31 May 2010

Book(s) of the Week (63): The DFC Library by various authors/illustrators

One of my favourite reading experiences of the last few years was the DFC comic; exciting stories, brilliant artists, all unfolding under one cover, aimed at a wide spectrum of readers. It was hugely popular, and deservedly so. Now three of the DFC authors get their own books!

Good Dog Bad Dog Book 1 by Dave Shelton, is a hilarious noir detective romp, with Kirk Bergman, his secret flea weapon, and the frighteningly strong, bumbling, milkshake-loving Duncan McBoo. Kirk has a dark past, and is recovering from the death of his former sidekick, Big Beagle. Duncan’s window-shattering arrival changes everything, and they are soon out-quipping one another as they hurtle through a series of madcap adventures that pit them against some of the meanest dogs in town, from Pug Ugly to the diminutive evil genius, Wah Wah Johnson. Full of slapstick visual gags and great wordplay, you’ll soon develop a soft spot for these two lovable detectives, as they track down treasure, kidnapped chef Anton le Boof, and a whole lot of trouble.

The Spider Moon Book 1 by Kate Brown is a moving, exciting fantasy story. A beautifully drawn, and vividly realised alternative universe. We meet the gifted and mischievous Bekka Kiski, who lives on the lower islands of the Kapchu archipelago. Her community make their living by diving for spinefish, and Bekka has a powerful and mysterious connection to the creatures of the deep, from Fii her Dodecapod to a giant whale. She and her family are falsely accused by the winged Dathar people of cheating, and her mother is taken prisoner. Bekka tries to clear their name; she knows they are not guilty, but who is? As she investigates, she meets the dashing Prince Kaliel, and together they uncover a dark and dangerous plot. If this wasn’t enough to contend with, there is also the terrifying legend that the sky will fall on them, a legend that seems to be coming true. Only the floating island and Bekka’s ingenuity hint at the possibility of escape. Superbly realised fantasy landscapes, from the depths of the sea to the labyrinthine Dekkan palace, and subtle characterisation, mean you’ll definitely want to visit spider moon, you just won’t want to leave. This is bold ambitious storytelling, that leaves you wanting more. I can’t wait for the next instalment!

Mezolith Book 1 by Ben Haggarty and Adam Brockbank. This book is something special. I read a lot of comics, but this one of the best I’ve encountered; moving, haunting, thrilling and compelling. Once you enter the story, it wont let you go. Ben Haggarty takes you back 10,000 years to the dark world of Poika and his tribe, the Kansa. Adam Brockbank’s stunning artwork leads you right into Poika’s world – under the thundering hooves of a giant buffalo, facing off against a giant, ravenous demonic baby Urga, and struggling against the malevolent evil of the Owl people. The lush visual detail will have you revisiting pages in wonder, noticing telling clues which the next chapter builds on. The layered narrative creates a powerful mythic journey, revisiting fairytales you thought you knew, but in Mezolith nothing is as it seems. On his journey, Poika is assisted by the enigmatic bird-woman Korppi Vehlo. Using his wits, bravery and her visonary gifts, he faces increasingly dangerous foes, taking him into the dark heart of a world that will haunt and horrify you long after you turn the last page.

Recommended by Ariel Kahn

24 May 2010

Book of the Week (62): "The Prince of Mist" by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

We follow Max and his family as they move to a small town by the sea away from the city to escape from the war. However, it seems it’s not to be the reassuring haven they had hoped for - their new house carries the devastating history of a small boy who drowned and there’s a disturbing garden of statues hiding in the mist.

On arrival in the town it is immediately evident to Max that something peculiar is going on; his little sister is befriended by a stray cat with an unsettling presence and unwavering glare and the train station clock is going backwards… The oddities continue and become increasingly threatening as Max investigates his new surroundings and makes a new friend.

Max’s little observations of family and friends, his brave curiosity to explore what many would run from, his reactions to situations and his determination to uncover the truth of what’s going on, adds a sense of a personal journey to the story and enables the reader to experience events alongside him. While some elements of the story did seem common to many scary tales, Zafon achieves a subtle yet strong build-up of suspense and weaves a unique, vivid plot, creating terrifying moments that keep you glued to the page.

All in all it’s an evocative, atmospheric and easy to devour novel with characters you’ll be holding your breath for.

