and balancedAnd that means pointing out the bad as well as the good.

Sometimes – not often, but sometimes – a book lands on my doormat that is pretty bulletproof. Even then, I can usually find a few negative  things to say. I am an eternal pessimist. Negativity comes easy to me.

Not so Prankenstein. Prankensein is Practically Perfect right up until the last chapter, in which an unsatisfying deus ex machina ending dampens what is otherwise an excellent story. The humour is delightful. The narrative is captivating. Even the boring technical bits – number and freqency of illustrtations, chapter length, language pitch – are exemplary.

The problem is, it seems, that Andy Seed knows his audience too well.  He’s written a handful of homework-helpers,  a trio of memoirs (based on his experiences teaching primary school) and an assortment of poetry collections and miscellanies. Prankenstein is his first novel, but you’d never know it. It’s a well crafted, funny, and escapist read which I’d like to compare to David Walliams or Dav Pikey, if only doing so wouldn’t suggest Prankentstein was much lower quality than it is. Where David Walliams churns out anything vaguely absurdist safe in the knowledge that it will sell, Seed crafts a narrative that’s both absurd and entirely logical; where Dav Pikey’s willy-bum-bogeys brand of subversion is insultingly patronising, Seed’s is well-pitched and funny. In a fast-paced narrative, Seed never drops the ball or loses our interest but keeps us engaged right up to the last page.

The story concerns the appearance of a malevolent being who is playing tricks on just about everyone ten-year-old Soapy knows. Bottoms are stuck to chairs; false teeth are replaced; cows are to be found where cows should not be and it all the evidence points to Soapy as the culprit. With the spectre of boarding school hanging over him if the practical jokes don’t stop, Soapy turns detective, and, with the help of his friends the Twince, unmasks the prankster.

All the characters are nicely realised and will be familiar to most readers, especially Soapy’s nemesis Venus, a spoiled, celebrity-obsessed prima donna who (naturally) gets her just desserts. Seeds use of voice to convey character never descends too far into caricature, but hovers around the line of ‘overdone’, spilling over only when there’s a good joke to be made.

In in 2008  the School Libraries Association noted How to Spot a Hadrosaur in a Bus Queue on their list of 100 books to get boys readingPrankenstein deserves a place on that list too.  I’ve written before about reluctant male readers, but I focussed then on the reading boys do that isn’t in the usual format; reading comics. Here is a story presented in a traditional prose narrative – it’s not a graphic novel or a comic book – that is guaranteed to have kids, even reluctant ones, turning the pages. It’s a delightful diversion, neither too simple nor too complex for reluctant or struggling readers. If it wasn’t for the ending I’d award full marks, but even still, Prankenstein deserves 9/10.

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Review: Janice; Jean Goulbourne

Janice

Janice

Published July 2014,  Hope Road. RRP £3.43 (Kindle) £1.99 (ePub)

Publishers blurb:

Schoolgirl Janice, in the care of her single mother, with a father in prison, leaves the poverty and crime of the ghetto for a life with more prospects when her mother gets a job in the suburbs. But all is not what it seems, the affluent household she moves to has its own problems, and secrets, and soon Janice is caught up in a dark web of suspicion as the well-off girls at her new school look down on her and her ghetto past. Caught between two worlds, Janice begins to wonder if the grass is really greener on the other side of the tracks. Are these new upwardly mobile city dwellers any  better than the poor people at the standpipe in her old home, or the rural life of her grand-parents in the country? 

I am always faintly concerned when any work is described as a ‘moral tale’. Whose morals, exactly? Overt didacticism, however well-meaning, is prone to rejection from readers who feel like life is an eternal conveyor belt of thou shalt nots. The last thing they want in fiction is a sermon. Janice, from an author who has more than half-a-dozen other titles to her name, both poetry and prose, could sail too closely to a condescending pedagogy with her first venture into YA.

