Once by Morris Gleitzman/The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne
I read Once and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in close succession. Both books deal with the Holocaust and both manage to communicate the unimaginable realities of life under Nazi rule to a younger audience. Of the two, I found Once the more convincing and the better book. It manages to remain realistic and plausible whereas the very premise of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a narrative device which feels a stretch too far (a boy in a concentration camp is supposedly able to move freely about the camp, freely enough to allow him to regularly speak to his German friend, Bruno, on the other side). Nevertheless, both are extraordinarily powerful, moving and important books.
The Lost Journals of Benjamin Tooth by Mackenzie Crook
A quirky historical novel about Benjamin Tooth, a budding botanist and full-time eccentric. Cook cleverly establishes the 18th century setting, not least with some witty descriptions of what Tooth eats (and the subsequent impact on his bowels). It also captures a mood of scientific discovery – you could imagine Tooth as a flawed, off-kilter, dotty Darwin traipsing the moors looking for a new species of sprite. The diary format makes for a fun, quick read, let down only slightly by the final chapters which drift towards the conclusion. An interesting author though, one to watch.
Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo
Like Silverwing, this is one where the blurb raises an eyebrow – the story features a poetry-loving squirrel called Ulysses who has new-found superpowers discovered after an accident with a vacuum cleaner. That’s a hard one to pull off by any stretch of the imagination. In a lesser writer you can imagine how such a plot could have crumbled and become ludicrous. But with DiCamillo’s skilful writing, Flora and Ulysses is a heart- warming, memorable, uplifting book.
Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson
Maia, an orphan, is sent to Brazil to live with the Carters, her only remaining family. There’s a great sense of place and setting; it’s easy for the reader to imagine the sights and sounds of living in the deepest Amazon. There is an interesting contrast between the arrogant Carter family who behave like old colonialists, avoiding the locals and preferring English food by the tin, and Maia who wants to experience and absorb life in a new country. A slow-burner of a book (perhaps too slow), Journey to the River Sea quietly and carefully builds to a dramatic climax.
Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve
Science-fiction is not usually my thing, but Mortal Engines is a cracker. A book that feels cinematic in scale, it would be easy to imagine this being on the big screen alongside Star Wars. Set in a post-apocalyptic future where London is now a monstrous machine, wandering a desolate landscape devouring smaller towns and cities, Mortal Engines is a bold, imaginative and hugely enjoyable book.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Not for younger children by any means; The Graveyard Book starts with a murder and the book is populated with menacing characters and graveyard settings. Each chapter leaps forward two years in the life of Bod, the boy left orphaned by the murders in the opening scenes. He is saved and raised by the ‘residents’ of the nearby graveyard and, from them, he learns various spooky powers that enable him to survive despite being pursued by the murderer, ‘the man Jack’. Some of the transitions between chapters are clunky – each could almost be read as a stand-alone short story – but this is an intriguing read. This was my first Gaiman book; it won’t be my last.
Silverwing by Kenneth Oppel
After discovering (and loving) The Boundless, I was hungry for more by Kenneth Oppel. This is the first in a trilogy, following Shade, a young Silverwing bat, who becomes separated from the rest of his Silverwing clan.
He battles terrible storms and has to deal with Goth, the evil cannibal bat, in what is a thrilling, fast-paced and, at times, gory story. This is well worth a read – Oppel is fast becoming a favourite author and the other two books in the trilogy are very much on my list for the year ahead.