#KeepKidsReading book review #1 – “The Fire Cats of London” by Anna Fargher

I was delighted to be invited to participate in the blog tour accompanying the launch of Anna Fargher’s latest book The Fire Cats of London, which was published just a week ago. This is Anna’s third children’s book; I reviewed her first book The Umbrella Mouse (published in 2019) on here and thoroughly enjoyed it. The follow-up, Umbrella Mouse to the Rescue, came out in 2020, reprising the same central character and historical period (the Second World War).

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS SINCE IT IS MEANT AS A GUIDE FOR PARENTS AND CAREGIVERS

Anna’s latest book introduces us to a new, feisty central character, Asta, a wildcat, and explores a different historical period, the 17th century and specifically the Great Fire of London. Asta is a young wildcat living in the forests on the outskirts of London with her twin brother Ash and their mother, when hunters capture the young pair (killing their mother in the process) and sell them to a shady London apothecary, Rathder. He plans to use the wildcats to harvest their whiskers, blood and fur, which are rare and valuable ingredients in the potions he makes and sells to his customers. Rathder has his own pet cat, a wily British Blue named Beauty, who flirts with Ash and wins him over, convincing him that he will be safer in captivity with Rathder than in the outside world. Asta refuses to be drawn in, however, and maintains a strong desire to escape back to the wild.

The Great Fire occupies only the last quarter or so of the book. In between the wildcats’ capture and the Fire, Asta is used as a fighting cat at the Bartholomew Fair, where she makes friends with a bear and her young cub. The bear, Tilia is also desperate to escape captivity, most especially for the sake of her cub Lipa. Asta and Tilia plot a daring escape, aided and abetted by their raven friend Jet. Jet lives with Miriam, a wealthy widow and a herbalist, protege of the famous Culpeper, whose mission is to free animals that are used for human sport and quack remedies. She hears about Asta and the bears and determines to help them in whatever way she can.

Asta and Lipa do escape the Fair, though sadly Tilia dies in the attempt, and they make it to Miriam’s. She is a sworn enemy of Rathder and his accomplice Moore, both of whom suspect that she is behind the chaos caused at the Fair and the escape of the animals. This has had a direct financial impact on them both and they are determined to make her pay.

Miriam hides Asta and Lipa and plans to take them to Epping Forest (in Essex) to release them. Their plans are thrown into jeopardy however, when the Great Fire begins in Pudding Lane and they are forced to make a much more hasty departure. All the while, Asta has never forgotten her brother Ash and wants to free him from Rathder and Beauty’s clutches. This leads her to make a bold and high-risk move at the very last minute when she is close to safety.

Anna Fargher is a clever writer and as with The Umbrella Mouse has created a charming cast of animal characters in the tradition of Charlotte’s Web and The Wind in the Willows. Asta is a powerful central character, brave, loving, principled who, when faced with adversity, rises to the challenge and emerges triumphant, all good characteristics in a role model! I think she also weaves in some brilliant history lessons, about the period in London, the Great Fire and the various social tensions between different religious factions and races.

There is a lot of peril in the book – at the beginning when the wildcats are hunted, at the Fair, where the animals are brutally treated, and at the end with the Fire itself. There is also the fact that two mothers die! (Tilia the bear, and Ash and Asta’s mother). Younger children might find aspects of it challenging, or indeed triggering. There is something to be said for not sugar-coating the world for our children, especially our history, but some readers may need a bit of support.

The author has brought in some fantastic contemporary themes – the unequal and controlling relationship between Ash and Beauty, showing children that not all friendships are good ones even when someone seems to be nice to you. The importance of true friends and family, filial love, the importance of believing in yourself and standing up for what you believe is right. The impact of humans on the environment, the animal world in particular, is another powerful theme and one which is clearly close to the author’s heart. She has spoken of the decline of biodiversity in the British Isles, and the plight of Britian’s wildcats in particular seems to have captured her imagination.

Wildcats are Britain’s rarest mammal. They are now found only in Scotland. On the brink of extinction, only 30 native cats remain. The decline began with Henry VIII’s and Elizabeth I’s Vermin Acts, where Bounties were paid for culling animals believed to pose a risk to livestock and grain.

No wildcats have roamed England and Wales for at least 150 years, and although the current numbers are woefully low, there is hope. Rewilding programs are in motion, and the more we know about them, the more we can fight to preserve them.