The primary plot concerns drug use among teenagers and, unlike Junk, for example or Crank, the good are unerringly good and the bad are unerringly bad. The titular protagonist is pious and wide-eyed, her antagonists mean and the grown ups, when they are around, perfectly loving and supportive. This, in addition to some clunky exposition and unsophisticated plotting (at one point the narrator muses “…if items began to disappear from the house, to be sold for Cornelia for more cocaine, they would be the ones suspected of stealing” Sure enough, five swipes of the thumb later items have gone missing.)  could render the text condescending.

But it is not. The prose itself is engaging. There are some fine descriptive passages, especially in the early chapters, and Jean Goulborne’s ear for voices means speech is rendered on the page beautifully. Ultimately,though,  Janice is primarily a book about class – how we define it and how it defines us – and this is how it avoids becoming cloying.

Transplanted to the affluent suburb of Saint Andrew, a large cosmopolitan parish in Jamaica, Janice is caught between her poverty-stricken family and friends and her new surroundings. Her mother, a practical nurse, has taken a place caring for an elderly patient and Janice, who dreams of academic success and a career that will let her escape the ghetto, must go with her. Both missing her old home and aspiring to have the things her new community has, Janice navigates her confusion with the help of the other staff.

The novel subverts the cultural meme that poverty is an eternal bedfellow of immorality. Middle class families lack the cohesion of the less fortunate families even though they don’t subscribe to traditional ideals concerning the domestic sphere and they operate under a different set of rules. As Miss Meline puts it, “Everything happen in this country, them blame it on us […] Nobody investigate them bank account.”

Them people who have too much always go on like them can’t get enough. Them never satisfy.

Entitlement, greed and recklessness are swiped at; the value of intangible assets is espoused and moral behaviour is foremost among these assets. It is those with money and influence who are most lacking.

There is a somewhat traditionalist approach hidden in Goulborne’s thesis on class. Obstacles are placed on every path – fair enough – but some don’t have the will navigate them. A collective push for betterment alone can lift communities out of want. This offers some balance to the picture of poverty revered as virtuous or holy, but it also hints at the idea of the deserving versus the undeserving poor. Janice, of course, does not deserve to be poor, and her goodness is rewarded by both hard work and luck.

To experience literature that takes place in a culture and context removed from our own can only be a worthwhile endeavour. Though Janice takes place half a world away its themes are universal. This is a Christian allegory wherein everyone gets their just desserts and characters make frequent reference to God. Such overt religiosity is not a common feature of YA but it does not feel out of place. Instead it contributes to a vivid rendering of  a cultural landscape that is largely unknown in the UK. The varied environments of Kingston are evoked through food, nature and speech and the difference between her home and St Andrew is clearly drawn. This is a captivaiting read.

Janice is an accessible novel that’s more suited to the younger end of the YA market. It deserves a hearty 7 out of 10.

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With thanks to Alex at HopeRoad for the review copy.

White Horse by Yan Ge is available from the same publisher in October.

 

 

 

Three Picture Books for starting School

image from wikimedia commons

image from wikimedia commons

A version of this post was ready to go two weeks ago, when it would’ve been much more useful than it is now, but WordPress is a cruel mistress and it ate my draft before I could hit ‘publish’. No amount of cursing and fist shaking could get it back. This is a condensed version of that post. I hope it is still helpful.

Around this time of year, four- and five-year-olds across the country and across the globe are getting ready to enter Reception class for the first time. Some will have had Early Years education in a formal setting such as a nursery, and perhaps find the transition to ‘big school’ easier because of it, but many will not.  It can be a daunting time for parents and children alike.

Books, as ever, can help ease the transition process by addressing fears and giving children an opportunity to ask questions, demistifying what the first stages of formal education are about and maybe even making the prospect of school an exciting, rather than a terrifying one.

The books I’ve chosen here each approach the subject in different ways, allowing parents and carers to tailor their approach to the specific needs of their own little student.

