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Review: SeaWAR; Sarah Holding

SeaWAR; Sarah Holding

SeaWAR; Sarah Holding

Published by Medina, RRP £9.95. Appropriate for ages 9-15

From the cover:

“The mysterious black C-Bean is a remarkable device which, as Alice and her classmates discovered in Sea BEAN [the first book in the SeaBEAN trilogy], knows just about everything and can take them anywhere in the world.

But now it’s broken and stranded on the rocks on the remote Scottish island of St Kilda. When Karla Ingermann, the C-Bean’s designer, turns up from Germany to try to fix it, they perform a factory reset, which accidentally sends it back in time and Alice’s world is thrown into disarray.

Chased by Victorian police, attacked by an enemy submarine, imprisoned with a madwoman, summoned to rescue a dying pilot and fired at by government agents, Alice together with her parrot, her dog and her new wartime companions, embarks on a journey through time, uncovering dark secrets from St Kilda’s past and safeguarding the future before it’s too late.


SeaWAR is Part 2 of the SeaBEAN trilogy


Read the TreasuryIslands review of Part 1:  SeaBEAN.


Since reviewing SeaBean Part 1 back in November I have failed to blog even once. My WordPress dashboard is crammed with draft posts, some almost complete, some just one line, but all unfinished. I have been despondent, wavering and unsure. SeaWAR has pulled me out of my funk. When I opened the unexpected package that thunked through my front door last week to find a new shiny copy of SeaWAR, spine unbroken and smelling strongly of  factory fresh paper and ink, I knew I had only one course ahead of me: a deep bubbly bath in which I could read until my toes wrinkled, and then a bit more.

The second instalment of Sarah Holding’s SeaBEAN trilogy finds protagonist Alice on a quest through history on her island home. The C-Bean’s newfound ability to travel through time as well as space is the driving force of SeaWAR. Mixing the real history of the small archipelago of St Kilda with an imagined future creates a rich and compelling narrative of intrigue and revelation.

The mysterious near-future technology of the C-BEAN is explored further in SeaWAR, but more questions are raised than are answered. Just who built the C-Bean? Why? Even when is suddenly under question. The marvel of technological advancement that is represented by the C-Bean is a nice juxtaposition against the environmentalism that it at the heart of the novel. It is technology that has brought Alice and her family to the island, but has the same scientific quest played a hand in evacuating St Kilda in the first place? At what cost comes knowledge? Each landmark of the island has a personal history to it, too, and Alice is drawn into these stories as she travels throughout the 20th century.

Alice continues to be a wonderful protagonist for young readers. She’s upbeat and likeable, broadly enough drawn that readers can easily place themselves in her shoes but  with a strong and consistent voice  that helps her jump from the page. Though her schoolmates play a smaller role than in SeaBEAN, her new acquaintances more than fill the void. There’s the curious figure of lady Grange, imprisoned on the island in the early decades of the 20th century, the equally curious Karla Ingermann, the children and adults of St Kilda’s past add a depth of perspective to the narration.

SeaWAR is just as compelling as its predecessor and just as quickly paced. In short it’s a cracking read. The settings are distant but familiar, with always a foothold available for young readers. There’s plenty to get your teeth into, with perilous missions, acts of heroism and  With the final part of the trilogy, SeaRISE not yet available, a second read of SeaWAR is definitely warranted; there is bound to be more to discover.  SeaWAR absolutely deserves 8 out of 10.

With thanks to Medina Publishing for the review copy.

Review: SeaBEAN; Sarah Holding

SeaBEAN; Sarah Holding

SeaBEAN; Sarah Holding

Published by Medina, RRP £9.95. Appropriate for ages 9-15

From the cover:

“On her 11th birthday in 2018, Alice finds a mysterious black box on the beach. She discovers it’s called a C-Bean and imagines it belongs to her. Together with her five schoolmates – the only children on the newly re-inhabited remote island of St. Kilda – they soon realise it has extraordinary powers and can transport them anywhere in the world. Before long, Alice and her friends find themselves immersed in all sorts of thrilling adventures, from Central Park to the Amazonian rainforest to the backstreets of Hong Kong, as they uncover danger and subterfuge threatening the worlds eco-sytems. With a stray dog and a garrulous parrot they seem to have acquired along the way, they overcome their fears as the C-Bean helps them unravel the mysteries of time and tides, understand the interconnectedness of all things and, in a race against the clock, succeed in safeguarding the future of their tiny Scottish island.

SeaBEAN is Part 1 of the SeaBEAN Trilogy.”

SeaBEAN, the debut from former architect and urban development consultant Sarah Holding, is a near-future environmental adventure set mainly on the (currently) uninhabited archipelago of St Kilda (warning: irritating auto-play sound FX lurk beyond the link).

I’ll be honest: when my copy of SeaBEAN arrived I was not filled with must-read excitement. I’m not particularly a science fiction fan and I tend to fear the worst when ever the word ‘environmental’ is bandied about,  but we do not judge a book by the cover – even if it is thermochromic –  and so in I dove.

