Review: There May Be a Castle

theremaybeacastleThere May Be a Castle hit me hard. Not since reading Watership Down or blinking through the end credits of E.T., have I been left so watery-eyed.  It may just be me, of course, and the passage of time. I used to weep on only the rarest of occasions –  funerals, the birth of my children, that kind of thing. (Although, while I’m in sharing mode, I have to declare that the final three minutes of this match prompted a full-on snotty, shoulder-shaking outpouring – and did the same when I watched it again days later.  It still chokes me now.  Tragic, I know).

But now, as I’ve tipped past forty, I find myself choking up with alarming frequency.  School plays. Watching my daughter read. The first sight of a daffodil tip, creeping out of the still cool earth. New born babies. Sad things to do with animals. They all get me a bit wobbly-lipped.

And, now, you can add There May Be a Castle to the list. Mouse Mallory, a young boy lost in a snowstorm after his family car has skidded off the road, is accompanied by a host of imagined friends as he seeks his castle, risking everything to try and find help for his stranded family. The narrative switches between Mouse’s adventure, and his sister still stuck in the car – the different parts of the story are marked by a change of font but also a more significant shift from the real to the imaginary. Mouse, as he stumbles half-dreaming, half-conscious towards his Everest, grapples with his demons – the fears and doubts that inhabit us all. His struggle becomes your own.

There will be no spoilers here. Mouse may or may not reach his castle. His sister may or may not escape the crumpled wreck of the car. What I will say is that the final pages left me gasping – an ending (like A Monster Calls) which left me stunned, flicking back a page or more to read it again, not wanting it to end, not wanting Mouse’s story to leave me.  And, of course, like E.T. and like Watership Down and – no higher praise – like Manchester United versus Bayern Munich in 1999, it won’t leave me; it’s now part of me forever.  A beauty of a book.


My height in books: an update

It’s hard to believe that a quarter of the year has passed and, as such, the pile of books outside my office should be round about 40cm high, or at least should be if I stand any chance of reading my height in books between now and the end of the year (see original post here).

I’m resisting precise measurement, partly because the books keep being snaffled by other keen readers – can’t complain – but the pile has definitely gone past the ankle and is certainly creeping up towards the knee. I’m behind schedule, no doubt, and already wondering whether my height is with or without shoe, and also how much I can compress my hair, possibly to knock a millimetre or two off the target.  To be frank, I’m banking on some intense holiday reading to keep me in reach, and then a frantic blast before Christmas.

This is what I’ve read in the past few weeks:

Sunwing by Kenneth Oppel 

SunwingFollowing Silverwing, Sunwing is the second book in the trilogy, leading on to the final book, Firewing (although, much to my delight, I’ve just discovered there is a fourth book, which serves as a prequel to the events in these three).  Like the first, it follows the young bat Shade as he searches for his father and battles to save his colony from the claws of the vampire bath, Goth, and the ravages of a Human war which threatens to envelop the bats.

What sounds like a tricky pitch – almost three hundred pages about bats – reveals itself to be a gripping, terrifying read. Oppel is a master at sustained suspense, able to keep the excitement going page after page and, just when the tension becomes unbearable, he ratchets it up a notch further.  Some of the scenes are gory and brutal; the natural world  in its unfettered reality – so definitely not one for younger readers or anyone expecting an animal story of the cute kind. The imagining of dialogue between the animals is well-done and doesn’t jar (as, in lesser hands, it sometimes can).  And by the end you’ll be rooting for young Shade and thinking long and hard about the relationship between humans and the natural world.

Bookworm by Lucy Mangan 

BookwormNot a children’s book – shock, horror – but this memoir of childhood reading fits the bill perfectly.  Mangan’s writing is punchy and droll, inducing many a giggle and chuckle of recognition.  There were many familiar books described here plus plenty of new discoveries.  The stories are brought to life by Mangan’s personal and particular take on them, as well as informative asides about their history and context.

Matching her passion for certain books, is Mangan’s fearlessness in skewering others that she has little time for – Tolkein, for example (I’m with her on this) and any book involving animals (we’ll agree to differ – see above).   Her picking apart of Mr Men books was brilliantly entertaining and had my head nodding in profound agreement. (I once tried to teach a class to write their own version of the Mr Men books.  The narrative structure, or frankly lack of it, is impossible to replicate.  They are, in my humble opinion, most odd).

A very enjoyable read for anyone interested in children’s books.

Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone 

SkySongAnother absolute gem from Abi, who is fast becoming the master of the fantasy adventure world (I may have made that genre up, or at least conflated two of them, much to the annoyance I’m sure of fantasy aficionados and mystery buffs).  Sky Song, above all, is a ripping yarn – good versus evil on a grand, sweeping, frost-laden scale.  Her characters are ones you warm to; they combine a humanity and a vulnerability with a fierce, unstoppable courage.  This is a books to read by the fire, or snug in bed; a story for dreams, a story to inspire.

Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll

LettersI was led to Letters from the Lighthouse, my first Emma Carroll book, after re-reading an old favourite about the Second World War – the very brilliant Machine Gunners by Robert Westall.   Two very different books but, like Westall’s, Carroll’s book is wonderfully evocative and is guided by the certain hand of authenticity – it feels real and true.  The drama of an air raid, the searching beam of a light house at night, the clandestine cloak-and-dagger meetings and the mysterious messages, the persecution of Jews and the bravery of those who sheltered them – it’s all here and it’s all done so well.  Just about perfect for older primary children, both for those who are interested in history and for those who love a great story, brilliantly told.

My height in books: a reading challenge for 2018

My challenge for the year ahead is to read my height in books.  Easy, some might say.  No-one has ever accused me of being tall so there’s no excuses, particularly as the pile of books – currently reaching just above my ankle – is deposited right outside my office at school, ready to invite a comment from the too-cool-for-school characters in Year 6.  ‘Is that all you’ve read?’ said one (‘More than you,’ I replied, with a smile. The smile was returned – seed planted and challenge accepted, I think).

Like all New Year resolutions the easy bit is starting with a bang; the hard bit is to avoid finishing with a whimper before the shortest month arrives.  So far, so good.  Here’s what I’ve read so far:

victoryVictory by Susan Cooper

A new discovery for me, Cooper’s books will be popping up more than once in the year ahead.  The beauty in this one is in the telling of the story – characters that absorb and feel alive and become part of life.  It brings together a girl in the present, recently moved to America against her will, and a boy, press-ganged in to service for Admiral Nelson.  The time shifts are handled skillfully and the depictions of Nelson and the naval battles are vivid and powerful.  A lovely read.

survivorSurvivors by David Long and Kerry Hyndman  

Another theme for this year will be to widen my reading beyond my ‘go-to’, which tends to be top-notch middle-grade fiction.  Survivors fits the bill perfectly.  Superbly illustrated, each chapter tells the story of someone who has survived in the most extraordinary situations – a girl falling from a plane two-miles high, a runner lost in the desert, a doctor forced to operate on himself.  Stunning, awe-inspiring stuff.  I’ve used some of the stories in assemblies, followed by non-stop requests to borrow the book.  Highly recommended.

overheardOverheard in a Tower Block for Joseph Coelho 

As well as non-fiction, I’m going to add more poetry into the mix (or the pile).  This is a great place to start and is particularly enjoyable as I know the places Coelho writes about – he was born a couple of miles down the road, close to my school (@heathmereschool).  Gritty, real-life narratives of fractured families, tower blocks and bullies, are lightened with stories of ponds and runs in the park, ending with a tear-inducing poem for a daughter – Coelho’s journey from childhood to fatherhood is complete.  One for top end primary to unpick with their teacher, or older children to read and to read out loud.

explorerThe Explorer by Katharine Rundell, illustrated by Hannah Horn 

A prize-winner, and rightly so, Rundell’s star continues to shine bright; she is fast becoming the best children’s writer of her generation.  The Explorer is about survival and friendship, with a subtle message about preservation of jungle habitats.  A group of children, lost in the Amazon, find their way to a mysterious hidden city, inhabited by an even more mysterious explorer, intent on sheltering his secret world from destruction by prying outsiders.  Will they survive? Beautifully written and illustrated – there is a flow to Rundell’s writing which edges it towards perfection.  I do have a major grumble with the ending but it didn’t overshadow my enjoyment of the books (and I couldn’t possibly say what it is, without revealing too much of the plot).

sticthheadStitch Head by Guy Bass, illustrated by Pete Williamson 

Stitch Head, oh Stitch Head, where have you been all my life?  The first and forgotten creation of a crazy scientist, Stitch Head, our lovable anti-hero living an almost life, ventures forth alongside a troop of other weird and wonderful creations in this delight of a book.  It’s funny and heart-warming – it’s hard, if not impossible, to resist Stitch-Head’s charms, even more so with Pete Williamson’s wonderfully imagined drawings which capture our Stitch’s vulnerabilities to a tee..  This one is going straight into my school library – and straight out again, ready to be devoured by anyone who likes a chuckle, enjoys a bit of slapstick gore and has space in their heart for a little Stitch.



Review: Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse

There was a recent exchange on Twitter where confessions were being made.  One person had asked which iconic books people had not yet shifted from their ‘to be read’ pile.

gothgirlSkellig, said one.  Cue a sharp intake of breath from me – how and in what desperate place can Skellig not have been read?  Wind in the Willows, said another.  Guilty as charged on that one – I’ve started it more than once, and failed each time – along with The Hobbit and a number of classics – Watership Down, Tarka the Otter, The Box of Delights (in writing this, I think my New Year’s resolution is staring me in the face).

