reviews 10 – 14 Middle/Secondary Street of Tall People HHH
Alan Gibbons, Five Leaves Publications, 120pp, 978 1 9078 6923 5, £4.99 pbk
This story is set in the East End of London in 1936. Jimmy lives in a flat with his widowed mother and Benny lives nearby with his Orthodox Jewish family. Jimmy and Benny both train at the same boxing gym. Their relationship does not have a promising start as Benny beats Jimmy in a fight which leaves Jimmy feeling desperate. He has problems at home where his mother seems to be starting a relationship with the rent collector, Mr. Searle, an unpleasant bully of a man whom Jimmy dislikes and distrusts.
Benny and Jimmy gradually become friends just as the fascist threat of Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts is increasing. Jimmy finds out that Mr. Searle is a Blackshirt and knows that he cannot tell his mother about his friendship with Benny, or tell Benny about his mother’s boyfriend. Ultimately Jimmy and Benny are reunited in their joint battle against the fascists, which is based on the action actually taken by thousands of East Enders at the Battle of Cable Street when local people built and defended barricades to stop Mosley and his fascists from marching through the East End. Gibbons has written a gripping depiction of this time when the people trying to turn ethnic groups against each other failed; their struggle has parallels with issues today. The book would be a valuable resource for any school library but is also a good read in its own right.
The Kalevala: tales of magic and adventure
retold by Kirsti Mäkinen, ill. Pirkko-Liisa Surojegin, trans. Kaarina Brooks, Simply Read Books, 214pp, 978 1 8974 7600 0, £17.99 hbk
The Kalevala is the national epic of Finland, based on oral traditions collected in the 19th century from remote areas of Karelia by the patriotic philologist Elias Lonnrot. The long poem opens with the emergence of the world from oceanic chaos, in which Ilamatar the celestial virgin is impregnated by the sea-wind, and after seven centuries gives bir th to Vaiainamoinen, the shaman-hero. Thereafter, the stories evolve in recursive cycles involving struggles between Kalevala, the ancient land of the Finns, and Pohjohla the chill, enchanted Nor thland. These often concern the forging and ownership of Sampo, a supernatural mill that can grind out flour, salt and gold, but to generalise thus is to belie the complexity of a saga involving tides of creation, destruction and rebirth.
The Kalevala has been influential. Sibelius lovers will be familiar with the
Cathy MacPhail, Bloomsbury, 224pp, 978 0 7475 9909 8, £5.99 pbk
‘I saw my teacher in the queue at the supermarket last Christmas. Miss Baxter. I was surprised to see her. She’d been dead for six months.’ The opening sentences of Cathy MacPhail’s novel are calculated to seize the reader’s imagination - an important requirement for any opening, of course, but particularly so in a narrative in which the imagination and its workings lie at its very heart. Its young teenage heroine, Tyler, has, we learn early, a desire to become a writer and it would seem that with her apparent gift of seeing the dead return to life there should be plenty of material for her fictions. But what, precisely, is the nature of that gift? Does she have genuinely psychic powers? Is she merely the victim of her friends’ leg-pulling and manipulations? As she settles in at a new school she becomes embroiled in some of the spookier aspects of its past history, involving some of its staff and, centrally, one particular ex-pupil, allegedly murdered
strange and sorrowful passions of Kullervo and Lemminkainen, with the eerie bleakness of Tapiola’s forests, and of Tuonela, the Land of Death. Those familiar with the Song of Hiawatha will recognise the throbbing rhythms which Longfellow borrowed from the epic. Readers of fantasy will recall themes adopted by Tolkien and Moorcock. However, this is one of the few editions presenting a selection of the stories in English for younger readers. It is a beautifully produced large format hardback, strongly made and magnificently illustrated. Natural motifs are depicted in intricate black and white line drawings, while the big events occupy dramatic panoramic spreads in which the hues of northern forests and waters are haunted by fire, gold and the glowing bodies of mythical animals. On other pages, close-up or soft-focus depictions of natural scenes and sur faces resemble abstract canvases. The text, granted ample white space amongst all of this variegation, consists mainly of prose, but with frequent extracts of runic verse in drum-like troachaic tetrameters.
The book might be a bit much for some people. The stories, involving seething relationships between people, spirits, animals, plants, minerals and landscapes, are complex, and sometimes lack the neatness of structure and closure that younger readers might have come to expect from more domesticated fiction. Never theless, this is a wonder ful achievement as both a literary and a physical object. If, as the Iraqi proverb asserts, a book is a garden you can carry in your pocket, this edition of the Kalevala is an entire mythic wilderness you can carry in a satchel to share with your friends.