Recommended by Tessa Brechin

17 May 2010

Book of the Week (61): "So Much to Tell" by Valerie Grove

This is not a recommendation of a children's book, but of a book about one of the most influential children's book figures of the last 50 years - Kaye Webb.

Anyone who grew up in the 1960s and 70s may remember that inside the front cover of every Puffin book, it said 'Editor: Kaye Webb'. It was, explains Valerie Grove, not her decision to have her name in each book in this way, and it was unusual - traditionally it is the role of the editor to sit in the background as an anonymous presence. But Kaye Webb was not the kind of person to sit in the background under any circumstances.

Kaye had an incredibly strong - some might claim overpowering - personality. She was warm (she addressed everyone as 'darling') enormously gregarious (she found her later years when she was disabled and housebound impossibly difficult due to the lack of company) and upper class (she is described as addressing her listeners in a radio broadcast in the same tones that Annette Mills used to speak to Muffin the Mule). She was a great user, having the power to persuade and charm all around her into running errands and making her - often madcap - plans come to pass. But she was also a great giver, with tremendous energy and passion for her work.

Kaye was married three times, the final time for 10 years to the artist Ronald Searle, who suddenly and brutally deserted her and their twins with no prior warning - leaving for France to live with another woman.

After a prominent career in journalism, Kaye was brought in to run Puffin books, and took on the role with incredible panache, founding the Puffin Club with its secret code and badge, regular magazine and frequent trips for children, that allowed them to have adventures away from home and meet their favourite authors. She presided over many of the most prominent children's book of the 20th century, including Watership Down, Carrie's War, The Borrowers, Tom's Midnight Garden and Stig of the Dump - to name only a tiny fraction.

Kaye showed less commitment to her family than to her work. She appears barely to have seen her twins as they grew up, leaving them in the care of her mother or with staff. She and Ronald were away on their 10th birthday - they were taking a three-month holiday. Later, John was sent away to boarding school where he was deeply miserable. She seems to have had a closer bond with the many children whom she took on Puffin Club trips than with her own. I was reminded of Enid Blyton who paid huge attention to her child readers, but - at least according to one of her two daughters - very little to her own children.

In a letter to her father at the age of 56, Kaye wrote 'Esteem in other men's eyes? Isn't it more important to have it in your own? I shall grow older and die and the only flag I'll have to wave is I did a job fairly well and wangled myself a lot of attention... but I shan't have read the books I wanted to, or had the thoughts I wanted to, or even really explored relationships with other people properly... all this in the sacred name of being successful'.

I found myself having very mixed feelings when reading about Kaye Webb. As a children's book editor, I know that if I'd been lucky enough to work for her, she would have inspired in me the same loyalty and passion she did in all her staff. But reading about her as a whole person - not just a publisher - I found her egotism and disregard for family responsibilities off-putting, and her loneliness at the end of her life desperately sad.

Recommended by Susan Reuben

  • For another biography of a prominent figure in the children's book world, also by Valerie Grove, try Dear Dodie, about Dodie Smith, author of The Hundred and One Dalmatians and I Capture the Castle.
  • To find out more about Puffin, take a look at Puffin by Design by Phil Baines, which publishes on 27 May. It explores the visual history of Puffin books.
  • If you're inspired to find out more about Kaye's husband Ronald Searle, read Ronald Searle, The Biography by Russell Davies.

10 May 2010

Hay Fever!

Very exciting - the complete line-up for Hay Fever, the children's programme of the Hay Festival, has now been announced. You can find full details of the programme here. Needless to say it's packed full of wonderful treats!

I'll be there, in the chair for three events...
  • Sunday May 30th, 1pm: Mal Peet & Bali Rai
  • Monday May 31st, 2:30pm: Ian Beck & Glenn Dakin
  • Friday June 4th, 5:30pm: Patrick Ness
... so do come along if you can! Look forward to seeing you there...