Anna Fargher, 2022

There is much in this book for children to learn about, as well as a cracking good story for them to enjoy. Highly recommended.

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books for an advance review copy of this title.

Summer reading book review – “The Break” by Marian Keyes

The second holiday reading recommendation I’d like to share with you is The Break by Marian Keyes. For years I eschewed Marian Keyes (though I always enjoyed hearing her whenever she popped up on the radio) in the mistaken belief that her books were a bit too ‘chick-lit’ for me – I say this completely ironically, since I loathe that term – it’s so pejorative and patronising! I would argue all night that no genre is better or worse than any other, it’s all just about what you enjoy reading. I might just draw the line at ghost-written autobiographies by very young minor celebrities, but that would be a personal line, and I would be happy to be proven wrong. Back to Marian; my book club read Grown Ups a couple of years ago, after which I was completely hooked and vowed that I would work my way through all of her eighteen novels and five non-fiction books – I’ll write that again…EIGHTEEN novels! She has apparently sold more than 35 million books worldwide. She is one popular writer, and deservedly so.

As with Grown Ups I listened to The Break on audio, and I absolutely loved it. It wasn’t Marian herself narrating this time, but Aoife McMahon does an excellent job. The plot is simple but effective. Amy and Hugh are seemingly happily married with three daughters – Niamh is from Amy’s first marriage, Keira is their own and Sophie is her niece, who came to live with them after her own two parents (Amy’s feckless brother and his equally feckless Latvian girlfriend) separated and showed no ability to care for their daughter. Hugh hits a difficult patch after the death of his father and best friend, and announces to Amy that he wants to take a complete six month break. He doesn’t just want a holiday on his own, he wants to spend six months in Asia with a backpack living as if he was single, with all that this entails.

Naturally, this comes as a tremendous shock to Amy. By the time he tells her, Hugh has already made most of his plans and so there is little time for her to influence his decision. He insists that he loves her completely and fully intends to come back and resume their life as it was before, he just needs this ‘time out’. After he leaves, Amy goes through something like a bereavement, trying to come to terms with the practical and emotional implications of his actions. Amy’s family (sprawling, loving and a bit chaotic, typically Irish, you might say, and a common characteristic in Keyes’s work) has challenges of its own – her father has dementia, which puts a strain on the offspring, there are sibling rivalries and each of Amy’s daughters is going through their own turmoil, partly connected and partly unconnected to Hugh’s departure.

Amy has a job as a PR executive, working two days a week in London with her two partners in their small company. Life as a single parent therefore presents her with many practical challenges; even though the girls are old enough to look after themselves on one level, it is clear that they still need a lot of support. Amy’s life is busy and Hugh has left her in the lurch.

Amy’s friends encourage her to embrace her own bit of single life while Hugh is on the other side of the world having his fun. (Amy cannot help stalking his Facebook account and when she sees him with another woman, it is a devastating blow.) Amy’s relationship adventures turn out not to be as easy or exciting as might be expected, and neither do Hugh’s.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but needless to say, the book is not just about what each of them does while they are apart, but also what happens when Hugh returns, how they are changed and what the implications are for the relationship. Keyes keeps you guessing and it does not pan out quite how you expect. Part of this author’s skill, I think, is in taking the everyday mundane aspects of life and making out of them something special. It is so engaging because the characters, and therefore the events that befall them, could easily be us. There is an impressive cast of characters in this novel and yet they are all distinctive, well-drawn and multi-faceted. The narrator of the audiobook does very well also to give a slightly different voice twist to each one.

So, another ‘highly recommended’ for your summer reading!

Audiobook review – “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” by Taylor Jenkins Reid

For many of us (lucky enough to have a passport and the funds to do so), thoughts are turning to summer holidays. Even if you are not getting away this year, perhaps you will have some relaxation time to enjoy the warmer weather from the comfort of your own garden or a local park or beauty spot. I am seeing quite a few ‘best books for the summer’ type features in newspaper supplements, magazines and in online newsletters so I thought I would join in and share a couple of my own recommendations this week.

