10 – 14 Middle/Secondary Brilliant HHH
Roddy Doyle, Macmillan, 256pp, 978 1 4472 4880 4, £10.99 hbk
Adult depression remains hard to comprehend for the many who continue to feel that whoever is suffering from this complaint should simply snap out of it and get on with life. The natural narcissism of the young in particular can make it additionally hard for them to realise that their very presence may still not be enough for the adults in their lives going through a really bad time. So Roddy Doyle is to be applauded for bringing this topic into the centre of a story where many recently unemployed parents and relatives are shown as suffering from serious depression in the wake of the recent Irish recession. But this is more a fable than a story, with the national state of misery hanging over Dublin represented as a hideous cloud-shaped black dog seeping into people’s houses and spreading despair.
Some children finally decide to take this monster on, aided by talking animals and a friendly junior vampire. But their chief weapon, whereby they cause the dog to diminish every time they shout out the word ‘Brilliant,’ soon becomes sadly repetitive. A prolonged midnight chase though Dublin which finally destroys the dog altogether also goes on far too long. There are still some choice moments, but while Doyle’s message cannot be faulted the means of delivery he uses are too facile to inspire belief or even by the end very much interest. Starting out as a short story written for the St Patrick’s Festival in 2011, Brilliant never quite manages to turn into a viable novel, let along one as accomplished as this writer’s other stories.
NT Cuckoo Song HHHHH
Frances Hardinge, Macmillan, 416pp, 9780330519731, £7.99 pbk
Triss wakes up confused. She cannot remember her immediate past and even her other memories are patchy. One thing is clear, her younger sister Pen hates her and is trying to destroy her. Why? As Triss struggles to work out what is going on, she discovers that she really is not whom she thought ; that a battle is being waged around her unseen by the adults, a war that will result in tragedy unless she can do something. She must find the Underbelly of the town - and herself.
Hardinge’s recent titles have been set in an imagined world. Here we are back in England of the ‘30’s. However, as with Verdigris Deep, the world of faerie is never far away, coexisting uncomfortably with the real. This can be difficult to manage, but Hardinge creates a completely believable scenario. Her ‘faeries’ are not gauzy winged, dewy-eyed creations, they are the strange, beleaguered beings of folk memory trying to exist in a world of unbelief. There is nothing cosy about them. Their existence reflects the situation within Triss’s family where nascent adolescence and sibling rivalry clash against a backdrop of sterile domesticity. The characters of the sisters are vivid and immediately recognisable, their relationship to each other and those around them very
believable. The setting, a world itself in transition after the Great War, both mirrors and emphasises the changes Triss faces, adding depth to the whole. As with all the novels by this author, stamina is required, but the narrative is more coherent and less sprawling than recent titles making it much more satisfying. This is an absorbing, exciting novel that successfully marries the fantastic with real-life. Excellent. FH
The Blood List HHHH
Sarah Naughton, Simon and Schuster, 304pp, 978 0 85707 866 7, £7.99 pbk.
The year is 1646 and 16 year-old Barnaby, still oddly referred to as a child at a time when childhood ended much earlier, is up against Abel, his villainous half-brother who now works for the infamous Witch-Finder General, Matthew Hopkins. Melodrama beckons, but the writing here is good enough to make up for the occasional stereotype or over-familiar plot device. Instead, eschewing cod 17th century language characters talk to each other with the easy familiarity of today. ‘Oh I don’t know’, Barnaby’s mother opines at one stage, ‘I just wonder whether Abel’s interest in the Bible is becoming rather unhealthy…It is so harsh. So simplistic.’ But other parallels with modern day life come over as less cosy. Accused of being a witch, Barnaby is interrogated with all the pitiless intensity of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques currently favoured by the CIA. Conditions in the Norfolk jail where he is being kept are stomach-turningly revolting, and life outside for those who are poor and weak remains unremittingly grim. Starting out as a pleasant but thoughtless rich kid, Barnaby has to make a traumatic journey towards discovering the truth about others as well as himself. But fortunately there is always Naomi to turn to, his maid and also his somewhat severe conscience. By the end of this compulsively readable novel, they are both shown to have richly deserved the love that grows between them whatever the hardships they still have to face. Britain has a wealth of good historical fiction aimed at the young and this novel represents an excellent addition to a proud heritage.
Love, Lies and Lemon Pies HHHH
Katy Cannon, Stripes Publishing, 336pp, 978-1847154897, £6.99 pbk
What is it with cake these days? We all seem to be in love with the stuff, whether it’s the millions watching Bake Off, or the rise of the cup cake as object of desire. In this new series, Katy Cannon uses cake baking as a motif for a sweet story about teen life – love, lies, self-discovery and all.
