10 – 14 Middle/Secondary continued
there is a fire. Scarlet and Red are split up and sent into foster care. Before she goes, Scarlet finds the baby pigeon and takes it with her. She hopes to keep the baby pigeon alive for Red. Scarlet’s foster family are kind, but she misses Red, and decides that she must find him. Will Scarlet and Red be reunited, and will they ever achieve their dream of visiting the Caroni Swamp?
Previously Gill Lewis has set her stories (Sky Hawk, White Dolphin, Moon Bear) in a natural context. However, this time she has focused on an urban environment, using wild birds in the city as the backdrop for a contemporary story about a fractured family. Her writing displays great social awareness as well as great emotional intelligence. Scarlet Ibis is a very good read. It is engaging and insightful without creating an exaggerated sense of pathos. ARa
Stitch Up HHHHH
Sophie Hamilton,Templar, 266pp, 978-1-84877-423-0. £6.99 pbk.
17 year old Dasha Gold, as the name suggests, belongs to the super-rich class who have a stranglehold on a London whose fractured future we see here. Her parents’ media corporation controls politicians and police alike but, for Dasha, this wealth and influence come at a price. Her father’s renown as a plastic surgeon is about to be further enhanced as he prepares to remodel his daughter as the Gold Corporation logo, with or without her consent.
When a specially chartered train carrying Dasha and her fellow Star Academy pupils is hijacked, she seizes her chance to escape this world where image is all and truth and justice are ignored. In the company of Latif - tagger and all-round maverick - she tries to find the woman who she has discovered is her birth mother.
This is a book made for a TV adaptation. Hamilton’s ear for contemporary street patois is unerring and her ability to paint an utterly convincing picture of a divided and dangerous city compelling. Latif’s friends and contacts are vividly and idiosyncratically drawn as they help the pair on their mission. Dasha’s parents have devised a TV hunt for their daughter, with a million pound jackpot and Latif’s attempts to navigate them both through the spy-maze of innumerable CCTV cameras is fast-paced and thrilling.
Hamilton finds narrative time to explore the issues of race and equality and gives readers a timely reminder where the cultivation of image at all costs can lead.
VR Smart HHHH
Kim Slater, Macmillan Children’s Books, 240pp, 978 1 4472 5409 6, £8.99 hbk.
Kieran Woods is a boy in year 9 living in Nottingham. Does Kieran have Down’s Syndrome? It sounds as if he does but he denies it. He finds the body of a drowned man floating in the river Trent. The police believe the man was a homeless vagrant and victim of an accident: they couldn’t be less interested. Kieran is not so sure: he
thinks the man has been murdered.
If justice is to be served it looks as if a disabled boy will have to launch his own investigation into the murder independent of the police – which is exactly what Kieran does. He has two advantages over the police. Kieran is a huge fan of the TV series CSI, so he is fully familiar with all the most advanced tools of transatlantic forensic investigation. He is also skilful at drawing, his hero being the painter L.S.Lowry. When Kieran lights on a useful piece of evidence, he can make a graphic record that renders the clue unforgettable.
Kieran does not have a happy home life: he lives with his mother and her new partner Tony, together with Tony’s seventeen year old son Ryan. Tony acts violently towards Kieran’s mother. Both Tony and his son also make it obvious that they detest Kieran. Kieran soon detects that Tony and Ryan are engaged in some form of illicit activity. But can Kieran prove what that activity is? And how will his mother react if he proves Tony to be a criminal?
This book, an otherwise enjoyable read, suffers because the context of Kieran’s schooling is unconvincingly depicted. We learn that Kieran is exempted from SATS. But no reason is given. When exemptions are given, it is usually because the pupil hasn’t reached the minimum qualifying level for that year. If this applies to Kieran we are not told why. We are told that Kieran attends a mainstream school rather than a special school. But all we learn of his education is in the hands of Miss Crane, a teaching assistant. Kieran seems to have no contact with qualified teachers. He also attends social skill classes, suggesting he is in a special school or a specialist unit in a mainstream school. It is all very confusing.
The reader (and for that matter the author) must forgive this reviewer for placing such emphasis on the school background. The rapidly changing educational environment for children with special needs has been an important thread in the social context in which such children live their lives. It could quite easily have been accurately depicted.
RB Bookside Down HHHHH
Joanne Limburg, Salt, 80 pp, 978 1 907773 52 5, £6.99 pbk
These poems have an enticing intimacy. Often funny, almost never sad, they are mainly celebratory of life even in the down moments, and always celebratory of language. It’s mostly the familiar domestic round of family, friends and school, portrayed, it seems, despite the range of style and subject matter, by a singularly consistent sensibility. Here are everyday joys and frustrations, but also some flights of fancy which take off from there into absurd, and sometimes faintly disturbing, speculation. The title poem imagines the way a favourite book might take a turn for the worse if read upside down. Another projects the sinister development of a collectable series of unspecified toy creatures. One of my favourites offers a series of unlikely but recognisable reasons why the dinosaurs might have died out, including ‘because the mammals came along and wouldn’t share’ and
30 Books for Keeps No.206 May 2014
‘because they ran out of crisps’. Another imagines humans as aliens might see them, concluding: ‘Such are the humans then: horrible, pitiful,/ tail-less absurdities,/ ruthless mistakes,/ that gibber in daylight and whimper at night time,/ lost as last Wednesday, and sadder than soup’. I could go on quoting, there is so much to enjoy, particularly when The Potatoes My Dad Cooks get the Song of Solomon treatment: ‘when they sit steaming in their dish,/their crispy coatings delight my eyes’. Many poems for children hit you over the head or shout in your face, these, whatever their theme, are unfailingly elegant, even if, when confronted by the awesome sight of a 14 metre totem pole in a museum, the most interesting aspect to our childlike poet is the line of sight to ‘the eagle’s bum’.
