Review: How to Survive in the North

HowToSurviveInTheNorth_coverLet me start with a confession.  Despite my claims to bookishness, before How to Survive in the North, I had never read a graphic novel.  It’s a whole world I know little or nothing about. So I have no real barometer to measure the book against. I know not whether it is better or worse than other books of its kind, whether it breaks new ground or churns over familiar turf.

I feel out of my depth – it’s like discovering new music, like listening to jazz for the first time. All I do know is that I read it, mesmerised, in one sitting.

The book weaves together three stories, two of them historical and based on truth, the third is contemporary and entirely fictional. The true stories are each about expeditions. They tell us much about survival, and about that strange human spirit that make us go to places that may kill us. Continue reading

Interview: Andy Briggs (Iron Fist)

Iron Fist is a thrill-a-minute adventure story from Andy Briggs.  It’s premise is a cracker – a secret inventory, as large as a city and packed to the brim with gizmos and gadgets, hidden from the world and kept safe by Dev and his uncle.  No surprise that some serious baddies want to get their hands on the goodies inside, not least the mysterious Iron Fist. The Inventory is impregnable.  Well, it’s supposed to be…

I’m delighted to welcome Andy Briggs to the blog, he’s been good enough to answer a few questions about the book.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAI really enjoyed Iron Fist – was it fun to write?  Where did the idea for it come from?

It was terrific fun to write because I tried something new. It’s my twenty-first book (gasp! Even I had to check) and I normally plan each chapter and character beat before I start, which is something I do for screenplays. This time I wanted the Inventory to surprise me, so I knew where to start and where I was headed and, aside from a few character beats, I had no idea what was going to happen next.

Iron FistI love inventions and often read about new and exciting things that never see the light of day, such as water powered cars (yes, they have built them) and personal rocket packs (another yes for those). In the back of old comic books you used to see adverts of glasses that hypnotise your friends or gizmos that allow you to breathe underwater. So why keep them a secret? Obviously somebody is judging that the world is not ready to use them, so they’re being hidden away from us by some sinister anti-Santa Claus.

There’s more to come in the series – have you got them all mapped out?   Can you give us a hint where the story will go next?

Oh, there is a lot more to come! I think the beauty about inventions, and the world of gadgets, is that you can always add things to existing situations in a more organic way – by its very nature, I can just keep inventing! I have a series of stories within-in stories I would love to tell, and I have finished book two already, so my mind is already on book three… I can tell you that the story goes beyond the walls of the Inventory, but the Inventory itself has far from revealed its secrets…

Technology is a big theme in the book.  Do you think we are slaves to it or will technology save the planet?  

Wow! Such a wonderfully deep question! I think (and in some ways hope) we are slaves to the planet and we will save the damage we’ve done through technology and science. It’s the only way forward. Humanity has acted like a virus, gnawing away nature and the world around us. The way we have treated the planet reminds me of those old Wild E Coyote cartoons in which he is sawing through the very tree branch he’s sitting on! The planet will snap if we don’t do something. Enter science, invention and the wonderful concept of the human spirit. That’s how we’ll save ourselves.

You’ve written books, comics and films – what do you like writing best?  

Each has its own merits, and with each you meet wonderful creators who just add to my own knowledge of story telling. In my own little head I have a pyramid of writing. Book are at the bottom, the strong, wide stable story monoliths that can be as large and elaborate as you want them to be. The next layer consists of films and TV, writing stories in a finite box, which is dictated by the running time of the show. Then there are comics – fewer pages and only a handful of panels per page to tell a story through static pictures and a little text. That’s incredibly difficult and I have learnt a lot from great comic writers out there, such as Tony Lee. Then, top of the pyramid – poems and songs. In my humble view, they’re incredibly difficult to write, very technical, and wwwaaayyy beyond my talents!

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Review: Rebel Science

Science. The very word on my school timetable would induce a shudder. I can still remember her name. I shall call her Mrs H, the biology teacher from hell.  Such was her genius, she managed – for each 45 minute lesson – to remove from the study of life itself, anything and everything even vaguely resembling fascination, awe or wonder.  It was replaced with stodge.  Dog-eared text books.  Eye-fluttering irritation whenever a question was asked or a concept not immediately grasped.  I hated it and, as a result, hated science. rebelscience

Only as an adult have I begun to discover what science should be about – curiosity, speculation, boldness. As a teacher, I have gained some insight into the dismal limits of my knowledge – learning alongside the children I’ve taught (I hope, in desperation, that my lessons have led to a mild smattering of awe and wonder – at least more than those taught by the dreaded Mrs H).

If only, all those years ago, I’d had a teacher who’d shoved Rebel Science into my hands – a fabulous book written by Dan Green and illustrated by David Lyttleton (why oh why aren’t the names of non-fiction authors and illustrators placed on the cover?). Continue reading

Review: The Wolves of Currumpaw

wolvesIf it’s fair to say that Shackleton’s Journey – William Grill’s extraordinary award-winning debut – raised the bar, then you can only conclude that his follow-up has taken the bar, twisted it unrecognisably, flung it repeatedly round in circles and hurled it far into the stratosphere.  The bar has been obliterated.  It is no more.

The Wolves of Currumpaw re-tells a story from nineteenth century New Mexico where man, or more specifically white man, is pitched first against Native American and then against wolf.  Hunters pursue Lobo, the fierce and evasive leader of his pack, using poison, traps and every deceptive ounce they can muster to track and destroy him.

