Talent Wood Angel
Erin Bow, Chicken House, 288pp, 978 1 906427 60 3, £6.99 pbk
Morris Gleitzman, Viking, 192pp, 978 0 670 07390 0, £6.99 pbk
Taking on a cult religion, where all the old bigots are in charge and their grandchildren talk to each other using copious Biblical references, is an easy target. Even so, Morris Gleitzman does it pretty well in this story about how Grace, a pre-teenage girl, and her outspoken Dad, fall foul of their fundamental Christian community. When Dad is forcibly separated from his family, with Mum dithering between loyalty to her horrible father and love of her brave spouse, prospects look bleak until something very like a fairy tale ending comes along to put everything right. But by now a note of sentimentality has crept in, always a slight risk with this otherwise fine writer, with Grace’s habitual state of ingenuousness also starting to grate. But there is plenty of sly wit too, and any novel taking a pop at modern day religious intolerance has to be welcomed.
Control Freak: Diary of a care leaver
Henrietta Bond, British Association for Adoption & Fostering, 216pp, 978 1 907585 04 3, £8.95 pbk
Since this is a campaigning novel published by BAAF, you’d be forgiven for expecting tick-list content and issues to be the basic fare. However, it succeeds in looking in a well-rounded way at the whole situation of someone trying to leave the care system behind and live independently. It takes a realistic, considered view of all involved parties. I’ve fostered; I know.
Holly is no victim of the system. She is totally focused and single-minded about how life will be when she leaves foster care. Unfor tunately life and people cannot be as controlled as Holly would like and the dream becomes the nightmare, partly due to her own inflexibility and partly due to events that she cannot, in fact, influence and control.
Plain Kate, as Katarina is known, has one eye the colour of river mud and the other the colour of the river; she is a skilled wood carver like her guildsman father, so skilled in fact that some people think she has magic powers and are afraid of her. This is no laughing matter in a town where a woman can be burnt at the stake for witchcraft. When her father dies, Plain Kate must fend for herself at a time of wheat shortages and unrest when more townspeople turn against her in search of a scapegoat. In desperation she sells her shadow to a mysterious stranger and then throws in her lot with the Roamers.
While the world that Kate inhabits is a treacherous one where people can turn against her, she has not only her own strength and courage to see her through the myriad twists and turns of the plot, but also her companion, Taggle the cat – who has been given the ability to speak in part payment for Kate’s shadow. Taggle’s laconic take on events injects a note of humour into a powerful story that is otherwise full of grief, loss and danger.
BAAF seems to see this as a fictionalised manual but it is in fact an unputdownable account told by Holly herself, which many teenagers, fostered or not, will find entertaining and revealing. There is an adult content warning on the cover.
Gladiator: Fight for Freedom
Simon Scarrow, Puffin, 240pp, 978 0 14 133363 2, £12.99 hbk
A successful adult writer, Simon Scarrow has now turned his hand to the children’s arena with what seems to be the first of a series about a young Roman. Set at the time of the Roman Empire it tells of Marcus, son of a centurion who was at the battle when Spar tacus was captured. His father falls into debt and is killed, and Marcus and his mother are sold as slaves, despite being Roman citizens. Marcus escapes and vows to free his mother, calling in a debt of honour to his late father from General Pompeius. But Marcus is recaptured and sold on to Porcino who runs a gladiator school outside Rome. At nearly 12 he is trained as a gladiator, running foul of a fellow trainee Ferax, whom he is asked to fight to the death for the edification of some impor tant Roman guests.
This story is fast paced and very readable, and Marcus is a likeable character. The extent of the power and the mix of nationalities in the
While Bow’s narrative can be unevenly pitched at times and her plotting convoluted, her narrative voice is both rich and poetic and her sense of place convincing, whether it is the town, the Roamer encampment or the villain’s boat. The cultural reference for these locations is perhaps Russian, certainly East European. Bow is also convincing about Plain Kate as a carver, her relationship with wood and the skill and craft with which she teases out the shapes that she needs. This is a substantial and confident debut from a promising storyteller.
Roman Empire are all brought to life in this story. There are graphic accounts of battles, killings and the training of the gladiators, but without too much gore. The text assumes some familiarity with Roman life as the author throws in such sayings as ‘We who are about to die salute you!’
The scene is nicely set for a sequel as Marcus exchanges one form of slavery for another, with possibly a romance too!
My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece
Annabel Pitcher, Orion, 240pp, 978 1 4440 0183 9, £9.99 hbk
Ten-year-old Jamie, the main character in this story, has a lot to cope with. His mother has quit the home, his father is a drunk and one of his two older sisters was blown up in the 7/7 London terrorist attack. Moving away to the Lake District improves the scenery but does nothing for his daily school experience, where he is routinely bullied. But he does find one new ally in Sunya, the only Muslim pupil in the school and also the object of regular playground harassment over her determination to keep wearing the hijab that conceals her long, black hair.
Jamie’s only other reliable friend is his pet cat Roger, who eventually gets run over. But while all this sounds pretty depressing Jamie never gives up, buoyed by fantasy and his growing
friendship with Sunya, where they giggle together happily whatever the opposition. And when Jamie and his older sister triumph in a talent competition, things at last star t improving. Sunya’s parents are then racially insulted by Jamie’s father, which puts an understandable strain on their children’s friendship. But despite a dreadfully disappointing reunion with his mother, Jamie remains optimistic and loving, even managing to steal a kiss from Sunya by the last page.
This is an encouraging debut novel from a new writer. Her adult characters tend to be stereotyped, with Jamie’s middle aged teacher, where much is made of a mole on her face sprouting two hairs, particularly two dimensional. But the author writes well and compassionately about children and teenagers and should surely get even better as she continues to find her own voice while steering further away from familiar fictional set pieces. Her next novel, scheduled for 2012, should therefore be well worth waiting for.
NT Fugitives! HHH
Aubrey Flegg, O’Brien Press, 256pp, 978 1 84717 202 0, £6.99 pbk
Set in the Ireland of 1607, this is an exciting old-fashioned adventure story. Hugh O’Neill would be a big prize for the English army to arrest and take to the Tower of London, but he is sheltered by many of the Irish families, amongst whom are the de Cashels. Their son James, believes he is of Norman descent and therefore against O’Neill, but his loyalties change when Sir Ar thur Chichester fines the family and O’Neill hundreds of head of cattle. Their castle home is then attacked by Lieutenant Bonman and Hugh O’Neill has to make a hasty escape. But O’Neill’s son, Con, a wayward lad, is off on adventures of his own. Con would also make a prize wor th capturing and James and his sister, Sinead, and a kinsman of the O’Neill’s, Fion, assisted by the Haystack, a poet, set out to find Con and deliver him to the ship waiting off shore to whisk them off to France.
Books for Keeps No.187 March 2011 27
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