Troublemakers : Catherine Barter

TroublemakersTroublemakers by Catherine Barter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s taken me a while to figure out how to write this review. I loved Troublemakers but I didn’t know how to write about it. It’s a curious thing, sort of not quite what I expected it to be and somehow more than that. It’s a big book. It’s thick and edible and layered with a thousand different notes, and all of them hook into you and don’t let you go. I loved it. I don’t know how to write about it, so maybe I’ll try and give you something different than my normal reviews.

But let’s begin with the blurb. Alena lives with her half-brother, Danny, and his boyfriend, in the east end of London. She has never known her mother who died when she was a baby. Danny and Nick are her family. Danny, though, has taken a job with a local politician who’s aiming to be London Mayor; somebody is terrorising the local area by leaving bombs in supermarkets, and Alena’s suddenly desperate to know more about her past. Her family.

This is a coming of age story, and it’s a yell into the world, that moment when you walk to the edge of the beach, dip your toes in the sea and yell out into the blue beyond that you are here that you matter that you exist. Troublemakers is an affirmation; a defiance, but it’s also somehow more than that. It’s like Sunday Lunch with the people you love, those lunches where you know everything almost a moment before it happens because you know these people. It’s about family, forgiveness, foolishness, love. The shape of people. The mistakes of people. The love. The cup of tea, the feet up on the sofa, the recognition of what makes you you. It’s a little bit Jenny Downham, a little bit Annabel Pitcher, but it’s very much itself. It’s feelings, and fear and friendships. Coffee. Hope. Hate. Joy.

I still don’t know how to write about this book, but oh I know how to write about what it made me feel.

My thanks to Andersen for a review copy.

View all my reviews

Advertisements

Pigeon P.I : Meg McLaren

Pigeon P.I.Pigeon P.I. by Meg McLaren

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When it comes to picture books, I always, always have to talk about the complexity of them. They are hard beasts to get right, they are even harder beasts to do well. Pigeon P.I is something quite oddly wonderful, a sort of mashup of gumshoe detective drama with a lot of bird puns and something quite delightful in the process. Forgive me for simply reciting the blurb in whole but I think it does the business better than anything I can

CASE No. 621 – Feathered friends are going missing all over town, but private investigator Murray likes the quiet life … until a little bird tells him a story the famous Pigeon P.I cannot ignore.

There’s such a lot to enjoy in this book from the wry beginning of “Business was slow / just the way I liked it” through to the exuberant flurry of detail that dots nearly every page and in substantial amounts. Some of the more specific puns may require explaining (“Privet Eye – Gardening Solutions”) but it’s a delight to pick them out and this is a book that will sing with repeated reading (“Two beaks are better than one”). As Murray starts to work his way through the case, he comes into contact with a range of individuals – plucky canaries, furtive pigeons, and the reveal of the eventual kingpin is a delight. It’s a soaring, intense, bold double spread and one that stamps the book with such a moment that you can’t help but stop and drink it in.

I’d definitely place this a little towards the older edge of picture books, somewhere around Elys Dolan and Sarah Bee because of the dense detail and puns. It’s such a smart and witty book, and it’s one that gives different endpapers! Endpapers are so important! The reader gets a guide to investigation at the start of the book – take quiet snacks, and not ‘quiet but impractical’ snacks such as jelly; whilst the end of the book has tips on advanced detection featuring Duck Tracy and Sherstork Holmes. A delight. A bold, mad, glorious delight.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

View all my reviews

Evie’s Ghost : Helen Peters

Evie's GhostEvie’s Ghost by Helen Peters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a story to tell you about this. I was chatting with one of my lovely librarian colleagues about the books I was going to review and mentioned ‘Evie’s Ghost’. It turned out that her daughter had adored Peters’ The Secret Hen House Theatre and had gone so far as to buy a copy of it for a friend for her birthday. Now that says a lot for me. I love children’s books, but I’m not a child. A recommendation from those ‘on the ground’, as it were, is an important and wonderful thing. I value them. Immensely. And so when I came to read Evie’s Ghost I was so pleased to see that Peters was worth it. This book, a sort of Tom’s Midnight Garden meets Charlotte Sometimes, is charming. Intensely.

