25 August 2009

Book of the Week (28): "The Vanishing of Katharina Linden" by Helen Grant

My attention was drawn to this book when it appeared on the Booktrust Teen Prize longlist. A first novel with just the kind of title that is likely to lure me in and a compelling cover image of a girl, silhouetted in white, disappearing in a forest. But would it be any good?

The answer yes. Helen Grant weaves a compelling tale set in the picturesque German town of Bad Munstereifel. (Now I am going to have to work out how to write an umlaut in the blog editor. Here we go: Bad Münstereifel.)

Pia, about to join secondary school, becomes fascinated and horrified by the disapparance of a young girl from the town. With her friend Stefan (whom she sometimes wishes was not her friend) she turns amateur detective, trying to find out what happened to Katharina, but taking rather a different approach from that of the police.

What transpires particularly towards the end is not for the faint hearted.

Bad Münstereifel almost becomes a character in the story, its folklore, its architecture, its atmosphere, all essential to the feel of the book.

After the book was finished, I was left a little bit frustrated by some issues that I felt could have been explored in more depth. But despite this, I think Katharina Linden is a really strong debut. Gripping.

Recommended by Susan Reuben


  • In Kevin Brooks’s Black Rabbit Summer the main character’s best friend goes missing, and the book is partly about trying to unravel why. Or look out for Celia Rees’s The Vanished, which is also about children going missing.
  • In Kate Thompson’s Creature of the Night, the folk tales of the Irish countryside are horrifyingly and realistically brought up to date.
  • Or for a different twist, try Michael Grant’s Gone, in which all the adults have disappeared… or Lucy Christopher’s Stolen, which is the story of a kidnapping told by the missing girl.
  • And of course, be sure to check out the rest of the Booktrust Teenage Prize 2009 longlisted titles too.

17 August 2009

Book of the Week (27): "Fever Crumb" by Philip Reeve

Oh, what a happy day to open the first page of a new Mortal Engines instalment, and what a sad day to finish the last. I’m pretty sure that for most people it will be the same day. This long-awaited prequel stands alone, but the experience will be much more rewarding if it is read after the original quartet as many intriguing questions are answered, including some concerning the enigmatic cyborg Shrike. Fever Crumb is a candy box of a novel full of little treats which you just can’t stop nibbling. The description of futuristic London pre Urban Darwinism are full of humour and imagination, and in the character of Fever Crumb herself Reeve has provided his world with another tough cookie (with cream on the inside). Fever is a rarity – a female engineer-in-training, a foundling adopted by Dr Crumb and brought up in the domain of reason and logic within the Guild’s headquarters up in Godshawk’s Head. Then archaeologist Kit Solent asks her to help him with his excavations in the cellar of Nonesuch House, Godshawk’s underground workroom. The long dead Scriven ruler of London was known for his inventions and fascination with old technology and Solent is sure that Fever can help him unlock the secrets that his cellar holds. However, it seems that the house unlocks a suppressed part in Fever’s own brain, and as the story unfolds she unravels the mystery of her origins. She has little time to uncover the facts – the locals are at her heels trying to kill her while the nomads of the North with their traction castles are approaching London fast intending to capture it. Fabulous stuff, and it looks like there will be more – yippee!

Recommended by Noga Applebaum

  • Really you should read the Mortal Engines quartet before Fever Crumb, but if you didn’t, then I’m pretty sure you’ll be picking up the four books very quickly once you finished this one.
  • Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones is a magical fantasy about a down-to-earth heroine and a vain but talented wizard who lives in an ever-shifting castle.
  • Un Lun Dun by China Miéville is another fantasy about an alternative London where two girls fight against a dark cloud with the help of broken umbrellas and a half-breed ghost boy. Weird as it sounds, but fun.

10 August 2009

Book of the Week (26): “Who Am I?: the Family Tree Explorer” by Anthony Adolph

I always feel there aren’t enough good stand-alone non-fiction books for young readers, but here’s one I liked very much: Anthony Adolph’s new genealogy handbook for children, Who Am I?: the Family Tree Explorer. Filled with ideas for whiling away the inevitable summer rainy-days, it’s a great introduction to the study of family history. I suspect many unfortunate parents who’ve bought this one are already being pestered for old stories and reluctantly dragged across the country to visit awkwardly-located local record offices…

There’s fascinating historical information, there are tips for activities and myriad suggestions of where to find out all about your own family background, all laid out clearly without ever feeling like you’re being overloaded with Serious Information. Old-fashioned it may be (you would hardly know the internet existed – though Harry Potter does get some attention, I’m pleased to report), but it’s clear, fact-filled and fun-filled; budding genealogists will love it, and it should create a few new enthusiasts too.

Recommended by Daniel Hahn

03 August 2009

Book of the Week (25): "Stolen" by Lucy Christopher

Gemma quite fancies the young man who offers to get her a cup of coffee at Bangkok airport. Maybe that’s why she agrees. After all, it’s a busy place, and her parents are waiting for her not too far away, so what could possibly happen? When she finds herself in a remote and isolated cabin in the Australian desert she realises that drinking that coffee was a big mistake. Gemma has been abducted. Her captor, Ty, has been stalking her since she was ten years old, and six years later he finally caught up with her and intends to keep her forever. From this you might conclude that Lucy Christopher’s first novel is no more than a heroine vs. villain adventure story. You couldn’t be more wrong. The opening is just a premise for exploring the unusual and complex relationship which develops between Gemma and Ty. The desert, Ty’s hideaway from reality, is as alien to Gemma as her handsome captor, but as she attempts to escape again and again, she begins to respond to its beauty as well as to Ty’s. This is a beautiful novel, though its subject is provocative. I was, however, left with a certain sense of discomfort regarding the implications of depicting a girl falling for her stalker. Though Christopher asserts that Ty’s actions are morally wrong, the ‘yes’ that lingers behind Gemma’s ‘no’ is disturbing from a feminist point of view. Still, a remarkable and gripping read.

Recommended by Noga Applebaum

  • The inappropriate relationship between a teenaged girl and a young man is also at the heart of award-winning novel What I Saw and How I Lied (by Judy Blundell) set in post-war America.
  • Another taboo relationship, this time between a young teacher and her student, is explored in Robert Westall’s Falling into Glory, again set after War World II, this time in a northern town in England.
  • Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien is set after a nuclear disaster in which a young girl is under threat from a possessive older man, who is unfortunately the only other survivor she knows of.