CB Ash Road HHHH
Ivan Southall, with an introduction by Maurice Saxby, Text Classics, 320pp, 978 1922147493, £8.99 pbk
A land of dry fear permeates this classic novel written by Carnegie award-winner Ivan Southall. Ash Road transports you to a landscape of disaster where the foolhardy actions of three young boys devastate an entire area in an epic bushfire. Southall’s writing evokes the scene to such detail that you can hear the roar of the fire in a way that television or news reporting would never enable.
In some ways, the sheer magnitude of the disaster outshines the characters themselves or perhaps it’s the reader’s frustration with their inability to take action in the face of catastrophe. The exception to this is Grandpa
level-headedness and self-sacrifice protects his youngest wards Julie and baby Robertson whilst the rest of the inhabitants of Ash Road run about like headless chickens. Yet it is the children that have centre stage in this novel as their parents rush to fight the fire and protect those running from it unbeknownst that the fire (and those that started it) is right at their back door.
A great read, a classic text and a real eye-opener to the power of fire and human nature.
SH Arrowhead HHH
Ruth Eastham, Scholastic, 224 pp, 978 1 407137 93 3, £6.99 pbk
In a small Norwegian town, as the annual midsummer Viking festival approaches, a boy is being bullied after school with more than casual vindictiveness. Skuli, the victim of the bullying, is befriended by Jack, an English boy returning to his parents’ birthplace to stay with his grandparents for the summer. And together they engage in the perilous rescue of the body of a Viking boy from a steadily melting glacier. Clutched in the Viking boy’s hand is a golden arrowhead of extraordinary powers. So begins a tale in which an ancient curse brings an apocalyptic fate on the town and its people. The story is based on Viking mythology, and quotes from Viking texts are scattered throughout. The authors’ enthusiasm carries her as far as creating a Viking style ballad and verse Saga which form the key to her tale. At the end of the novel, she appends a short historical note about
the Vikings, a list of website links and a list of references to the works quoted in the novel. However, this faintly scholarly preoccupation is in the service of an action thriller. A girl, Emma, joins the two boys and they discover, as each succeeding mystery is revealed and each mounting danger confronted, that only they can save mankind, particularly as one of the plagues visited on the town has rendered all the adults helpless with sickness. I was not entirely convinced by the story of the origin of the arrowhead, a leaf stolen from Valhalla’s roof, and its subsequent discovery by the Vikings in an English monastery occupied by fighting monks. I wasn’t really clear about what the ravens were up to in their interventions in the story. And I could have done with some quieter moments in which we had the opportunity to get to know and care about the characters a bit more (there was the hint of a significant back story in the death of Jack’s father that wasn’t developed). But, at the level of sheer non-stop excitement characterised by a fascination with the Vikings, it works very well.
CB Red Shadow HHHH
Paul Dowswell, Bloomsbury, 266pp, 9781408826249, £6.99 pbk.
Moscow in 1941 is the unusual setting for Paul Dowswell’s latest historical novel. It is perhaps not the most obvious of settings but the bleakness and the fear of Stalin’s Russia grips the reader like the cold of a Russian winter. Misha’s father works as one of Stalin’s secretaries and as part of his inner circle, they live in an apartment within the Kremlin His mother however has been arrested, declared an enemy of the people and sentenced to ten years they know not where. Misha goes to the Soviet named School 107 and regularly walks there with Valya, who also lives within the Kremlin walls. There are spies everywhere, even within the school. The Germans attack Russia and so she enters the war which heightens the atmosphere within the Kremlin, and leads to rumours inside and outside the walls. Misha and his father receive news that his mother has been moved to a camp near Noyabrsk and as a result of this information, Misha’s father asks him to go and remove some incriminating documents and photographs from the family dacha in the country. Meanwhile the Germans appear to be getting closer to Moscow, and at one point Misha and his father get on a train to leave Moscow only to have the journey cancelled. Then Valya’s father is arrested and while he is sheltering Valya the two are arrested, tried by a court and sentenced to death. They are saved by a German bomb and flee, finding help to leave Moscow and start a new life.
Fear creeps through the story giving the reader a real sense of life in communist Russia, with the misinformation, the control of the secret police, and paranoia of Stalin pervading every page. Misha and Valya must represent the few young people who did question the authoritarian nature of their lives, but most had any spark of resistance ground out of them. The story ends with a note of hope for the two young people, but leaves the reader stunned by the atmosphere Paul Dowswell has recreated. For most young people nowadays Soviet Russia is in the past but recent events remind people all too well of how things were so this is a timely novel.
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