Blog 7

Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens – Review

“THere’s been a rather shocking murder at deepdean school for girls …”

Best reads

Fabulous!

I wanted to start the year, as I mean to go on: reading, writing and reviewing. I could not have chosen a better book to start off my reviews for 2018. Robin Steven’s gloriously conceived story, set in the 1930s at an English boarding school is a real romp and I found it very hard to put down. I will confess that, initially, I was somewhat sceptical, as I love a good murder mystery and my favourite writer in the genre is Agatha Christie (particularly as I live within 10 miles of Greenaway). As a voracious reader when I was young, I started reading Christie novels when I was 10 or 11. I think my Mum was trying to find an author who had written enough books to keep me quiet and which I wasn’t too young to understand. So, I like a good plot twist, I love trying to solve who did it before I am told and I always love the great reveal at the end. Could Robin Stevens do the same? Could she possibly write for a young audience and captivate them, as Christie had done for me?

The story is told from the perspective of the thoughtful Hazel Wong. Hazel is an interesting girl. She’s from Hong Kong and has been sent to a British boarding school, as her father wants her to have the best education. Interestingly, having worked in an all girls’ boarding school myself only 10 years ago, this was still the case. Many lovely Cantonese girls would find themselves arriving at Heathrow and on a coach to a rural Devon school. Deepdean sounds somewhat similar! Anyway, Hazel keeps the notes on the murder that takes place in the first few pages of the novel and is led into all sorts of scrapes by her best friend and president of the Detective Society, Daisy Wells. Hazel envies the blond, blue eyed Daisy, who is incredibly popular and pretty. However their unlikely friendship is forged when Hazel reveals that she knows Daisy hides how clever she is to everyone.  Daisy realises that Hazel is the steady character who can curb her impetuous tendencies and as such they form the Detective Society.

Their ingenuity and determination to uncover what has happened to poor Miss Bell, the Science Mistress, is both hilarious and haphazard. As they roam about Deepdean taking on the roles of Sherlock and Watson, they uncover a series of clues that they carefully put together. Hazel, spends the novel terrified that the murderer knows who she is and at the end, it turns out they do indeed know that Daisy and Hazel have uncovered their secret. In amongst all the investigation, they have buns, midnight feasts, seances and various lessons. They have a group of loyal friends, use words like ‘chump’ and ‘dunce’ and lead us on a merry dance through the 1930s experience of being at a girls’ boarding school. It’s all jolly good fun!

Does Robin Stevens achieve the goals I set out for a good murder mystery at the start of this Blog? Yes she does! Ooo, I thought I had it solved but red herrings galore abound and, like the girls, I charged off down a number of dead ends. I think I was too convinced that only Hazel could really solve the mystery as she was thoughtful … but Stevens was way ahead of me and cleverly demonstrated that the team is more important than the individual. I must admit that this was a cracking good read and if it wasn’t for the fact that I have a pile of books to get through to review, I probably would have read the rest of them straight away (summer hols aren’t too far away!).

Who should read this?

I think anyone (boy or girl) in years 6 – 8 would love this. It brings in a sense of history, is linguistically beautiful and the story makes you think. Of course, the heroes are Hazel and Daisy and I like seeing strong female leads in a novel. I think teaching suspense and pace is something that is quite hard to do and this would be a cracking novel to use to teach the art of writing great tension. And I think if you want to read something that has you scratching your head about whodunnit … well here it is!

Blog 6

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper – Review

‘this night will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond imagining’

Best reads

Fabulous!

Twitter is an interesting place for authors and would be authors. There are some wonderful people to follow: Michael Rosen, Patrick Ness, Emma Carroll, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, M.G Leonard and more. Just occasionally a Twitter hashtag takes off and one I became instantly drawn to was #TheDarkisReading. Back in the day, when I first started teaching in Kent, I remember the Head of English introducing a book to me to teach to Year 8, The Dark is Rising. In those days, being relatively young and enthusiastic, I took the book home to prepare my lessons. We were reading it in the autumn term and it led perfectly into the Christmas holidays. Much more I couldn’t remember, it was after all quite some time ago. I had vague memories of snow on the ground and of Will Stanton but other than that very little remained in my head at all.