GH Out of the Depths HHH
some years previously. ‘There were mysteries here,’ she comments at one point and solving them becomes her main pursuit as she traverses the chilly and atmospheric corridors of St Anthony’s College and penetrates its darker corners. In essence, it is a ghost story but one told with enough sense of pace and style to bring some freshness to the genre.
RD Dark Warning HHHHH
Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, Orion Children’s Books, 256pp, 978 1 4440 0191 4, £14.99 hbk
This enchanting novel, set in the Stoneybatter area of Dublin around the late 18th/early 19th centuries, is a first-person narrative by Taney Tyrell, a 13-year-old girl with the gift of second sight. Taney lodges with her family in an attic room overlooking Smithfield Market, in a world smelling of ‘boiled cabbage and sweat’. Her ability to foresee events and metaphorically to float above events that she witnesses, mark her out as ‘different’, as does her distinctive red hair. When these gifts become known, she’s accused of being a witch, but generally it’s a friendly community, marred only by a number of violent robberies, one of which ends in murder. Taney’s ability enables her to see the incidents from a distance, and she is left wondering if the culprit is somebody she knows.
The author creates a city of the imagination which is, never theless, rooted in the realities of Dublin’s historical geography. There are vivid, impressionistic descriptions of the livestock market and horse fair at Smithfield, and a par ticularly hallucinatory evocation of the Halloween bonfire in the square. Equally, we learn about social distinctions in this society, as Taney and her stepmother go ‘charring’ for a family from ‘the Quality’ – a family which seeks, in quite a genteel way, to further its own social standing through Taney’s gifts. ‘If a girl doesn’t marry and has no fortune of her own she must depend completely on the kindness of her family’, Taney is told by a fellow-lodger who is descended from gentility. Meanwhile, Taney’s ‘Da’ loses his job and has to pick over the rubbish-tip in order to provide for his family. Ultimately, we witness an example from the Irish diaspora, as Taney leaves Dublin for Bristol, driven out by her difference rather than by poverty. But, as we are reminded at the end, ‘it’s all right to be different’.
This is an engaging and engrossing story which is given a lilting momentum by the dialect used in both narrative and dialogue. It presents characters who are sympathetic and finely drawn, particularly in the description of Taney’s relationship with Billy, a charming beggar who was born without legs and who propels himself around in a bowl-on-wheels.
RT Oliver Twisted HHHH
J D Sharpe (& Charles Dickens), Electric Monkey, 288pp, 978 1 4052 5817 3, £6.99 pbk
Towards the end of J D Sharpe’s novel, its hero remarks to his friend Dodge, ‘My name is Oliver Twisted and I am more than a boy. I am a warlock and a Knight.’ The story of how he has made this move from mere boyhood is enter tainingly told, author’s tongue firmly in author’s cheek, with just enough echoes (direct and indirect) of the original novel by Charles Dickens (and well timed to coincide with the bicentenary celebrations of the latter’s bir th). From the moment of his workhouse birth, it is clear that while young Twisted has the potential to become the force which will ‘end the darkness that had sunk deep into the heart of the kingdom’ he also has the potential ‘ to become the greatest evil ever known’. Sharpe skilfully moves her narrative between these dualities, principally through the device of having Oliver participate in the ongoing battle waged by the Brotherhood of Fenris (Evil) on the monster-slaying Knights of Nostradamus (Good). It is fought in a London which, far from being a place of wonder and opportunity as Oliver had hoped, is a crowded landscape of ‘vampyres, ghosts, goblins, pixies, demons, witches, warlocks...’ Amidst this heady mixture some of the now transformed Dickensian characters divertingly come and go: watch out especially for Mr Brownlow, Nancy and a decidedly lupine Bullseye. It is all very inventive, occasionally very gruesome and, beyond argument, a most welcome variant on the over-bitten theme of adolescent vampire fiction. RD
15 Days Without a Head HHHHH
Dave Cousins, Oxford University Press, 288pp, 978 0 1927 3256 9, £6.99 pbk
Life is difficult for fifteen-year-old Laurence Roach who lives with his alcoholic mother and his six-year-old brother Jay, who is obsessed with Scooby Doo. Things go from bad to worse when their mother doesn’t come home one day after work and Laurence is left to cope on his own while trying to keep her absence a secret from nosy neighbours, his school and his friends. He knows that if he and his brother are taken into care they may be separated. While the two boys are in a dire situation, there is a warm relationship between them. Laurence gets frustrated by his little brother but also loves him enough to do his best to look after him; Jay is terribly vulnerable but the one stable thing in his life is Laurence.
Humour and pathos in the story comes from the nightly trips to a phone box that Laurence makes as he progresses through a radio phone-in competition. In
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