What do we want from summer reading? Well, I read Ulysses on a trip to Spain many years ago, but life has changed somewhat since then and that would be a bit ambitious for me these days! Generally, holiday reads should not be too taxing, can be picked up and put down as we take a dip, that we don’t mind getting sand over and which we might just leave on the holiday let bookshelf to make space in our luggage when we leave. Oh, and long enough that they will definitely last the whole trip plus any potential waiting time in stations or airports!

The first book I’d recommend is The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. This was actually recommended to me by sixteen year old daughter who read it cover to cover in days, could not put it down (AND she was revising for GCSEs). It tells the story of the life of ageing film star, Evelyn Hugo, giving a rare and possibly final interview to accompany the auction of a number of her gowns for a cancer charity. Evelyn agrees to the interview (a major scoop for the magazine Vivant) on the basis that it is conducted by one of its least-known writers, Monique Grant, a condition which irks the magazine’s editor.

Monique, who is going through some difficult life events herself, her husband having recently left her, is surprised when at their very first meeting, Evelyn reveals that she has in fact hand-picked Monique to write her biography, NOT to do a magazine interview, though she will not reveal the reason. Evelyn begins to tell Monique the story of her life, from the very beginning when she lost her mother and as a teenager married Ernie Diaz (husband number one), as a way to escape Hell’s Kitchen in New York and her violent father and go to Hollywood where she plans to find fame and fortune. She quickly finds roles in a number of films and after divorcing Ernie she marries her handsome and popular co-star Don Adler. Evelyn is a huge success and is nominated for an Oscar for her role in an adaptation of Little Women. She finds herself embroiled in scandal however, when she leaves Don who, after a brief honeymoon period turned out to be abusive. But as a woman, it is Evelyn who is publicly ostracised and the Oscar goes instead to her co-star Celia St James, with whom Evelyn will go on to have an important friendship.

The story goes on, with Evelyn recounting the events of her life, how she came to have seven husbands and the circumstances behind each of her marriages. She had a daughter, the result of her fifth marriage to Hollywood producer Harry Cameron, one of her very few true friends. But Connor, their daughter dies of breast cancer, hence the sale of Evelyn’s gowns to benefit the charity. Evelyn tells her story in parallel to the reader learning of Monique’s relationship troubles. Through her meetings with Evelyn, Monique gains a certain courage which enables her to confront some of the issues in her life and begin to take control of her destiny rather than being the victim of circumstances.

I listened to this on audiobook and it far exceeded my expectations. My daughter told me that I would “never get the plot twist”. There are in fact quite a few very clever plot twists, some of which I foresaw (and felt rather smug about) and one or two jaw-droppers I did not. The book has become an international bestseller of course, since its publication and the author, Taylor Jenkins Reid has had other popular and critical successes, most notably Daisy Jones and the Six (which I picked up secondhand the other day and which might be one of my own summer reads). Monique and Evelyn were voiced separately and both were very good, I felt.

The book is everything you could want from a summer read – doesn’t require too much brain power, engrossing, a fantastic plot, great characters and an interesting premise. Highly recommended.

The Women’s Prize – winner announced tonight

The Women’s Prize has really gained in profile in the last few years. I think it’s actually been better since it stopped being sponsored by, first, Orange and then Bailey’s. By calling itself simply ‘The Women’s Prize’ it seems to have been able to be truer to its purpose. It also seems not to have suffered from some of the criticisms that other literary prizes have attracted around diversity. I make it my intention to read the Booker Prize shortlist each autumn; perhaps I should do the same for the The Women’s Prize.

This year, I have read three of the six titles on the shortlist, although one of these, Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle, was shortlisted for the Booker last year too, so I was one step ahead for a change! I have already written about how much I loved that particular book.

When the shortlist was announced, my book club decided we’d read The Sentence Louise Erdrich. Erdrich is an American author. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 2021 for her novel The Night Watchman. I know very little about her, except that she has Native American heritage on her mother’s side, and that this cultural inheritance influences her writing.

The Sentence is a complex book. The main character is Tookie, an Ojibwe woman who is convicted of drug smuggling and given a prison sentence. She has had a difficult upbringing (in common with a disproportionate number of Native American and African American young people, an issue which underpins many of the novel’s themes), but during her incarceration she discovers literature. When she is released she marries Pollux, the man who arrested her, a kind of tribal law enforcement officer, and gets a steady job in a bookstore. Her life is good, on track, and she and Pollux live very happily.