Starting School, Janet and Allan Ahlberg

Starting School

Starting School

It is widely agreed upon that, in the field of kidlit, the Ahlberg’s can do no wrong. Working together and individually, they have produced eighty-something works for young readers ranging from poetry (such as Heard it in the Playground) to post-modern picture books (like Peepo! and Goldilocks, storybooks (such as Burglar Bill and the Happy Families series) for emerging readers and novels (such as Woof!) middle grade lone readers.

Starting School (1988) has few of the metafictive elements that the Ahlberg’s are famous for in their books. It’s a linear narrative presented in a traditional fashion and it helps little ones imagine what their own first days in school will be like.

The book provides an overview of a typical week in a British primary school. The children hang their coats on pegs, have a PE class in the hall, eat lunch and play with the class pet. There’s a reading corner, a dressing up box, a carpet for storytime. It’s by no means exciting, but it’s not meant to be. It’s built to reassure children about what will lie ahead of them. Janet Ahlberg’s calming illustrations fill the page and offer plenty of action to supplement the text. There are children joining in and children holding back. There are accidents, messes made and a teacher who sometimes gets a little bit cross.

The classroom in Starting School could be any classroom in the UK; this is how it demystifies the first few weeks in compulsory education. But there is a secondary asset in the book: the size and shape of the text and the construction of the page also echoes the style of Oxford Reading Tree and similar reaching schemes which children will encounter at the beginning of their academic career, perhaps providing a level of comfort when learing to read begins.

Read the rest of this entry

Who is Maleficent, anyway?

Maleficent promotional poster

Maleficent promotional poster

Disney’s newest feature, starring Angelina Jolie in the title role, is Maleficent. It’s unlikely this has escaped your attention. The internet has been abuzz with news of the project since before production began, with early photographs of Jolie on set released to the Daily Mail in June 2012 fueling the fire. The character has captured our imaginations.  Maleficent t-shirts, posters and Barbie-esque dolls, an addictive appthe Disney Marketing Machine is at peak output, with merchandise not just on shops but out in the wild too. People are buying Maleficent plush toys (though I can’t think of a character less suited to such a medium), jewellery and nail polish. MAC has a Maleficent make up collection (and did I mention it was my birthday soon?). She’s everywhere. And we’re lapping it up.

Sleeping beauty has a 400 year plus history. It feels like Maleficent has always been a part of that. In fact, she’s less than 60 years old.

The oldest known variant* of the Sleeping Beauty story is ‘Sole, Luna, e Talia’ (Sun, Moon and Talia). Written by Giambattista Basile in 1634, it tells the tale of  Talia, a baby princess prophesied by astrologers to be grievously  imperilled by a splinter of flax at some point in her life. Though her step-mother does plan to cook and eat her, which is probably worse, there is no wicked woman to endanger the princess.

The beginnings of Maleficent as a character can be found in ‘La Belle au bois dormant’ (from Perreault’s 1697 collection Histoires ou contes du temps passé). Here a nameless wicked fairy godmother curses the young princess to prick her finger on a spindle and in Grimm’s ‘Little Briar Rose’ (from Kinder- und Hausmärchen [1812]) it is the same. Grimm’s version of the tale is much gentler than Perrault and Basile’s efforts, ending with the kiss that awakes the princess from her sleep and cutting out the rape, childbirth, ogres and cannibalism. Read the rest of this entry

Books we read as children: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; Joan Aiken

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; Joan Aiken

Set in an alternate version of history in which James II was not deposed in the Glorious Revolution,  The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) imagines an England roamed by wolves that have migrated through mainland Europe from Russia through a pre-Eurotunnel undersea excavation. This is not as outlandish as it may seem; a tunnel under the English Channel was first proposed in 1802, and in the 1830s geo- and hydrographical surveys were performed with a view to making the proposal a reality.