A group of mostly misfits join the school’s new Bake Club. There’s the Goth, the shy one, the poor little rich girl, the bad boy and our hero, Lottie, forced to join the club to keep her teacher and therapist off her back. Lottie’s father died last year and they’re worried about her. They’re right to be: not only has Lottie lost her dad, but her mum has fallen into depression and is slowly filling their house with charity shop junk and rubbish, other people’s discarded treasures her only
28 Books for Keeps No.206 May 2014
source of comfort. Baking is Lottie’s therapy. She loves the order, lining up and measuring out the ingredients – her cakes can be perfect if her life isn’t. But as term goes on, and their baking skills improve, the Bake Club members all find comfort in their shared activity, and new friendships are formed, secrets and worries shared. As plotlines go, this is a familiar recipe, but Cannon has a light touch and the result is delicious. The friendships feel real, the situations authentic.Teen girls will devour this, and come back for more. Another bonus, there are recipes at the beginning of each chapter: you’ve read the book, now eat the cakes.
LS Mars Evacuees HHH
Sophia McDougall, Egmont, 336pp, 978-1405268677, £6.99, paperback
Following a pact with the Morrors, a species from Mars, humanity agrees they can inhabit the Polar regions under an assurance that they will reverse global warming. The agreement is more than fulfilled, however, as the earth enters an ice-age. This is the world that protagonist Alice Dare inhabits. Alice is the daughter to a famous war hero mother and so is at risk of attack by the Morrors. For this reason she is chosen as one of a group of children - selected variously for their intellect, their lineage or by chance - to colonise Mars, which remains in the process of being terra-formed.
The narrative is wry in its wit and social observation, however the book does feel a little disjointed at times, flitting between sci-fi, boarding school drama and colonialism. Fascinating subjects are seeded throughout – the impact of migration upon self and development and the global political backdrop surrounding who is chosen to be evacuated. In this first novel, the reader is tantalisingly never provided with a rationale for why the alien settlers become aggressors, which feels a frustrating oversight given the key role this plays within the narrative. Sassy and thought-provoking, Mars Evacuees is, for the most part, a solid start for a series to look out for.
JH Mutant City HHHH
Steve Feasey, Bloomsbry, 368pp, 9781408843031. £6.99 pbk
I approached this book with caution, I am not a fan of Marvel Comics and fantastic heroes, but how wrong I was. Mutant City is set in a future world where man has wrecked the earth and some have lived under ground for generations and others lived on the surface. Finally those below return to Scorched Earth and separate the world into Mutants and Pure city dwellers.
Into this mix comes Melk a scientist who is a genetic engineer: people can now buy perfection. But his experiments go too far and the book opens as five children are rescued for ‘The Farm’. These are Melk’s experiments and each has a special power. Thirteen years later the children are all called back together again, even though they are un aware of each other’s existence.
This book is the story of how they come together, learn about their powers and
begin to understand their mission. It ends with Melk revealing how mad a scientist he is and the five facing a new a maybe invincible enemy. A cracking book filled with adventure, action and thought provoking themes. It is a total page turner and I can’t wait for the next one.
CD The Glass Bird Girl HHHH
Esme Kerr, Chicken House, 288pp, 978-1908435996, £6.99 pbk
Poor Edie King – her parents are both dead and when her tough but fair granny Babka is no longer able to look after her she is sent to live with her truly horrible cousins. The book opens with a description of one of the nastiest pieces of bullying you’re ever likely to read, the unjustness of it all will set young readers quivering.
Edie’s life takes a sudden change for the if not better then different, when her uncle Charles arrives with a strange but tempting proposition. The daughter of a friend of his is at boarding school nearby, and being bullied. This friend has asked Charles to find a child – ‘an urchin’ in his words – they can plant in the school to be a playmate and protector for his daughter. There’s definitely something of the James Bond about Uncle Charles, and maybe Edie too. She accepts the assignment and is soon settling into Knight’s Haddon school and making friends with Anastasia, the girl she’s been appointed to watch. Anastasia is the daughter of a wealthy Russian prince, and the bullying is insidious and sinister, someone seems to be trying to send her mad. As Edie sets about finding out what is going on, she uncovers all sorts of secrets about her own family too.
There’s nothing like a good boarding school story, and this is a great example of the genre. From the descriptions of the building and the dorms (of course), to the portraits of the girls and their friendships, it really hits the spot. Edie is a great heroine, all stiff upper lip and inner turmoil, and headmistress Miss Fotheringay, ‘Fothy’, the woman we’d all like to be, surely! The mystery story provides moments of real suspense and it all builds to a properly satisfying climax. This will be a favourite with readers, and there are more stories to come. LS
MaryHoffman, Bloomsbury, 288pp, 978140827628, £6.99 pbk
With the centenary of World War I it is inevitable that there will be a slew of books set in the period. Poppy is our heroine, clever enough to go to college but poor enough not to afford to, she is a parlour maid at a big house in Hertfordshire. When war breaks out she has the opportunity to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), and ends up in a hospital in Southampton.
Reading through this book you pick out so much that could be discussion point; the role of women, class, jingoism, changes in medicine. It is a boon to teachers and reading groups, and I worried that packed with so many issues the storyline could become clunky. I forgot that it was by Mary Hooper. What we have is a very
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