Evie has been sent off to stay with her godmother whilst her mother has gone off on honeymoon with her new husband. Bearing in mind that Evie doesn’t know her godmother, at all, it’s all a bit awkward. However, the first night in the spare room changes everything. Evie goes to bed in the present-day and wakes up in 1814. She’s a housemaid, forced to scrub and clean and do thousand tasks whilst being painfully encouraged with the odd clip around the ear. But she’s gone back in time for a reason. Something awful is about to happen in this house and it’s up to Evie to solve it…

One of the great things about Peters’ writing is that she manages to juxtapose the everyday with the fantastical. You believe Evie’s journey between times, and you recognise her reaction. The sensibilities of a modern child, with running water and amenities, is neatly juxtaposed against the historical context of 1814 where quite a few things are different. There’s a lot of history and period terminology looped in this, and it’s handled really well. It’s a charming, pacy, rich adventure story. I rave a lot about the books that Nosy Crow produces but they have an eye for story. That transferable, rich, layered sense of story. Evie’s Ghost is such a solid and rich story. I read a lot for this age, and I’m always intrigued by those stories that catch me by surprise. This did, and I loved it. I also really welcomed how Peters … (view spoiler)

I love how I’m coming across some smart and genuine time-slip stories at the moment. Maybe this is the next thing? If they’re all as good and as well told as this, then I’ll be very happy.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy. Evie’s Ghost is out at the start of April.

View all my reviews

The Jamie Drake Equation : Christopher Edge

The Jamie Drake EquationThe Jamie Drake Equation by Christopher Edge

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love about The Jamie Drake Equation. It’s not only a book that twists something quite classic and contemporary together, delivering a science fiction story driven by smartphones and astronaut dads, but it also sensitively and truthfully deals with what it’s like to be the family that’s left behind. How would it feel to see your Dad in space? And, more to the point, how does it feel and what can you do when something goes wrong?

The Jamie Drake Equation is presented beautifully. It is a good looking book, and it looks exciting. The lettering and the stars all hang suspended in the sky, and they shine. There’s something here instantly for those who are interested in space; everything about this book’s front cover is telling you to look upwards and towards the sky and the stars. The title is a constellation itself, the letters drawn between star points and oh, it’s clever and smart stuff.

Edge writes with an engaging and delightful competence. The Jamie Drake Equation is a spectacularly accessible read which, somehow, manages to juxtapose Fibonacci sequences with aliens with the realisation that whatever shape your family may take, it is still your family. I loved this. It’s so kind, and so well-structured, and just a great, fiercely satisfying read. Edge has it with these stories, he really does.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

View all my reviews

Fish Boy : Chloe Daykin

Fish BoyFish Boy by Chloe Daykin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love about this determined novel from Daykin. Fish Boy, her first book for middle grade readers, sings of something very peculiar and very distinct. Billy Shiel is a boy with a lot on his mind. Some of that centres on his mother’s mysterious illness, some of that centres on his troubles at school where he’s not really managing to cope and so he swims in the sea and listens to David Attenborough and somehow, manages to keep going. Just. But then everything changes when a new boy starts at school and a mackerel swims up to Billy and starts to talk to him…

It’s a delightful book to sum up because it is so resolutely what it is. The episodes between Billy and the mackerel sing of something so resolutely other and unknown that there’s a temptation to tie it off with a precise explanation. This, I’m pleased to note, is something Daykin resists and I applaud that. The world has space for mystery and for doubt and this book sings of that edge in between knowing and unknowing. Fact. Fiction. Sometimes it’s very hard to parse the world when you’re under a lot of pressure. It’s even harder to do that when you’re dealing with unknown and unnamed illnesses, as Billy and his family are.

