29 April 2011

Book of the Week (97): "Actual Size" by Steve Jenkins

A few weeks ago I was asked to do a reading assessment with a boy who didn’t like reading, didn’t want to read and would be going out now to play football not stay inside with the nasty teacher-woman, thank you very much. He, however, stayed inside. And sulked. I sat on one sofa, he on the other – tears glistened in his six-year-old eyes as he stared through the window at the bright sunshine and the green grass that just begged to have a ball kicked on it.

I, however, had a secret weapon. Instead of cajoling him, I sat back and started reading. Occasionally I gasped or ooed. Sometimes I laughed. As we all know, someone laughing at a joke you don’t know about is a terribly aggravating thing… I caught him looking at me – and at the cover of the book I was reading. After a while I exclaimed – no way, that can’t be true!

And at that, I had him. Five minutes later he was engrossed in the book. An hour later he was complaining that he didn’t know enough words yet to understand all the information. It won’t be long before he does.

And the book? Actual Size by Steve Jenkins.

It’s quite simple – pictures of creatures (or bits of creatures) actual size: the tiniest fish (no! THAT small??); the biggest spider (eek!); a 60cm tongue (complete with ants for dinner) and a gorilla’s hand (so, so human…). Simple, but genius. There is no child capable of not being intrigued.

The book isn’t brand new, but has been re-issued by Frances Lincoln – another addition to their truly outstanding range of picture books.

Oh, and many apologies for this being rather late…

Recommended by Leonie Flynn

Next for me is going to be hunting down a copy of Prehistoric Actual Size by Steve Jenkins – I can’t wait to be astonished!

20 April 2011

Book of the Week (96): "Clash" by Colin Mulhern

On the cover of Clash there is an enthusiastic endorsement from Anthony McGowan, author of The Knife that Killed Me, one of my favourite gritty teen novels from recent years. McGowan hails Mulhern as “the next name” in the genre. I agree. Clash is a well written, gripping, tough story of two very different boys, told from alternating perspectives. Alex comes from a violent background – his father is abusive, his uncle is something of a gangster, running cage-fighting nights. He is drawn to this dark world, and turns out to be quite a talented fighter. At school, however, he acquires a reputation of a loner and a psycho who can erupt with little warning leaving a trail of battered victims. Kyle on the other hand has a talent for drawing, and a more sensitive disposition. Their different personalities are bound to clash, yet there is obviously a mutual emotional connection. Alex is a surprisingly avid admirer of Kyle’s art, and Kyle is terrified of Alex, yet is fascinated by him, just like he is with his own pet scorpion, Harold. Their story intertwines in more than one way, and beyond the boys’ initial realisation. This allows Mulhern to build up the tension and supply the final twist. I certainly found the book hard to put down once the snowball of events started rolling. The two teen narrators are well realised, though I felt Alex’s voice was stronger. I did, however, have my doubts about the sincerity of his transformation following a catastrophe and some unexpected revelations that naturally I will not spoil by disclosing here. Gladly, the final paragraph implies that Mulhern does not forget the volatile nature of this character either. An absorbing read, and a new voice to watch out for.

Recommended by Noga Applebaum

12 April 2011

Book of the Week (95): "A Year without Autumn" by Liz Kessler

What would you do if you could see the future?

Autumn and Jenni are best friends. They are inseparable, sharing everything, even family holidays. On her way to visit Autumn, Jenni accidentally finds herself transported one year into the future. She’s bigger, and things are almost the same; but to her horror something has gone very wrong. Tragedy has struck their families, and her friendship with Autumn is falling apart. She has no memory of what’s happened, and everyone thinks she’s acting strange. Can she figure out what went wrong and get back to the past? If she can then maybe, just maybe, she can stop the terrible future and save the people she loves.

A beautiful little book about the enduring power of friendship, A Year Without Autumn is possessed of a simple sophistication that lends great authenticity to its characters and events. Liz Kessler presents a riveting believable story of adventure, tragedy, and one girl’s indomitable will to fix the errors of the past.

Eminently accessible to younger readers and adults alike Kessler evokes an atmosphere that plays on the universal nostalgia of family holidays; leaving the reader feeling that in some way they have shared the experience on a deeper level. I challenge every reader not to feel an indefinable sense of recognition with some element of this family holiday.

A Year Without Autumn is the new novel by the bestselling author of the Emily Windsnap series and delivers a gripping tale that I was totally unprepared for. The first Liz Kessler novel I have read, I was impressed by her talent for blending pitch perfect family relationships with humour, tragedy, and time travel of all things. This book is a gem, that should remind us all just how important our friendships are, and that we should never stop fighting to protect them.

Recommended by Matthew Humpage

04 April 2011

Book of the Week (94): "The Magical Detectives" by Brian Keaney

When I first saw this book I thought to myself, ‘oh goody, a new Diana Wynne Jones!’ (This was before the very sad news of her death reached my ears.) The reason for this mistake was that the cover’s artwork resembled the rebranding of DWJ’s back catalogue post Harry Potter. I don’t think the resemblance is a coincidence, as there is a whiff of DWJ in The Magical Detectives. Certainly two of the main characters – the lemon sherbet popping detective Maximillan Hawksmoor who investigates magical mysteries and the cynical talking cat Cornelius – could have made an appearance in her novels. The plot of The Magical Detectives, however, is not as complex as the ones DWJ devised in the Chrestomancy or Howl’s Moving Castle series. It is aimed at a younger audience (around 8-9 years old), and moves in a more traditional, yet very amiable, direction. Otto Spinoza comes home from school to discover that the bookshop his mother runs is closed, and there is no sign of her anywhere. Otto is aware that if he calls the police, his lack of other relatives may land him in a care home, so he enlists a magical detective instead. Enter Maximillan Hawksmoor with his spells and knowledge of parallel universes. A short investigation leads him to believe that Otto’s mother was kidnapped by creatures from such a universe, and together with Otto he sets off through a Janusian Portal to retrieve her. Unfortunately, Otto’s classmate, Juliet, and her aforementioned cat happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and so the expedition team gains two more members. Adventure, danger, and some humorous moments ensue, until the team finally finds their way back into our world. As mentioned earlier, the plot is a tad predictable, and there are a couple of holes that could have been better cemented, but this is the opener of a series, and the characters certainly have a good potential to launch themselves into deeper trouble in the next book. With a very engaging premise and some good protagonists, I hope Brian Keaney will come up with tasty twisty challenges in forthcoming sequel.

Recommended by Noga Applebaum