The Dark is Rising is the story of Will Stanton’s transformation into an ‘Old One’ between Midwinter’s Eve, 21st December, and Twelfth night. In that time he has a quest to collect the Signs to drive the Dark away from the home counties of England. He faces several tests, as well as trying to save members of his family and himself from death and, ultimately, the destruction of the world.The story starts on his 11th birthday but it’s very easy to forget that he’s just 11, as he shows a wise head in many situations throughout the story. However, he is not perfect as the hero of the tale. In fact, more than once he makes poor decisions, resulting in his quests being even more difficult. However, he is not alone in his adventure and a character we meet early on is Merriman. I did wonder if his name is ironic, as there seems to be very little about him that is merry! Merriman is the wise figure within the tale that stands with Will, when he most needs him and his age and understanding of the world contrast with Will’s naivety.

With Merriman’s patience and gentle discipline, Will starts to become the Old One he needs to be in order to save the world. The force that is trying to destroy him is described as the Dark, a powerful force that is exemplified in the Dark Rider. Will has to find enormous inner strength and to understand his role with the Old Ones and Merriman guides him to the people he needs to talk to. Will realises his whole life has been surrounded by people who turn out to be far more than they seemed on the surface. Miss Greythorne, Farmer Dawson and George are all part of the group that keep him from harms way as he hones his skills and talents against the Dark. He needs them too, as wherever he turns lie threats and potential hazards.

Perhaps one of the most interesting characters is Hawkin. A man pulled through time by Merriman, Hawkin feels his master has betrayed him and used him for his own ends. His lively character introduced in the early part of the story, gradually unravels and the ravages of time make him a shadow of his former self. Time itself is a character of sorts and Cooper carefully manipulates time and the reader, leaving subtle clues throughout the narrative as to who Hawkin really is. I suspect she also manipulated me, as I really felt no sympathy for him until the final pages of his story.

Pathetic fallacy is skilfully used throughout the novel. The cold starts to bite into you and the childhood desire for snow at Christmas, soon becomes a threat to the very existence of life itself. Snow is not a friendly blanket for making snowmen and tobogganing, it is a destructive force that is closing all means of transport, stopping power supplies and a threat to stability and health. Of course, once the snow has stopped, the devastating floods and the damage that causes follows on. And every time, the weather thwarts Will’s passage to save the planet but he overcomes the dangers put in his path. Ultimately the Dark is terrifying. It hangs over the novel weighing the reader and Will down. It’s relentless, unkind, and wilful destruction of mankind pervade ever move in the text and Cooper captures childhood nightmares perfectly.

This is a wonderful book. I was so glad to revisit it and to read it from Midwinters Eve was also quite special. The irony of the snow laying deep on the ground today and causing chaos across the country was not lost on me. The Dark is indeed rising and the metaphorical significance seems particularly pertinent in these troubled times. I did have to confess on Twitter that I couldn’t wait until Twelfth Night to finish, as I have so many books to read at the moment. However, I was not alone. It’s simply too good to put down and stop reading.

Who should read this?

This is a fantastic class reader for Year 7 or 8 but it would need a whole term and perhaps need to be tied into some poetry, myths and legends and work on pathetic fallacy. Although it’s part of a sequence, it can be read as a stand alone and I suspect those keen readers would go on and read the rest. This is a challenging text. Cooper expects readers to be unafraid of tricky vocabulary and she doesn’t patronise the younger reader either, playing with narrative structure, time, and bringing in mythological figures. It’s a Middle Grade text but as an adult who loves fantasy, this is a timeless classic that reads as true now as when it was written.