I like this. I like Daykin’s fragmentary and determinedly restrained prose. It’s shard-like at points; jagged, bare-boned paragraphs that consist of maybe one word or two and even then, you’re not sure you wholly know who’s speaking or where the language is coming from. Magic. Mystery. Mackerels. Even writing that makes me smile. Give Fish Boy to those readers who love David Almond but also Micheal Morpurgo where he’s at his more magical. There’s something rather beautiful about this stubborn, pointed, eccentric and utterly vivid novel. I really hope it swims.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

View all my reviews

Dragon’s Green : Scarlett Thomas

Dragon's GreenDragon’s Green by Scarlett Thomas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dragon’s Green is a really intriguing book and one that I sort of thought I wouldn’t like and then really rather did. It reaches in a thousand different directions, some more successfully than others, and when it hits, it’s utterly wonderful.

So, a plot precis: Euphemia Truelove, pupil of a school for the Gifted And Strange, is set to inherit a very unusual library from her very unusual grandfather. And alongside that inheritence come problems of a very deep and dark nature that can only be solved with some friends, some magical boons, and a lot of bravery. It’s the first novel of a series and, perhaps even more praise-worthily, manages to deliver a self-contained story that doesn’t have one of those hideous ‘tune in next time’ cliff-hangers.

There’s a place for this sort of novel within children’s and young adult literature and I’m pleased that Thomas is filling it. I get asked quite a lot about books to read after Harry Potter and despite a lot of effort (again, some better than others), there’s never really been anything to fill that gap. Dragon’s Green inhabits that ‘next’ space really nicely and in doing so, delivers something that speaks to both Harry Potter but also to Diana Wynne Jones and Eva Ibbotson. And they’re not authors to invoke lightly, but Dragon’s Green, when it connects and when it hits its moments full on, invokes those connections and does it with spades.

I like this. I like the complexity of it, and I like how straightfoward Thomas is in delivering it and I love how much she trusts her characters to do the things that they need to do. It’s not a perfect novel. There’s a saggy middle which loses its way somewhat, and there’s a few moments which needed a bit of rereading in order to fully understand. But, even having said that (and it is something that definitely needs to be acknowledged) I didn’t stop reading this wonderfully distinct and convincing novel. I didn’t want to stop reading it at all. There’s the kernels of something very good here.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

View all my reviews

Inside, Outside, Upside, Down : Yasmeen Ismail

Inside, Outside, Upside DownInside, Outside, Upside Down by Yasmeen Ismail

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to like about this charming sequence of activity books from Ismail and I think a lot of centres on the value of an unfinished line. Take a look, next time you’re somewhere bookish, at a similar book, maybe one of those colouring in things that are everywhere. Take a look at how they construct an image. I’ll guess that it’s definite, solid, unbroken line. The sort of line you colour firmly within the boundaries of. Those lines are great and gorgeous and serve an incredibly relevant function in that context but Ismail’s lines are different. They have space in them; air, and don’t quite touch at the end, or run over a line, or leave a little gap before bouncing out into the whiteness of the page beyond. And that’s important in a book like this, aimed at those who have a little bit of dexterity in drawing, a little bit of ability to colour (4yrs+), because it allows mistakes. It allows ownership. It allows and it facilitates drawing to fall out of the gaps and spill across and over things. It’s a simple thing, but it’s smartly done and it recurs in the other book in the series I had a look at: Push, Pull, Empty, Full. Ismail gets line. She gets the freedom of it and what it can tell a reader, even when they don’t know that it’s talking to it.

Content wise, Inside, Outside, Upside Down is a joy. Three characters, Duck, Bear and Rabbit, explore a range of situations involving paired words and opposites over a series of double page spreads. In one example, Bear holds his bag right side up and the reader is asked to colour Bear’s bag. The pairing image, on the right hand side of the page, sees Bear’s bag upside down and the reader asked to ‘draw what’s falling out’. There are some quite complex thought processes here which is why it reaches a little bit towards the older age of the demographic. But oh, Ismail’s use of line and the slightly offbeat questions and challenges towards the reader are so very definitely worth it. What a smart and kind book this is.

I am grateful to the publisher for a review copy of this title.

View all my reviews