Another on my ‘yet to be read’ list is the Goth Girl series by Chris Riddell.  So, out of sequence, Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse,was the first in line.  Reading this, or any other book you know should really be sitting on the shelf, broken-spined and well-thumbed, generates frustration in the why-did-I-leave-it-so-long sense and deep in the belly delight at discovering something so wonderful.

Goth Girl is a hugely enjoyable read.  With many a hat tip to Lewis Carroll, Chris Riddell has created a book full of wonderfully absurd twists and turns – it as an extended riff of the ridiculous and the make believe, a fitting tribute to the Wonderland Alice discovers.

Left alone by her grieving father, Ada explores the corridors and gardens of Ghastly-Gorm Hall, meeting a cast of brilliantly bonkers characters, each one brought to life on the page by Riddell’s drawings.  Immediately recognisable – you know it’s Chris Riddell as soon as you see them – the sketches are what elevates this book to the status of a modern classic.  So simple – lines, some shading, a little hatching – yet so well-imagined, playful and full of character.  They are an absolute delight.

And the story unfolds with a gentle compassion.  Ada is not dominant, moving through the book with a calm and quiet resolution.  She could – in fact, should – be miserable, mourning the death of her mother and estranged from her distant father.  But she navigates the mysterious word she inhabits with grace and patience; Ada is a character to admire and emulate.

Why did I leave it so long?  So many books and so little time but, with Goth Girl, it’s definitely a case of  better late than never.

Review: Defender of the Realm – Dark Age

I was at a job interview recently.  It didn’t go well.  You know you’re doomed when, having answered a question, the panel pause and stare, if only for half a second.  In that moment, on their faces, all is revealed; their eyes flicker – they are horrified by what is before them.  A polite reserve kicks in and I get a half-smile, half-wince and a pursed ‘thank you’.  It wasn’t to be.

Defender of the Realm Dark Age

It reminded me of previous interviews and, given my mental state, previous failures.  Years back, I flummoxed an interview for a high-street burger chain.  Quite extraordinary, given the main requirements were a regular pulse and an ability to stand.  Never mind.

Once, I was asked the dreaded question – if you were an animal, what would you be?  A mind, with all the millions of neural pathways, has never failed so miserably.  I could barely think of an animal, let alone one that resembled my character.  I struggle even now.  I guess, on reflection, I’m a wombat but I can’t say why.  They, for example, have a backward facing pouch and leave distinctive cubic faeces.  I claim neither of these things but a wombat is all that comes to mind. Maybe I’m thinking about it too much.

Which leads me nicely, believe it or not, to the Defender of the Realm: Dark Age, the second book from the tag team writing machine that is Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler.  Some books, you see, are animals.  They can be cats, serene and gentle with odd flashes of fury.  Other are birds, almost ethereal, floating above the grime and the noise, revealing themselves gradually, with subtle layers emerging at each gentle turn of the page. +07957284588Other books, like Defender of the Realm – Dark Age are a different kind of beast altogether.  This one, the second book from Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler, grabs you by the shoulders, slobbers in your face, pounds you to the floor and pummels you into submission. If these pages were alive, it would be an Old English Mastiff or a Great Dane- a big, slathering beast of a book.  It’s an enthralling, all-encompassing read. Resistance is futile, just go with and let it take over (and take over it will – you can well imagine reading this one in one sitting, all through the night).

Dark Age picks up where the brilliant first book left off (my review is here, should you wish to take a look).  King Alfie is part-monarch, part-superhero – the latest in a long line of regal defenders charged with keeping the country safe.  Like the first book, a sense of breathless visual drama is translated to the page.  There are sweeping, cinematic scenes and a boldness which allows the setting to leap from Glastonbury to Norway, via the Tower of London.  The dialogue is quick and punchy.  I’d be amazed if these books didn’t make their way to the screen, big or small.

The first book – and this one – contain many a nod and a wink to James Bond, Batman and Mission Impossible.  Their second one goes further, drawing on fantasy role-playing games. Imaginations are truly unfurled. It’s like they wrote Dark Age while rolling a dice (called chutzpah, perhaps) each face containing ever more extraordinary plot twists and turns.  Roll the dice and, fearlessly, that’s where the narrative goes.

Across a mere page or two, we have King Alfie, the Defender of the Realm, using his Ring of Command to instruct a group of swans to attack a longboat full of undead Vikings. Extraordinary.   It’s a stunning, audacious tale and – thankfully for the ever-growing number of Defender fans – one that leads on to the next book, and the next, and the next.