And I’m glad I did.

Part third person narration and part epistolary, SeaBEAN is a real corker of a novel, suitable for reading aloud from the age of eight or nine and lone-reading from around ten. Written with an economy of language that belies its debut status, Holding captures the character of her 11-year-old protagonist and focalsing agent Alice beautifully and creates a compelling narrative on a complex topic without condescending to her young audience. She’s straightforward without being obvious, addressing  important contemporary issues without being preachy. This is a rare talent indeed.

At the core of the primary plot is a machine called the C-Bean, a sort of internet-enabled matter transporter  that is part classroom, part TARDIS, part iPad; a black box that can take the children inside it anywhere in the world. Alice and her friends visit New York, Australia, Hong Kong and the Amazonian rainforest, in each location learning a little more about the interconnectedness of things and the unconsidered consequences of our actions, even when we’re acting in good faith. Despite the brisk pace each landscape is superbly captured as Holding sketches an impression of each new location, before throwing her characters into it and seeing how they react.

As is often the case with tightly packed narratives, it’s difficult to discuss the book without giving too much of the game away, so I’ll try to stick to wider themes. The primary motif in SeaBEAN is,  predictably, given the name of the book and of the  futuristic portakabin at its heart, is the sea bean or drift seed, an organic flotsam in the form of plant seeds that travel many miles over the ocean as part of their not-becoming-extinct strategy that there’s probably a proper botanical word for. Just as the seed of a plant rooted in one continent can affect the environment of another, so can our actions and some of those actions can ben devastating.

Thanks in part to a prologue that suggests there’s more to C-Bean than meets the eye, I look forward to part two of the trilogy, SeaWAR, which sees the C-Bean turn time machine as well as matter transporter. SeaWAR is available from March 2014.

For its  exciting adventure and accessible prose that will delight loves of Secret Seven and Famous Five books, SeaBEAN deserves a hearty 9 out of 10.

With thanks to Guy and Shelley at Medina Publishing for the review copy.

Origins: Remember, Remember the Fifth of November

Bonfire_11Remember, remember the fifth of November!
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
There is no reason that gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot. 

This short rhyme, often recited at this time of year, is part of a longer verse appearing in Notes and Queries in 1857. A similarversion, differing by a few lines, can be found in English Folk-rhymes: A Collection of Traditional Verses Relating to Places and Persons, Customs, Superstitions, Etc. (1892):

Remember, remember,
The Fifth of November
Gunpowder treason and plot:
For I see no reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot
Guy Fawkes, Guy, ’tis our intent.
To blow up the king and his parliament.
Threescore barrels, laid below,
To prove old England’s overthrow.
By God’s providence he got catched
With a dark lantern and burning match.
A stick and a stake
For King George’s sake!
And a rope and a cart
To hang Bonyparte!
Pope, Pope, Spanish Pope!
Nobody’s  coming to town.
A halfpenny loaf to feed old Pope,
And a penn ‘orth of cheese to choke him;
A pint of beer to drink his health,
And a twopenny faggot to burn (qu. smoke) him;
Burn his body from his head,
And then we’ll say, “Old Pope is dead.”
Holla, boys, holla, make your voices ring!
Holla, boys, holla, God save the King!
Hip, hip, hoorr-r-r-ray!

‘Remember, Remember’ is one of the few rhymes around whose legend matches its origin; the events described in the additional stanzas really did happen. Read the rest of this entry

Review: The Secret Message; John Townsend

The Secret Message; John Townsend

The Secret Message; John Townsend

Published by Ransom, August 2013. RRP £6.99. Appropriate for ages 7-12.

From the cover:

‘In the attic of his house, Sam finds a leather case that belonged to his great great grandfather, Freddy Ovel. The case contained a diary, and as Sam begins to read it, he is taken right back to just before the First World War, when Freddy was a boy. Sam also finds a photograph an discovers that at his age, Freddy was his exact double. 

The diary unlock more than just the events of the war, however. Sam discovers there is much more to ‘Freddy’ than meets the eye – not only heroic wartime deeds and terrible injuries, but also some very dark secrets indeed.’

Ransom specialises in books and resources for young readers with specific requirements, such as reluctant readers and those for whom reading is particularly difficult. Their  Cold Fusion series, from which The Secret Message is taken, aims to develop the skills of advanced readers, offering stories that require a little more concentration, cognitive ability and critical thinking in the context of plots and subject matter appropriate for middle-grade children. Precocious kids are notoriously difficult to buy for, so this series has the potential to address a real gap in the market. Read the rest of this entry

Reading the classics: The Outsiders, SE Hinton

1967 cover art for The Outsiders

The Outsiders

Published in 1967 when its author was just 17 years old, The Outsiders tells the story of 14-year-old greaser Ponyboy as he navigates the class conflicts that arise from being orphaned and disenfranchised in post-war America. The book was adapted for the big screen in 1983 and as a stage play in 2006. SE Hinton wrote the novel to address the lack of novels that she wanted to read:

One of my reasons for writing it was that I wanted something realistic to be written about teenagers. At that time realistic teenage fiction didn’t exist. If you didn’t want to read Mary Jane Goes to The Prom and you were through with horse books, there was nothing to read. I just wanted to write something that dealt with what I saw kids really doing.