All that changes on All Soul’s Eve in 2019 when a former customer of the bookshop, a cantankerous elderly woman called Flora, dies. Tookie is convinced that Flora is haunting the bookstore, more as a poltergeist than a friendly ghost, and the impact this has on Tookie’s mental state is mirrored by wider social events which seem to signify a kind of societal breakdown. The novel is set in Minneapolis (where Erdrich herself lives so she will have been close to events) and the murder of George Floyd in 2020 is a totemic moment that causes grief and chaos. Then there is the Covid pandemic, the lockdowns, the visceral fear of disease and the social isolation that it leads to. Tookie and Pollux at least have each other (plus Pollux’s daughter Hetta and her baby son, who come to live with them), but it is clear that this is a period during which the things they have thus far taken for granted are being swept away.

The Sentence is a powerful novel which explores many important issues, but I cannot say that I really ‘enjoyed’ it. It is one of the first ‘pandemic novels’ I have read and it will have been written when the world was still in the grip of Covid, not really knowing how or if we would get out of it. That comes through strongly in the novel, the sense of entering an unknown state, whilst also observing things falling apart. The aftermath of George Floyd’s murder will also have been quite raw and the sense of history repeating itself, of lack of justice for minorities and fear of the police, a sense of social structures collapsing, is expressed in Tookie’s despair. For me, though, the novel feels a little under-cooked. I’m not sure many of us have fully processed the events of 2019-21 and the novel seems to flounder a bit on not really having a clear direction.

My feelings about another of the shortlisted books, Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss could not be more different. It too deals with a pressing social issue, mental illness, but it deals with it through, for me, a much stronger narrative. Martha is unwell. She has her first bout of depression, or ‘episode’ we might call it, when she is seventeen. Her family might be described by some as bohemian, dysfuctional by others. Her parents are artists, her father a poet and her mother a sculptor, and neither is especially successful. Her mother, Celia, was brought up largely by her older sister Winsome, after their mother died. Winsome married a rich man, lives in Belgravia, and largely supports Celia and her family. Martha has one sister, Ingrid, to whom she is very close.

Every year, the whole family gathers for Christmas in Belgravia, and included in their number is Patrick, a boarding school friend of one of Martha’s cousins. Patrick’s mother is dead and his father lives abroad and appears not to care very much about his son. Patrick is one of the few people able to empathise and show genuine care when Martha is first unwell, that Christmas in Belgravia, and we later learn that he has been in love with her ever since. Martha makes a very brief and disastrous marriage to wealthy and obnoxious financier Jonathan, who bolts at the very first sign of her illness. Later she will marry Patrick (not a spoiler since the book begins with what is described as the end of her marriage to him after Martha’s fortieth birthday). Their life together is entirely dominated by her illness, which is misdiagnosed, misunderstood, mismanaged, and incorrectly medicated. Eventually, Martha receives a new diagnosis from a new psychiatrist – significantly, the name of her condition is left blank. This is not a book about a condition, it is a book about how mental illness tears lives apart, and not just the lives of those who have the condition. Martha is prescribed medication which finally seems to work, but when Martha seems to be getting ‘fixed’, her life actually begins to fall apart.

This book is an astonishing account of a severe mental illness from the point of view of the person experiencing it. We see the world entirely through Martha’s eyes for most of the book, until the final, correct, diagnosis is made. As the fog clears for Martha, the experience of being a loved one of someone with a mental illness, partner, sibling, parent, is given air time. It is astonishing and I have not read anything quite like it before. Meg Mason writes concisely and brilliantly, with a style that is both spare and completely exposing. She also has the most extraordinary dark humour – the trauma is so deep that you do actually need the laugh out loud moments. It reminded me a bit of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag in that respect. The characters are powerfully drawn and I loved the exploration of the relationship between Martha and her sister Ingrid – brilliant, comic, intensely loving and brutally honest.

I don’t know much about the remaining books on the shortlist, but I would be delighted to see Meg Mason or Maggie Shipstead win – both their books rank in the top five titles I have read in the last twelve months.

So, Sorrow and Bliss highly recommended, The Sentence, I am more lukewarm about. You can watch a live stream of the prize-giving event and the announcement by following the link here.