Blog 5

Skellig by David Almond – Review

‘I found him in a garage on a sunday afternoon.’

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A Good Read

David Almond’s story of Skellig tells the tale of Michael and his family, as they go through the trauma of having a sick baby. But in reality that is the side story of Michael’s search for self and his deep connection with the his friend Mina, Skellig and his baby sister.

The opening line at the start of this blog came up in a recent conference I attended. It’s such a captivating first line and raises so many questions in an instant, that I felt compelled to re-read Skellig. I hadn’t read it since I did my teacher training. At the time, I didn’t like it and I couldn’t remember why. I have a vague memory of Sky TV making the book into a programme but I didn’t see it, perhaps put off by my misreading of the text in the 1990s. So I read it this time with fresh eyes. Someone had said in passing that Almond was a Marmite author. Well, if that’s the case, I love Marmite. I was gripped from the start.

There is an emotional tug to this book that really made me feel everything Michael was experiencing. His relationship with his baby sister is explored through the link of their shared hearts. He can feel her being alive in his heart both physically and metaphorically. He is sensitive and at the same time a boy who plays football and is part of the rough and tumble at school. He seems to be able to adapt to this change with ease. I admire Almond for writing a book that allows boys to cry and show emotion. There is not enough of that in writing for young boys.

His next door neighbour, the unconventional Mina, is home schooled, clever and loves nature. Mina is a wonderful girl, not least because she climbs trees and draws and knows something of William Blake. She is the gentle voice of reason and understands Michael instinctively.  She feels his sense of fear and shares his excitement too. Her story is one of loss and, although we are given some insight into why she is a curious young girl who is educated at home, it’s never fully explored but there is another book by Almond, My Name is Mina, that perhaps would tell more of her story.

So who or what is Skellig? He has wings. He’s dusty and turning to stone. He eats owl pellets and Chinese food. He drinks brown ale. Initially he seems to be a tramp, a vagrant who has been living in the crumbling garage next to Michael’s home. As Michael experiences the trauma of his sister being taken back into hospital and perhaps dying, he tries to keep this strange creature alive. Mina helps him give new life to Skellig and they are both drawn to him to try to save him but also he gives them hope and a sense of wonder. He is an enigmatic figure at the centre of the story and his delicacy and vulnerability echo that of Michael’s baby sister.

This is a magical novel and it speaks to the way we try to rationalise some of the things we experience in life. It was so bare in terms of narrative and description but it simply didn’t need it. The raw emotion of the story reaches out to the reader punching through to our own hearts. I must admit to shedding a quiet tear at the end but perhaps not for the reasons you might think. The story gives us what we want but perhaps not in the way we expect. That’s as much as I can say without giving the story away!

Who should read this?

Everyone, Marmite or otherwise! David Almond is a skilled writer and, if like me, you are considering writing for middle grade or even young adults, there is a beauty to the clear and unambiguous style. I read this in two days; I couldn’t put it down. For young people, it’s requires some emotional intelligence so I would recommend it for age 11 and above. It would make a wonderful class reader for Year 7 or Year 8.

Podkin

The Legend of Podkin One-Ear by Kieran Larwood – Review

Best reads

Fabulous!

“Back when rabbits were small, twitchy, terrified things, warrens were little more than a collection of holes and tunnels.”

Who would have thought that a group of young rabbits running away from the evil Gorm could have been quite so compelling. Now, I have to confess, that I am a big fan of a bit of fantasy and love an alternative world dominated by creatures with big furry feat but generally the books I have read are for older readers. So, to be thrown into this frozen rabbit world, which I thought would be more Watership Down than the Hobbit, was a real surprise.

This is a fabulous read. The ‘bard’ who tells us the story reminds me of the romantic middle ages, when story tellers would go from village to village to recount days of old. I felt like one of the little rabbits sat at his feet eagerly lapping up his every word. It’s funny but this story reminds me of the old Norse legends I read many years ago, or something along the lines of Beowulf. Now this may be because the names of the places where these little rabbits are living remind me of a number of places in my spiritual home of Denmark and nearby Sweden. However, like all good fantasy stories, our little rabbits start off life in their comfortable warren and the Podkin of the title, seems an unlikely hero.