Kimberly Reynolds, author of Radical Children’s Literature: Future Visions and Aesthetic Transformations in Juvenile Fiction, notes that until the nineteenth century, ‘fiction had identified the liminal space occupied by teenagers as belonging to girls and women’ (p. 74). In these books – think Little Women and What Katy Did – female characters in their teen years do not graduate directly into the adult world of work and/or matrimony but are allowed the opportunity to exist in a space in between adulthood and youth, learning and growing and being prepared to take on adult roles*. The post-war period saw the concept of the teenager entered the cultural consciousness. During this period YA as a genre rose to prominence and lent authenticity to adolescent experience in the face of a conservative ruling-class ideology.

SE Hinton’s four novels, The Outsiders (1967); This Is Now, That Was Then (1971), Rumble Fish (1974) and Tex (1979), and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974) among others, form part of this generic shift. These books, which recognise the volitily of teen-hood for boys, foreground the adolescent crisis of identity by offering romantically isolated protagonists navigating social and political power dynamics, usually from position of alienation and oppression. These entwicklungs- and bildungsroman are probably best exemplified by JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

Like The Catcher in the Rye, The Outsiders is a first person, highly subjective narrative delivered by its protagonist. The prose is unpolished and occasionally immature, lending authenticity to the more unbelievable or at least extremely convenient elements of the plot, the dei ex machinis that might otherwise engender a tired eye roll instead fly by almost unnoticed and without the least  blip in the readers suspension of disbelief.

Read the rest of this entry

Review: The Fox and It; Beanie Lei

The Fox and It; Beanie Lei

The Fox and It; Beanie Lei

I broke a rule to review this book. In fact, I broke a couple. I don’t generally review books I can only access as a .pdf, because it’s no good for my eyes, and I don’t generally review books that don’t have an establised publisher behind them. Call it snobbery if you wish, but I like that someone else has filtered out the chaff and left me with the tasty literary wheat to get my chops around. There’s another reason, too, that I shy away from self-pub, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

But then I went and judged a book by it’s cover. The Fox and It reminded me so much of the easy readers of the late seventies and eighties, all stark lines and bright oranges, that I was curious too look inside.

The Fox and It tells a simple story, in verse, of a young fox pup whose inquisitive ways lead to him getting a jar stuck on his head. He’s rescued by passers-by and learns a lesson about doing as he’s told. The message of the narrative is part environmental, part warning to ignore parental advice at your peril.

As I said, there’s a reason why I don’t like to review books that aren’t publisher backed, and it’s evident in Lei’s verse: self-published works are rarely tightly enough edited.

Lei’s narrative is ideal for very young children; in a Real Life Bookshop it would be a board book aimed at kids of 18 to 36 months, a book to be read aloud to a toddler. Books to be read aloud must scan. Syllable counts and stresses must be uniform. One should not have to force a rhyme to work. This is where The Fox and It lets itself down; the rhythm is not a smooth one, the grammar is occasionally poor.


But! See how gosh-darn cute that little fox is! Lei’s illustrations are simple, colourful and gently humourous. Animals are rendered on the page better than humans, but this lends credence to the world the foxes inhabit and subtly underlines the implicit message that this world is not ours to do as we wish with.

The Fox and It is a sweet story for very young children. It’s available from the authors website.



Where are the fathers in fiction?

Anna Perera; Guantanamo Boy

Anna Perera; Guantanamo Boy

The Sunday just gone was Fathers’ Day. Prompted by this, a friend of mine tweeted a question that I thought I’d be able to answer:

I had a half-hearted stab at naming a couple of father figures who seemed like generally good eggs – Dumbledore, obviously, and The Fat Controller from Rev. Awdrey’s Thomas series. In desperation I added the father from Piggybook, who starts out not very pleasant but grows into a good father. Other friends mentioned Arthur Weasley – Ron’s dad in the Harry Potter series, Pa Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie and  Gilbert Blythe from the later Anne of Green Gables books (from Anne’s House of Dreams onwards).

Contrast this with the number of (kid)literary orphans one can name without taking more than a second to think about it: Harry Potter; Oliver Twist; Giant Peach inhabitant James; Mary Lennox; Heidi; Anne of Green Gables; Dorothy (of Oz), Mowgli; Pauline, Petrova and Posie of Ballet Shoes; Katniss Everdeen; the Sager children of Children on the Oregon Trail or the Chant siblings of Diana Wynne Jones Charmed Life, to name but a few. Read the rest of this entry


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