The Platinum Jubilee #3 1970s

The 1970s was a turbulent decade in Britain: the era of Empire was over, the economy was in chaos, there was frequent industrial action which resulted in power cuts, shortages of staple foods such as butter, and disruptions to refuse collections. There were a number of terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland and mainland Britain with tragic loss of life. Politics was a mess and the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 would be the start of eighteen years of Conservative government. Some parts of the country, for example areas where mines were shut down in the 1980s, would forever be scarred by its effects.

Culturally it was also a very mixed time. There was the nihilism of punk, and in particular The Sex Pistols. There was also the rise of disco with its sense of escapism and hedonism. The Queen commemorated her silver jubilee in 1977, an event I remember well, but which, looking back, seems to be so out of place in the context of the social, economic and political climate. Perhaps one might say the same about the platinum jubilee.

Looking back on the books I have enjoyed from this period I find that there are few noteworthy British choices. But there were some classics coming out of the Americas – Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude was published in 1970, William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice in 1979 and Alex Haley’s Roots in 1976 – it’s extraordinary to me to think this was the first time I became aware of the slave trade. Its adaptation for television in 1977 was a landmark cultural event of the small screen. Toni Morrison published her debut novel The Bluest Eye in 1970 and by the time of her third in 1977, Song of Solomon, she was award winning and critically acclaimed.

I read none of these amazing books in the 1970s as I was still very young. By the time Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister (an event greeted with great apprehension in my home) I was 11 years old and I remember thinking that I might potentially be leaving school before she was gone!

My reading material evolved during this decade and some of my favourite books were James Herriot’s stories of life as a vet in North Yorkshire, starting with If Only They Could Talk in 1970. These books made me want to be a vet and I might have become one had someone not told me at a careers fair in the mid-1980s that I should probably pick an alternative career since it was hard to get into university and only people from good schools had a realistic chance… Ah, those were the days!

I want to say that feminist icon Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1979) was the biggest book for me from this decade, but I’m afraid it wasn’t. It’s going to be another white male, and another animal story – Watership Down by Richard Adams, published in 1972. This unique and powerful novel shaped much of my political (with a small ‘p’) thinking, my awareness of environmental issues and of animal rights, as did his other much darker novel The Plague Dogs (1977). I must have read the book around the time the film came out in 1978. It also led me to becoming a big fan of Simon and Garfunkel.

A strange decade indeed and not rich in literary output in Britain.

The Platinum Jubilee #2 1960s

My second post this Platinum Jubilee week and today I am selecting a book from the 1960s. At the start of the decade the monarchy was still largely revered in British society, but the cracks were beginning to show, not least in the decline of the British Empire. In 1961, the Queen welcomed President John F Kennedy and his wife Jackie Kennedy to Buckingham Palace, a visit that had mixed results.

In this decade the pendulum swung completely the other way from the 1950s and it is the decade everyone associates with sexual liberation, a determined assertion of greater freedom from the young and a general breaking down of assumed norms. The first generation born after the second world war came of age in the 1960s and after the austerity and rationing of the 1950s, it is no wonder that people were looking to express themselves more and to live a different kind of life to their parents. It was also a period of great turmoil; the second world war was long past, but the Vietnam War was in full swing and protests against it by the young proved a major international creative force, particularly in popular culture.

There were some interesting literary milestones in this decade. DH Lawrence’s extraordinary sexual novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published in the UK for the first time in 1960 (it had been written in the 1920s, but was only published privately in Paris). The publisher, Penguin, was prosecuted under obscene publications legislation and won a landmark victory. If the authorities were seeking to drive the book out of the public’s hands, the trial served only to draw attention to it and the book became a huge seller. Although the ban was sought ostensibly on the basis of its obscene content, one suspects that the Establishment also feared the ramifications of suggesting that there could be sexual relations across class boundaries. The long-established traditions and social norms were under threat.

The decline of an old way of life is foretold in another landmark British novel published in this decade, Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), about an unconventional teacher at an Edinburgh girls’ school. This book is frequently cited as one of the finest in English and catapulted its author to worldwide literary fame.

The 1960s also saw the rise of one of the greatest children’s writers of all time, Roald Dahl. In this decade he published James and the Giant Peach (1961), Charlie and Chocolate Factory (1964) and The Magic Finger (1966). Dahl changed children’s fiction forever – compare his anarchic books to those of Enid Blyton! Although I have to confess that I rather love both authors! Despite Dahl’s literary brilliance, his legacy is not without controversy.

