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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.

 

 

 

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.

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

Review: The Diabolical Mr Tiddles, Tom McLaughlin

The Diabolical Mr Tiddles; Tom McLaughlin

Published January 2012, Simon and Schuster. List price, £5.99.

Appropriate for ages 3-10.

From the cover;

Fearsome dinosaurs, whooshing jetpacks, rockstar guitars, a horse called Alan…

Just a few of the things that Harry unexpectedly finds in his bedroom. Where are they coming from

It couldn’t have anything to do with Harry’s furry-purry new pussycat Mr Tiddles… could it?

We’ve decided, as a nation of cat lovers, that when puss arrives through the catflap with a gob full of recently deceased small mammal, they’re bringing a gift for us. We’ve decided this without much in the way of evidence – could not mousey be abandoned on the kitchen floor simply because puss has grown tired of it? But no, we humans have summoned all our intellect and come to the most egotistical conclusion possible. It must be a gift! For us! For they luuurrrrve us!* Read the rest of this entry