The book is the first in a series of 12 novels alternatively called the Wolves Chronicles and James III Series. It was adapted to film in 1989. My copy, a Red Fox edition published in 1992, soft spined and fluffy from having been read too often in a bath not been picked up for at least 15 years, so I’ve only a vague memory of it. No details of the plot remain, only the tone has stayed with me. Joan Aiken is a beloved author for emerging and middle readers and a doyenne of juvenile fiction. It is a scandal that I have ignored her for so long.

The story begins with a treacherous train journey north from London for Sylvia, our orphaned protagonist, who is to join her cousin Bonnie at the family seat, Willoughby Chase, a grand Medieval hall that sits at the centre of a wold occupied by half-starved wolves. They are to be educated by the new governess Miss Slighcarp who will be acting in loco parentis while patriarch Sir Willoughby and his wife Lady Green are away travelling. She is given complete control of the estate.

Miss Slighcarp instantly shows her colours. She dismisses most of the estates large staff and starts wearing Lady Green’s expensive gowns. She orders the girls must clean their own bedrooms – a fate worse than death to the average ten-year-old – and eat only plain food. She locks Bonnie in a cupboard, and, with the help of the mysterious Mr Grimshaw, begins a systematic assault on the Willoughby fortune.

To call a the characters of a novel tightly archetypal would generally be to disparage the text. Aiken’s female characters are just that: primary antagonist Miss Slighcarp (it is she pictured in the cover art above) could be swapped out for potions teacher Miss Hardbroom in Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch series. She’s a callous and conniving maiden aunt, gaunt and balding under her wig, who beats servants with a marble hairbrush and demands respect while doing nothing to deserve it. She is the wicked stepmother archetype incarnate; cruel, ruthless, and entirely self-serving. When the girls are shipped off to an orphanage they encounter the equally cruel Mrs Brisket, quite opposite to Miss Slighcarp in appearance but almost identical in character.

Miss Slighcarp hovers over the domineering, yellow-eyed Mrs Brisket in Pat Marriott's 1962 illustrations.

Miss Slighcarp hovers over the domineering, yellow-eyed Mrs Brisket in Pat Marriott’s 1962 illustrations.

By contrast, Pattern embodies another archetype. She’s a fairy godmother,  a caregiver and guiding hand. She coddles the girls, showering them with love and risking her self to take care of her charges. When Syliva and Bonnie make their escape from the orphanage Pattern provides them with warm disguises and food, nurturing them even from afar.

Even Sylvia and Bonnie occupy an archetypal dichotomy: one scrappy and firey tempered, one sedate; one polite and delicate, one boistrous and tomboyish. As a team they work together to represent the uplifting heart of the text. They’re resourseful and boundlessly optimistic, showing courage in the face of significant adversity.

You can get away with resorting to caricature when your prose is as fine as Aiken’s. The  writing is sumptuous and flowing. It is perfectly pitched for the emerging lone reader,  but with a breadth of language – pages 14/15 alone provides chatelaine, oubliette, commodious and portico – to challenge and enrich the young reader’s vocabulary. Contextual clues often define these unexpected words, as when Miss Slighcarp wishes her belongings to be moved:

“You Sir! Do not stand there smirking and dawdling, but see that my valises are carried at once to my apartments, and that my maid is immediately in attendance to help me.”

The average 21st century  tween cannot be expected to have come across the word ‘valise’ before but can probably surmise that it is an item of luggage, and probably a specialised one*.

The overarching themes of the novel are as Dickensian as the racing episodic plot. Hypocrisy, disguised identity, social-climbing and abused children feature heavily and  lend a Victorian mien to the text (though it’s set in the years we’d call Georgian) and go part way to explaining why I recalled the tone of the novel with such lucidity. It’s a riveting read, full of adventure and peril. Though the eponymous wolves provide little to the plot, they contribute to the air of menace that Aiken evokes vividly. The book does not feel dated, either, despite its vintage. Aiken truly knows how to write for  children. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase thoroughly deserves its grand reputation.

 

 

*Miss Slighcarp arrives with a dressing case and nine walrus hide portmanteaux as well as the valise. She does not travel light.

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