For me, the book of the decade is Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange which was published in 1962. This book is a profound and disturbing novel, a bleak dystopian vision of a society where youth culture is dominated by unrestrained violence and anarchy and where the Establishment response is the most oppressive force and cruelty, as bad as the violence it was trying to suppress. Burgess turns language upside down, reflecting the fact that social order is upside down.

Born in the year of the Russian revolution (1917) in a suburb of Manchester. Burgess lived through interesting times, serving in the second world war, working as a teacher, translator and linguist, and was a composer as well as a writer. Artists of his kind come along rarely, and books like A Clockwork Orange come along rarely. It’s publication was surely one of the literary milestones of the twentieth century. Though I doubt Her Majesty has read it.

The Platinum Jubilee

I’ve never been a royalist. If anything, growing up in a working-class environment, my family was rather dismissive of everything the British royal family represents – aristocracy, privilege, unearned wealth, inequality, unelected power. My views have not shifted much, especially in the light of the various royal scandals of recent years. However, it is hard not to be impressed by Queen Elizabeth II; she represents a totally different era and mindset, and her forthcoming platinum jubilee really is an extraordinary moment in history. When you stand her alongside many of today’s politicians and world leaders, she is even more impressive. We will not see her like again.

To mark this momentous occasion, I intend to do what many others in the blogging world, the media and social media are doing, and picking my favourite books of the last 70 years, one from each decade of the Queen’s reign. I am going to stick to British books, which I know means it risks being a very white male list, but then perhaps that reflects the predominant literary forces in play throughout this time.

Let’s start with the 1950s then.

As a period in modern history I am fascinated by the 1950s. I’m not hugely knowledgeable about popular music, but this was the era of early rock and roll. The second world war was over and in Britain rationing was coming to an end and whilst there was still a great deal of hardship, there was I think a new energy in popular culture that would be fully unleashed in the subsequent decade.

On the flip-side, Britain was still a very buttoned-up country, very deferential, and popular culture reflected, not the truth of how society was, but a version that social and political leaders wanted it to be. Books that have looked back on this era have also shown that British society was deeply flawed, such as Andrea Levy’s Small Island.

Some of the best books I read in my teenage years (probably the books that made me determined to read English literature at university) were written in this decade: John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (I was obsessed with Steinbeck!), Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and, one of my all-time favourites, Charlotte’s Web by EB White. They are all American novels, however, so I cannot pick them.

Instead, my pick is not just one book, but a collection – The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis, although if pressed I would have to choose The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Lewis is one of my literary heroes, not just because his books are powerful wonderful stories, but also because of his great scholarship, output and influence. I remember at primary school, we were able to choose and buy Puffin books – we’d get a newsletter once a month or so and I would save up my pocket money for these little treasures. I got The Horse and His Boy because I liked horses, having no idea it was part of one of the all-time great literary series! I went on the read the whole series in order (in true child book geek style!) and loved them. At university I learned more of what they were really about and was in even greater awe. I love watching television and film adaptations and I love books that draw on Narnia (like Philip Pulman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and, of course, Harry Potter). The Chronicles of Narnia represent a true literary milestone.

Look out for my 1960s pick tomorrow!

#KeepKidsReading – Book review #3 – “Heartstopper” by Alice Oseman


My final book review of the week and this one really is about that quest to KEEP kids reading, at the age when their attention spans are shortening and the amount of time they spare for reading is at its minimum, ie the middle teen years. So, I’m finishing with a young author who is a sensation at the moment, Alice Oseman. At the age of just 27 she is already an award-winner for her multiple novels, novellas and graphic novels and her Heartstopper series has been adapted for television by Netflix. The four volumes of graphic novels are all currently in the top six of the WH Smith children’s book charts.

The Heartstopper series is about the relationship between two kids at a boys’ school, Charlie Spring (year 10) and Nick Nelson (year 11). Charlie is ‘out’ as gay but he is in a difficult situation with another boy, Ben, who is abusive and controlling and who masquerades as straight. Charlie meets Nick when the school experiments with ‘vertical form times’, which include kids from multiple year groups, and immediately develops a crush. Nick is lovely, but he is sporty and popular, everything Charlie is not. Everyone assumes Nick is straight – he does not even realise himself that he might not be. But as his friendship with Charlie develops their is a burgeoning attraction between the two. And, yes, dear reader, they kiss! This is where volume 1, which I read, ends, but the television series covers all four volumes.