Maybe I should take the Ostler and Huckerby approach in my next interview.  Me? An animal? Roll the dice and see…

Review: Where Monsters Lie

wmlFor her second novel, Where Monsters Lie, Polly Ho-Yen has made a brave and brilliant leap from the inner city tower blocks of her first novel, Boy in the Tower, to an imagined village on the shores of a Scottish loch where Effie lives with her parents and younger brother.

The village is small, claustrophobic. Everyone knows everyone; blood lines are knotted together and unbreakable, particularly if, like Effie, there are hints of being an outsider.  The water is menacing and unfriendly. Keep away, the elders say.  Keep away, so the legend goes, because there are monsters in the water.

Like her first book (reviewed here), Ho-Yen establishes a powerful, memorable setting – one which provides an intriguing canvas for her narrative to unfold.   Continue reading

Review: Wonder

As a teacher, it’s my professional duty to make sure children can read and, once the mechanics of decoding are in place, to show them why reading matters.  There are plenty of arguments to deploy, even for the most reluctant or disinterested of readers.  Reading tells you things you didn’t know before.  You will know more words and so be able to explain yourself better.  You can travel the world and visit distant, unknown planets or stay close to home, all at the turn of the page.  It’s fun – join the library, and it’s free. You’d me mad not to.wonder

But, for me, reading matters most because it makes us better people.  The grandest and most humane function of reading is to instil empathy in the reader, an understanding of the world from someone else’s point of view.   It is in those moments when the written word means reality is seen in new ways, through another’s eyes; when the character becomes as real as the paper you are holding and in some way becomes part of you. This, I think, is what is most remarkable and what is most important about reading.  The best writing can change you and make you quietly, subtly better at being who you are.

This is is certainly the case with Wonder by RJ Palacio, a book which tells the story of August Pullman, a boy born with a facial disfigurement, as he starts his first year at middle school.  August has a face that is shocking in its deformity, so shocking that it is only partially described in the book and is revealed mostly by people’s reactions; they point, they stare, they whisper, they turn away, they say cruel, cutting words.  But on August goes, into the world – gently cajoled by his parents from the cocoon of home. Continue reading

Review: Smart About Sharks

smart2.jpgThe defining feature of any book from Flying Eye Books is that they are made to be treasured, none more so than Smart About Sharks by Owen Davey. The disposable, fleeting nature of modern consumption, with products devoured on the hoof and slung thoughtlessly in the trash, is countered the moment you hold Davey’s book in your hands. Like art, it is something to be gazed upon; something to be absorbed and assimilated in the mind and the soul, not grabbed, ripped at and stuffed in the gullet.

Davey’s illustrations are something else; they deserve a wide audience and much acclaim.  I first discovered his work when drawn to the cover of the wonderful Knight Night, a delightful picture book, perfect for fearless four year olds who love to swish a sword and battle to the death, or at least until a toe is stubbed, the tears flow and a cuddle is needed. It’s full of stylised images often using a palette based around one bold colour (orange dominates in Knight Night, next to browns and muted yellows).   Continue reading

Review: Boy in the Tower

boytowerIt may seem odd for a sci-fi novel, but Boy in the Tower is a book that oozes reality. If there is a story that warrants being described as dystopian then it it this one – it’s not always an easy read and emotional punches are far from pulled. They land heavy with a thud.

Polly Ho-Yen’s debut is, at times, a disturbingly grim portrayal of urban life and environmental decline.  But there, in the reality, resides a remarkable honesty – the characters are real, the emotions are raw, the setting – literally – could be the estate where I work, and (like all great sci-fi) the unimaginable becomes oh-so-believable. War of the Worlds made people run to their cars and flee to the hills, believing an alien attack was underway. Boy in the Tower has that same sense of maybe, maybe one day… Continue reading

Review: Oi Frog! and Oi Dog!

Events have made it hard for me to write my blog recently. Nothing dramatic – just work, life, work, life and work and life.  But the brilliant Oi Frog! and the sequel, Oi Dog!, purchased recently as a pair, have spurred me back into action.

Oi Frog! all starts from a wonderfully absurd premise; a pompous, stick-to-the-rules cat and a rebellious, rule-busting frog arguing about what animals should or should not sit on.  Cat – yellow-eyed, condescending, severe – tells frog to sit on a log. Frog doesn’t want to – he wants to sit on a mat, or a stool, or even a sofa. But, no.  Mats are for cats, stools are for mules and sofas – oh so clever, this one – are for gophers.

And on they go, cat and frog bickering their way back and forth through ever more inventive and preposterous couplets, brought to life by brilliant illustrations of gorillas perched on pillars and pumas balanced on satsumas.  The first books ends with a delightful image of poor frog being sat on by a dog…which leads perfectly into the second book Oi Dog! where, this time, frog is in charge and re-writes the rules and gets to sit where he likes.  Continue reading