Podkin has neglected his studies and spent most of his life snoozing and playing the role of the lazy son of the chief. I was a little disappointed therefore that his big sister, Paz, who has studied hard and can fight well, is not in line to replace her father. Surely the idea of a male descendant could have been unpicked here. We need a few more heroines who are dominant and ultimately save the day. As even though Podkin spends all his time acknowledging that his sister is better than him, ultimately it’s still Podkin who saves the day (I don’t think this is a spoiler. After all it would be a sad day if a little one eared rabbit didn’t make it to the end of the story). There are some other characters in the book that make up for the stereotyping. The blind Crom is clever and, just like the rabbits in the story, I kept wondering how on earth he would fight. And Bridgid, the witch rabbit, is vital to our understanding of the story, as she explains the balance in nature to the readers and the little rabbits that underpins the story.

The Gorm are the villains of the piece and the idea of metal and iron crushing the natural world is a clever idea. The fact that they seem invincible is part of the beauty of the story. There is no way that 3 young rabbits (really it’s two, as Pook is far too small to do anything really) can possibly fight off armour clad villains who have armour clad crow spies flying around the woods watching their every move. Their leader, the rather intriguingly named, Scramashank, has red eyes, a two horned helmet and is clearly the product of many myths and legends. He is a formidable adversary and again, like all good fantasies, he seems impossible to overcome.

I loved the wonderful illustrations in this edition, drawn in pencil by David Wyatt. They are beautifully detailed and I spent more than a usual amount of time pouring over them trying to see what was hidden in the pictures. They also capture the gloom and hope of the story, creating both the light and dark themes that are prevalent throughout the tale.

Who should read this?

I should imagine a group of Year 5s or 6s would love this as a class reader. There is plenty of discussion to be had around the characters and setting. You could also easily discuss pathetic fallacy with them, if you wanted to explore some literary concepts with them. Perhaps the most interesting discussion will be around the narrative structure and the use of the ‘bard’. I know I enjoyed reading this book and it would be good fun to read at bedtime to your kids … as long as you’re not scared of the Gorm!

 

Jaqueline Wilson

Lily Alone by Jacqueline Wilson – Review

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A Good Read

“Lily’s things to remember! How to look after my brother and sisters.”

When I started teaching, Tracy Beaker was on the TV and Jacqueline Wilson’s distinctive book covers were all over my classroom. This never changed. She is always a firm favourite with young girls and does not shy away from tackling some of the issues young people face today. Lily Alone is no different and actually it is a story that resonates with me on all sorts of levels.

Lily is 11 and in Year 6 at primary school. She has 3 younger siblings, Baxter and Bliss, twins aged 6, and, Pixie, aged 3. Their Mum is just 15 years older than Lily and, to put it bluntly, she is more interested in her own life than that of her children. Now, to clarify, the thrust of the story is that she leaves her kids without an adult to go on nights out and also to go on holiday with a man she has just met for a week in Spain. There are stories of this in the papers and we make judgements about the parents all the time. Lily’s Mum is not intrinsically bad. She loves her children but there is a part of her that still wants fun and to escape the responsibility of 4 kids.

Lily is extraordinary. She is an 11 year old who has become so used to taking care of her brothers and sisters that when faced with the prospect of the twins immature and violent Dad coming to stay for the week, she decides to take on the challenge herself. She really does try her very best and considering she has no money and no front door key, she does the most incredible job. The kids are fed and loved. She is driven by the need to keep them all together and no matter what she will protect her Mum from the police and social workers. Lily is so used to her life that she normalises her world and despite the odd moment when she is desperately alone, she copes with everything that is thrown at her.