Graphic novels, or books which explore unconventional formats (Nicola Yoon’s Everything Everything is another YA book I love for this reason) are perfect for kids who get bored or switch off when faced with pages and pages of words. This book can be read quickly, or you can savour its warm and expressive illustrations, so it will also appeal to avid readers as well, especially with the TV link.

Highly recommended for teenage reluctant readers, and everyone else besides!

#KeepKidsReading – Book review #2 “Carrie’s War” by Nina Bawden

It’s my #KeepKidsReading week, which means I get to write about some wonderful children’s literature. On Wednesday I posted about a new author, Benjamin Dean, and his first novel, published last year, called Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow. Today, it’s time for something altogether different, one of the classics of children’s fiction, Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden. First published in 1974, the author drew on her experiences as an evacuee during the Second World War when she was sent to Wales.

The book opens with the central character, Carrie, returning to Wales where she and her brother Nick were evacuated during the war. She was twelve and he was ten years old at the time. Carrie, now widowed, has brought her four children to the small town, and tells them about her time there, about Mr Evans, the parsimonious shopkeeper, and his sister, Aunty Lou, with whom Carrie and Nick were sent to live. Carrie’s friend Albert was sent to the manor house outside of town called Druid’s Bottom, which was owned by Mr and Miss Evans’s sister, the elderly and poorly Mrs Gotobed, who has been estranged from her siblings since she married ‘up’ many years previously.

Carrie and Nick visit Albert and find Druid’s Bottom a much more inviting place than their own accommodation. Mrs Gotobed’s housekeeper is Hepzibah Green, who also cares for Mister Johnny, a simpleton who has limited language and intellectual skills, but a high level of intuition and empathy. Hepzibah tells the children all sorts of stories about Druid’s Bottom, including the legend of the skull of the slave boy. Apparently, when he died, the slave put a spell on the house, that if his skull ever left it, disaster would strike the estate and all those living there. Mr Evans believes Hepzibah to be a witch who is only after his sister’s money.

When Mrs Gotobed dies, Mr Evans, as her only living male relative, will inherit the property and intends to turn out Hepzibah and Mister Johnny. Albert believes the old lady would not have wanted this and that she must have left a will to that effect. When none is found, Albert tells Carrie he believes Mr Evans stole and destroyed it, just to keep his sister’s old housekeeper from living there.

Carrie and Nick are called back to live with their mother, who has moved to Glasgow where she is an ambulance driver. On their last night at Druid’s Bottom, Carrie tosses the slave boy’s skull into the horse pond, wishing ill upon the house, which now belongs to Mr Evans, as she is so angry with him. As the children leave on the train the next morning, they pass the old house, only to see it in flames. She had not expected the spell the be enacted so fast. Carrie has believed her whole life that she is responsible for the fire and that all the residents (Albert, Hepzibah and Mister Johnny) must have perished. She is so sure of her guilt that she never bothers to find out what actually happened.

Early one morning on their visit to Wales, Carrie’s children walk to Druid’s Bottom before their mother wakes up. The house remains derelict, but they find the now very old Hepzibah and Mister Johnny living happily in a converted barn in the grounds. Hepzibah recounts what really happened in the years since Carrie and Nick left and it was not at all like Carrie feared. She laughs at their hints that she is some sort of witch, as their mother had believed (in the nicest possible sense), giving rational explanations for all the seemingly mysterious occurrences, but the ending of the book is ambiguous on this point. It’s fascinating that modern books for children rarely leave this element of doubt, this unanswered question. Are today’s children really less tolerant of ambiguity?

Like Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow this is a ‘middle-grade’ book, and the central character is twelve years old. But, as you would expect from a book written almost fifty years ago, there is a kind of innocence that today’s children may find off-putting. The language and the structure are fairly simple and the setting not too difficult to imagine, so this book would probably suit the 8–10 year-old modern reader. Its themes are perhaps more complex than you might expect though, and it is multi-layered. On the one hand, a younger child could make a very simple reading – there is history of a certain aspect of the war they will be familiar with (I think my son read this in primary school as part of their learning about the war), there are some superficially obvious goodies and baddies, and the story is straightforward. For a more sophisticated reader, however, there is a more nuanced interpretation of the characters – about what underlies Mr Evans’s sadness and therefore his behaviour and attitudes as an adult, about the power of legends, and about the experiences of relatively young children thrust into situations beyond their control which were sometimes frightening.