Book of the Week (60): "Not Bad for a Bad Lad" by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Michael Foreman

What if fairytales could come true? This is a beautiful, tender, and moving story, an exciting creative collaboration between the two talented Michaels, their twenty third book together. As you might expect from them, it is beautifully presented and published. Morpurgo revisits the territory he made his own so memorably with War Horse, and brings it home. A young boy sits mesmerised as his grandfather reveals his wayward childhood growing up after the blitz. The first-person voice of his former self catapults us back in time so that we relive his experiences, as a fatherless boy whom only Miss West, his music teacher, believes in. He plays on bomb sites, is chased by the police, and ultimately caught stealing, sentenced to a spell in borstal in Hollesey Bay, Suffolk. Each of these experiences is suggestively and captivatingly illustrated by Foreman, whose own War Boy series and multiple awards for illustration admirably equip him for depicting this period. Every page is illustrated, and the images form a musical accompaniment to the story, bringing out key personalities and moments of transformation with telling detail and insight. Full-page scenes, and double page spreads in watercolour and pencil capture a range of moods and experiences, from a comic chase through bombed-out London to the moment he is caught by another young boy at night, raiding the family greenhouse for tomatoes. This moonlight encounter between the haves and the have-nots has a powerful, fairytale quality. Time and place come alive in the dialogue between the pictures and the text, and the boy’s alienation and isolation in Borstal are finely rendered. The landscape is very much a character, as the police van taking him to school seems at sea in a wash of vibrant greens, under a vast sky. The pictures give the reader a sense of hope, and amplify the emotional journey the story describes.

The boy finds himself drawn to the stables, and comes to the attention of Mr. Alfie, the taciturn but compassionate head horseman, who introduces him to his beloved Suffolk Punch horses. The boy develops a particularly close relationship with Dombey, a horse who is troubled and difficult, very much like the boy himself. Together they take us on a unique journey, and the words and images take flight, as he trains the horse by racing it along the seas’ edge, galloping through the rainbow surf. But their relationship is not to last, as Dombey is sold, and when he is discharged early for good behaviour, he ends up homeless on the streets of London. Just when everything seems hopeless, an extraordinary twist of fate reunites him with Dombey and changes his life forever. At last, he has the chance to make himself proud, and justify the special people who believed in him.

The storyteller's voice is quiet and understated, allowing the reader to become involved in the feelings his experiences evoke. The pictures make the story come alive, enriching the reader’s experience to create a layered and involving account of one boy’s redemption through tough experiences, luck, and some amazing horses. The story feels both deeply grounded in time and place, and truly timeless. It includes a fascinating appendix about Hollesley Bay Borstal, the Suffolk Punch horses, and the boys and men who cared for them. Whether you love horses, war stories, triumphs over adversity, or stories with a vivid sense of time and place, in which history comes intimately alive, this timeless classic is for you.

Recommended by Ariel Kahn

03 May 2010

Book of the Week (59): "Monsters of Men" by Patrick Ness

It’s here: the book I have impatiently waited for since devouring The Ask and the Answer last autumn has finally arrived through my door. Once I’d finished leaping round with excitement and managed to regain an ability to focus on text I began reading and was effortlessly transported back to New Prentisstown and Todd’s dilemma. The ROAR of impending war surrounds; the spackle are on the march, The Answer are closing in and Todd has captured the mayor whose release may be the only option to ensure Viola’s safety.

Patrick Ness once again delivers a magnificent novel; the pace keeps you turning pages well beyond bedtime, you can’t help getting attached to the characters and therefore leaving yourself open to feeling the love, pain, trauma and danger they encounter, and he explores difficult social and personal dilemmas of trust, manipulation, war and personal strength. It’s complex, insightful and accessible. Quite honestly I think the guy is a genius!

I had intended to write this review immediately after finishing the book but found I needed to recover from the experience first. Few novels have me holding my breath, switching from optimism to sudden tears at the turn of a page, few books make me pause reading just to process the author's brilliance as new twists emerge, few books do I race to finish while not wanting them to end, and even fewer leave me in a stunned silence when I read those last words and close the cover. This book - in fact all three of this trilogy - had that affect on me.

Even now, a week on, I’m struggling to find the right words to do the book justice. I really can’t recommend it highly enough. Perhaps, all I need say is wow! Read it, read it now!

Recommended by Tessa Brechin

Patrick Ness interview

To mark the publication of Monsters of Men, the third in Patrick Ness's magnificent Chaos Walking series, I've interviewed Patrick for a feature that ran in today's Independent on Sunday.

Monsters of Men hits the shops officially today (though apparently there have been sightings in the public domain over the weekend...) and it's very highly recommended. Tessa is writing it up as our new Book of the Week, too, so check back here for that later today.