What I really loved was the way that Jacqueline Wilson reminds us that she is still a child. Sometimes Lily can’t cope and makes idle threats that terrifies her siblings. She likes to draw and has a tantrum when she can’t get the image of her perfect home down on paper. She also dreams of being alone without the responsibility of looking after her siblings, a rather ironic replication of her mother’s behaviour. There are some lovely moments when the kids are all sat around the dining room table eating peaches and cream but equally some where you just want to scoop them all up and rescue them. At one point in the story, they are sat in a café eating people’s leftovers as they have no food. It’s funny and also deeply upsetting. How can 4 kids sit in a café for most of the afternoon and no-one really notices them? It’s a sad world.

There is one other thing I found slightly disturbing and perhaps it’s the way teaching has changed. Mr Abbott, Lily’s teacher, turns up at their flat, when Mum is away, and chats to the kids. He also gives Lily some postcards from a trip she missed and seemed to be offering to pay to take her on the school trip too. In the back of my mind, all sorts of alarm bells were ringing about appropriate behaviour and why hadn’t he gone straight to his safeguarding lead. Old habits die hard, when you have been working with children in a pastoral capacity for 20 odd years.

So how does it all end … I’m not telling you. But I do love the fact that the story does not end ‘and they all lived happily ever after’, it would be wrong if it did. It does highlight the way the social care system could be better and that Lily’s Mum needed a little more support and guidance to make the right choices, at the right time.

Who should read this?

I would recommend this as a good adult read, actually. It certainly pulls at your heart strings. I think young girls in Years 6 – 8 would love this. I suspect there are many who would recognise themselves in the story either as the strong and resourceful Lily or, unfortunately, as the young carer who is left to fend for their family alone.

To Be A Cat by Matt Haig – Review

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A Good Read

“Cats are magic.
That’s right.
Cats. They’re magic.”

If you had any doubts about the way cats behave when you see them on the street or when  lying on a radiator at home, then this book confirms your worst fears, cats are sometimes evil!

Matt Haig has an interesting style when he writes, actually interrupting reading the novel to interject. It would be a good book to use with students to talk about narrative voice as it shifts between the ‘author’ and Barney Willow, throughout the text. The book starts quite slowly, setting up Barney’s rather dysfunctional home life, as his Dad has gone missing and seems to be presumed dead. He can’t escape his misery at school, as he experiences the wrath of Miss Whipmire, the Headmistress, who seems determined to ensure that he is expelled from his secondary school in the first term in Year 7. As if to make things even worse, he’s also at the mercy of the school bully, Gavin. Poor Barney really does seem to have the rough end of the stick.

There are some good characters in the novel. It’s not all doom and gloom. Rissa, Barney’s best friend is the kind of girl that will appeal to those who are determined to be individual and she has some top tips for coping with an otherwise brutal world. She’s strong and clever and ‘marmalade’ works well for her (and not in a Paddington Bear type way). She is a complete contrast to Barney, in that nothing seems to worry her and her parents are settled and happy. They also live on a barge and are vegetarian, so Mr Haig does dip into every stereotype going. Perhaps my favourite character is Guster, Barney’s pet King Charles Spaniel. He speaks like a king and clearly has ideas above his station, oh and he hates cats, of course. But Guster’s inner musings are fabulous.

Now I don’t want to tell you what happens to Barney, as that would really spoil the story. But needless to say there are many cats in this tale (hahahaha) and, just like people, cats seem to have their fair share of problems.

Who Should Read This?

I wasn’t sure about this book at the start but by the end I was gripped and couldn’t put it down. The narrative rushes to it’s conclusion and it’s not clear until the very last minute who is going to win the day. The novel is an easy read with plot and characters easy to follow, even with the interruptions from the author! I think Years 5, 6 & 7 would enjoy this and even some reluctant readers would find the illustrations helpful in conveying the narrative meaning. It would appeal to both genders too and adults, who are very suspicious about cats.