It is a eulogy to the wildest and most misunderstood parts of nature.  And it is also a story of redemption, as it is Ernest Seton’s story being told – the hunter who, after his deadly encounter with the wolf, is transformed, re-born; he kills no more and dedicates his life to conservation. Continue reading

Review: Questions and Answers

questionsandanswersAfter reading so much amazing fiction in the last few months, it makes a nice break to review some non-fiction.  It’s almost like a literary bank holiday – a time to refresh and wonder at the extraordinary world we are in, before returning invigorated to the made up worlds of others.

Questions and Answers by Catherine Chambers and Chris Oxlade (why do the writers of non-fiction not have their names on the cover?) fits the bill nicely.   At nearly 400 pages long, there’s a chunkiness to the book and the range of content guarantees longevity. The subjects have been chosen wisely with sections on Space, Weather, Pirates, Inventions and lots of history, including Ancient Egypt, Rome and the Vikings.

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Review: Dave Pigeon

davepigeonThere are few sounds more life-enhancing than the uncontrollable chuckle of a small child; the one that emerges from deep in the belly, the one that lacks any self-conciousness, as if their whole being has been consumed by a giggle.

These days, I’m sad to say, I rarely induce such an effect on my daughter.  In fact it’s quite the reverse.  Already, aged six – six! – she has adopted the teenage eye-roll.  My finest joke, my most carefully constructed witticism is met not with laughter, but with a look. A look and a drawn-out ‘Daaaad, you’re not funny’ (once she added ‘anymore’ to the end of this sentence. Oh, the agonies of parenthood).

Thankfully, our house is not completely bereft of laughter.  Not since Dave Pigeon landed on our doorstep.  This is a charmingly daft tale, guaranteed – even in early onset teenage six-year-olds – to induce those uncontrollable, carefree giggles.  It follows the eponymous Dave who, alongside his friend Skipper, seeks to oust a nasty cat so they can have unfettered access to the house and, more importantly, the biscuits.

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Review: Giraffe on a Bicycle

giraffeOne of the challenges of writing a blog about children’s books is to avoid overuse of words like ‘charming’ and ‘delightful’, particularly when you read a book like Giraffe on a Bicyle which is exactly those things – it is charming and it is delightful. No other words will do.

Julia Woolf’s debut picture book starts off with a monkey finding a bicycle (the not-to-be-skipped wordless endpapers tell you how this came to be – a clever little touch).  Giraffe then pedals off through the jungle, gathering monkeys, tigers, flamingos and snakes on the bike.  They hurtle along in their increasingly precarious journey, until…crash!  The bike is in ruins – can the jungle buddies put it back together?

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Review: Questions and Answers about Space

spaceusborne.jpgQuestions and Answers about Space breaks new ground for this blog – it’s my first review of a non-fiction book. All credit must go to @andyseedauthor for pushing the non-fiction cause – he twisted an arm or two to get information books sent out to book bloggers, mine included.

This is a good a place to start as any – the ‘Question and Answer’ series is top quality and deserving of a prominent place in book corners and school libraries.  I wasn’t easily won over – ‘lift-the-flap’ books normally get quite short shrift from me.  They are usually the first books to perish; the flaps don’t just get lifted – even in the hands of book-loving children, they are soon pulled, twisted, bent and broken.

But the Usborne books are made of sturdier stuff. The cover is as chunky as a hard cover can be, and the pages are thick, almost board-like.  Each page has almost a dozen fact boxes, hidden beneath solid folds of card.  Hard to break, made to be handled and to be read again and again. Continue reading

Review: Von Doogan and the Great Air Race

Von-Doogan-2-3D-coverAfter staring for some considerable time and with ever-increasing bafflement at Von Doogan’s Puzzle Number 1 – Impossibility Level 2 out of a maximum of 5 – I was left with two thoughts.  The first of which was: how on earth can a ten-year-old brain grapple with such complexity?  And, the second was: wow, my ten-year-old brain would have loved this, absolutely loved it!

My theory of cognitive development, up to this point, has been based on the premise that, put simply, you know more stuff when you’re older. Of course, there is a certain point where mental capacity tips into decline but, all being well, there is a broadly upward trajectory from conception, through the embryonic stage, past adolescence and then on at least until early middle age, or at least until parenthood and the moment where sleep deprivation induces massive mental regression (I lost my wallet for a week after leaving it in the salad drawer of the fridge).

This theory, however, is thrown into chaos by Von Doogan and the Great Air Race.  If this is the kind of thing that ten year olds do for fun then I’m badly wrong. They – the pre-adolescent puzzlers – are the intellectual giants of the modern age, and it is upon their shoulders that we should clamber. Continue reading

Review: Super Stan

super stanLike Jack and super hero Stan, the brothers in this excellent debut picture book from Matt Robertson, my brother and I had a somewhat strained relationship.  It’s hard to say who was the super hero in my house – neither of us could fly, and I don’t recall slipping into a lycra all-in-one (although it was a while ago, admittedly).  But the truth is that we never quite clicked, not in the way brothers should.  Things may have been different if we’d had Super Stan to read.

In the book, Stan steals every moment and saves the day; poor Jack is fed up with always being second, always overlooked in favour of his cape-wearing sibling. Eventually, when Jack is pushed to his limits, the relationship is redeemed when Stan realises he needs Jack after all.

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