Nina Bawden’s first novel was actually an adult crime novel, but she then turned her hand to children’s fiction and was hugely successful. Carrie’s War was her third book for children and arguably her best-known. Her other books include The Peppermint Pig and The Robbers.

She was awarded a CBE in 1995 and died in 2012.

This book deserves a place on every child’s bookshelf.

#KeepKidsReading – Book review #1 “Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow” by Benjamin Dean

When you are seeking out appropriate titles for your children and young people it can be quite tricky to select books which pitch at the right level for each individual. The term ‘middle grade fiction’ tends to refer to books for the age group 8-12 years, which means that the vocabulary, themes, subject matter and points of interest are appropriate to most children in that range. It won’t suit all, however; some children may be earlier or later developers and find the books too easy or hard for them at that age. A six or seven year old stronger reader may find some of the content or themes too mature, or likewise a weaker reader in secondary school may find the content too childish. It’s not easy. You can read bookblogging sites (like this one!) or visit others who specialise in children’s books. One of my favourites is librarygirlandbookboy. Subscribe to Caboodle or readinggroups.org for ideas, events and competitions, or ask the advice of booksellers and librarians who will be only too happy to make recommendations. Honestly, it doesn’t matter what your child reads, magazines count too, anything they enjoy, just keep them reading.

Benjamin Dean is getting a lot of attention in the children’s fiction world at the moment. Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow was his debut novel, published just last year, and his follow-up, The Secret Sunshine Project was published in March. His third novel The King is Dead is due for publication this July – busy chap! Ben, as he apparently likes to be called, is a LGBTQ+ writer of colour and his stories touch on these themes, but, let me stress, not exclusively.

Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow tells the story twelve year old Archie Albright whose parents have recently separated. They are both trying hard to maintain a good relationship with their son, but Archie overhears the constant arguments and it is clear that something in their relationship went suddenly and badly wrong, though Archie is not sure what. As an adult reader it was heartbreaking (and should be sobering) when narrator Archie describes his feelings about his parents’ break-up and how when they think they are doing the right thing by him, it is often all wrong. Over-compensating perhaps.

One day, Archie finds a leaflet that his father accidentally dropped, advertising the London Pride event. Archie gets it into his head that if he were to go along to this he would find out something that will enable him to improve the situation with his parents. He expects to find some sort of pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. With the help of his two best friends, geeky Seb and feisty Bell, they make a plan to travel secretly to London to the Pride event (they would never get permission to go if they asked). On the train they bump into Archie’s (gay) babysitter Oscar and his friend Dean, who at first want to take them back home, but are persuaded to accompany them.

When they arrive in London, they are completely unprepared for the scale of the event and the volume of people attending. Almost as soon as they leave the station they lose Seb in the crowd and Archie and Bell also become separated from Oscar and Dean. Archie and Bell are then befriended by a couple of drag queens who are taking part in the carnival and who agree to help them find their friends. Horror strikes again when Archie bumps into his father, who is also attending Pride. Naturally, secrets are revealed and the two manage to open up to one another. Archie’s dad came out as gay and this was the reason for the split with his mother, something that they have had difficulty coming to terms with.

Middle-grade fiction always has a happy ending and the group is eventually reunited with the help of the network of performers. The events enable Archie and his parents to move forward to the next stage of their lives with honesty and love.

It’s a really lovely book, emotional at times, but greatly heartwarming. I loved the characters and I think children will be able to identify with Archie and his vulnerabilities. But Archie is the hero in the end because it is he who enables his parents to find a way through their troubles and to be the family they want and need to be. I would not say this is a book for children who are perhaps questioning their sexual orientation, (though it may be helpful if they are), but it is a book that could help children trying to adapt to changing or non-traditional family structures, or who might be experiencing communication difficulties in their relationships at home. It’s also just a great little story for any kid.

Archie is in secondary school so although the content is probably aimed at KS2 (junior school kids), it might also work for younger or less mature secondary school students. A younger reader might benefit from having a parent read it with them as they may not get all the ironic references or the humour.

Look out for more in the future from this author.

%d bloggers like this: