Far From The Tree – Robin Benway

Young adult fiction seems to fall into a few distinct groups. There are straight-up romance novels, with or without a fantasy element, the ever-popular dystopian series and the odd zombie novel. Trends develop – vampires, faeries or teen spies – but some things don’t seem to change. There are always a lot of novels which highlight issues which are important to young people (or indeed, just to people) – issues of sexual identity, mental health, gender politics, race, and bullying, among others – in fact there are so many I’d be fairly certain this is proof that the older generation’s insistence that young people have no interest in politics is wrong: they just don’t often agree with the politics of their elders… Sometimes these are issues which are, arguably, of more interest to the young than the more mature reader: one such would be that of the fate of children in the care system.

36512193In Far From the Tree Robin Benway tells the story of three such children. First we meet Grace who, like so many young girls before her, becomes pregnant and decides that the best thing for her daughter is to give her up for adoption. Her parents, her loving, adoptive parents, support her in her decision even though it then leads her to finding about more about her biological family. Her birth parents remain elusive but she does meet up with two siblings she never knew she had – Maya, her younger sister, who is living with adoptive parents and a little sister, loved but sticking out like a sore thumb as the only brunette in a family of flaming redheads, and Joaquin, their older brother who has moved from foster home to foster home (although he is now settled with a couple who seem to want him as a part of their family). All three have their own secrets and fears which they reveal as they get to know each other and learn about the years since they were given up by their mother. The last secret to be told is Grace’s – how can she tell Maya and Joaquin, who are still angry with their mother for abandoning them, that she has given up her own baby?

I have no personal experience of the care system (in the UK let alone the US system this book is set in) so I can’t comment on its accuracy but some of the events ring true to how I think such things work. Girls are more likely to be adopted than boys, babies more likely than older children and white children more likely than those who are Hispanic/mixed race: all factors which work against Joaquin. That said, I really liked Joaquin as a character. He seems to be sensitive and caring – he becomes very protective of his sisters very quickly – as well as, sometimes, angry and unhappy. He pushes away those who try to care for him and the more we learn of his past the more I wanted to fight on his behalf. Although the book starts with Grace’s experiences it was her brother I cared about most. I wanted his ending to be the happiest of all – goodness knows, he’d earned it – even if I know that, statistically, this is unlikely.

In the end this is a book about family. Grace, Maya and Joaquin are bound by blood and by genetics. The families who take them in, or who have rejected them are also important to the story and we learn that there can even be love behind the decision to give up a child to others.



The Squirrels Who Squabbled – Rachel Bright

After my last post I thought I needed cheering up a little. Eye of the North had plenty of amusing moments but also lots of genuine peril and Home was, well, quite bleak at times (but also sometimes beautiful – you should still give it a try): it was time to get in touch with my own inner five-year-old and giggle at a picture book. And now, a day or so later, I’m still smiling as I remember it…

9781408340486The squirrels in question are Spontaneous Cyril* and Plan Ahead Bruce** who have very different approaches to life. Like Aesop’s ant and grasshopper one has partied away the summer months and the other has worked hard to store up supplies and they have both spotted the very last nut of autumn. The race to bag the prize leads them on a merry chase and, finally, to a happy ending. It is a really simple story, obviously, but one which is going to be a favourite one to read out loud. The rhymes are infectious and there is a gentle moral at the end but for me the absolute glory of the book is the illustration style. The squirrels themselves are full of character (but really quite realistic too) but it is the backgrounds which I really loved. They are beautiful, soft, autumnal scenes full of colour and detail which had me itching to get my hands on some soft pastels.

I’m going to enjoy recommending this book to lots of kids, parents, carers and teachers. Especially if they let me read it to them first…


*To be honest, I was hooked as soon as I saw the words ‘Spontaneous Cyril’…

**Which made it very hard not to read the rest of the book, after meeting Bruce, in an Australian accent…

I’ve looked at childhood from both sides this week…

A lot has been said about men writing about female characters. Not all of it complimentary but some people can manage to put themselves into the persona of somebody who has a totally different experience from their own. But what about experiences that we have all had but can’t remember or one which is a flight of pure imagination? This week I’ve been reading books about childhood, written from the point of view of a child. One is four years old – and I have only one or two vague memories of being that age – and the other is, well, far more of a junior adventurer than I ever was. I ran away from home once, carrying a bag of clean socks and some sweeties, and stayed in the shed on the old football field for, oo, at least an hour but then I went home and nobody even noticed I’d gone – the heroine of my second book loses her parents, travels to Greenland and fights mythical creatures. She is, in fact, pretty kick-ass so let’s start with her…

Eye of the North – Sinead O’Hart

9781847159410Emmeline Widget is an unusual girl. She is well-versed in all kinds of survival techniques, including avoiding being poisoned, attacked or otherwise bumped off and is quite convinced her scientist parents are trying to kill her. But when they vanish suddenly and she is packed off to safety in Paris she doesn’t lose heart. When she is kidnapped by their arch-enemy, the evil Doctor Siegfried Bauer, and discover that her parents are, in fact, still alive she sets about trying to rescue them. Not bad for a pre-teen. She is aided by her trusty satchel, a boy called Thing who is a stowaway on the ship she takes for Paris and a remarkable cast of allies (including creatures from legend, tough little old ladies, kindly Inuits and a butler).

This is a fast-paced and exciting story aimed at children between 9 and 12ish but could be read by anyone who enjoys a good adventure. It has a slightly steampunky feel – full of odd inventions – but also a healthy dose of mythology. Emmeline is a great character – a plucky heroine who, despite being just a child, tends to rescue herself from most situations. I loved Thing too – a streetwise little raggamuffin who has to fight against his weaknesses to help his friend – while the friendship between the two is lovely (and, age-appropriately, without any hint of youthful romance).

Home – Mandy Berriman

35103181Home is narrated by another child – this time, Jesika, who is just four and a half – but is definitely not a book for youngsters. Jesika is a bright child and she is aware of a lot of things going on in her life. She and her Mum, Tina, and baby brother live in a damp and dangerous flat, drug deals go down in the stairwells and the pushchair has to be carried up and down the stairs every time they go out. Money is very short and Tina has no support network to rely on since her partner went back to Poland and his mother died. But the voice we hear telling the story in this book is Jesika’s so we draw pictures on the damp wallpaper behind the tv, get upset because we are wearing a red top when it is blue day at pre-school and forget that we are not supposed to mention if we think someone is smelly or boring. Jesika is sad that her Mum and brother have a nasty cough but has never heard of pneumonia and, aside from a shouty man in the block of flats and a grumpy worker at her pre-school, only really knows adults who she likes and trusts. For a four year old this is a pretty good life but we, as adults, can see all the bad things looming around her.

This is a book which grabs you by the throat because we are grown-ups and are conditioned to look out for the safety of the very young. I don’t have any kids of my own but I find myself keeping an eye on youngsters in the shop (because no parent has eyes in the back of their head and children that age move very fast…). It isn’t even a maternal thing I think, we have evolved to look after our young. But, of course, there are always those who don’t see children as something to be protected and it is Jesika’s potential to fall prey to them which made this book an uncomfortable read at times. I feel that I want to recommend Home to all parents but I suspect some would find it too distressing…




Deeds Not Words – Helen Pankhurst

It was an interesting time, a century ago. A war which affected most of Europe and beyond, a flu epidemic which killed even more people globally than the war (bloody as it was) and authors as diverse as Muriel Spark and Spike Milligan were born. And, as we have been reminded widely on the news and through social media, women got the vote. Well, not all women. Women over 30, who owned property or were married to a property owner – compared to all men over 21 (or over 19 if they were in military service) – so it wasn’t exactly equality but it was a start. But how much more equal are things now? In Words Not Deeds Helen Pankhurst (a great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst) looks at the progress of women’s rights from 1918 to the present day.

9781473646858Pankhurst looks at a number of areas – politics, money, identity, conflict, culture and power – and discusses the historical background from 100 years ago, talks through the developments and, finally, gives a score (out of 5) for how far we have progressed. In some sectors we have done pretty well – identity in particular get 4/5 because women now have so much more freedom to dress as they please and conduct their personal relationships in their own way. It isn’t a perfect situation but great advances have been made. Conflict, on the other hand, which includes issues of violence against women and their feelings of safety sadly only scored 1/5. Reading the case studies and the personal stories it is hard to see how any higher score could be given. I won’t spoil the overall score for you but suffice it to say we still have nearly as far to go as we have come…

The most important thing I have taken from reading this book is that all women’s experience of life is different. Meaning that although I have had a good life – with access to a loving family, decent food and housing, an excellent education and healthcare – this is not the same for everyone. Whether we like it or not there are many factors which can affect how women are able to access all the things we take for granted – ethnicity, age, disability, sexual and gender identity among others – and we need to stop assuming that our own experience is the norm. Reading the stories from women who have had such different lives from my own makes me appreciate such diversity. When we remember to listen to all these voices we will be able to improve life for everyone, women and men.


The Hazel Wood – Melissa Albert

Even when I’m reading a proper physical book rather than an e-galley I try not to read too much about a title before I start it. I might glance at the blurb but I will avoid other people’s reviews and the like – I quite like doing my own discovering. Often the blurb will give you a very accurate idea of what sort of book you are getting – a historical novel of the 14th century, a Regency romance or a children’s adventure story with rabbits – but sometimes it will appear to be one thing when you start reading and then, rather wonderfully, become something else entirely. The Hazel Wood turned out to be just such a story.

35997403At first the story involves Alice – who is seventeen, lives with her mother, step-father and step-sister, and goes to school and works weekends in a coffee shop. She and her mother spent many years moving around before this marriage: bad luck had dogged them all Alice’s life. Her earliest memories are of leaving – midnight flits, long car journeys and being made to feel unwelcome in a series of spare rooms and sofas. At first I thought this would be a novel about a feisty teen learning how to take her place in the more affluent, privileged world she finds herself in but then, well, it all started to go a lot darker.  The cover suggests that we may be about to enter the world of crime fiction or psychological thrillers but no – this is the world of magic, the supernatural and of fairy-tales.

Alice’s grandmother wrote a bestselling book of dark fairy tales set in a world called The Hinterland. But Alice has never met Althea Proserpine, her grandmother, the book is impossible to find (no matter how much money you offer) and after news of her death Alice’s mother vanishes in mysterious circumstances. Although she has spent her whole life being told never to go near The Hazel Wood, Althea’s home, she heads there with Ellery Finch, a school friend and Hinterland superfan. And this is the point where the Hinterland drags Alice in: the point where she discovers the truth about her identity and fights to escape her destiny.

I’ve seen a few reviews for this book (after I’ve written this far in mine) which are quite negative. They find Alice to be an unlikable character, full of anger and privilege, and they don’t like the fact that, although the book is a YA fantasy it is in a very real and contemporary setting for much of the book. They have issues, in particular, with how Alice relates to Ellery Finch – who is mixed race – and feel she considers her early life of poverty and drifting to be worse than the attitude he faces as a person of colour. I’m not denying any of these things occur but, without giving away any major plot twists, they are there on purpose. To paraphrase Jessica Rabbit, she’s not bad. She’s just written that way…



Force of Nature – Jane Harper

I have a certain natural resistance to doing what I’m told. This seems to manifest itself mostly in my attitude to popular media (or even just critically acclaimed media) – if everyone starts to rave about a film, an album or a tv series I’m almost predisposed to decide not to bother with it. I’ve still never seen Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting or Game of Thrones for example. I don’t say this to sound superior – if you saw the list of films and tv shows I have seen you’d know I have to right to such a claim – but it is a fact. I am sure these are worth watching but I’ve just never got round to them and I don’t really care enough to remedy this. It is even more obvious with books – I only read To Kill a Mockingbird when they announced the publication of Go Set a Watchman – and I am probably more likely to avoid the books I am selling multiple copies of every day. I suppose with the books I have seen plot outlines, read reviews and seen comments from other booksellers so maybe I feel that I have little left to discover. But, sometimes, I do weaken. I read the book everyone is talking about and I find that I love it: I did this with Jane Harper’s first book, The Dry, and loved it so much I found myself leaping at the chance to read the follow-up.*

36116885Force of Nature, like The Dry, is set in the Australian outback and features Aaron Falk. He is a police officer with the now compulsory troubled past but, rather unusually, he is not a homicide detective. In fact he is part of a unit which investigates financial irregularities and this means that his methods are a bit less obvious: this is not the maverick cop solving the whole crime by looking at cigar ash but one who employs an interesting combination of accountancy and inspiration. He is a very human and relatable character. He is only involved in the mystery at the centre of this book, the disappearance of a woman on a team-building weekend in the wilds of the Giralang Ranges, because the woman is central to his investigations into the company she works for. The book moves between the police search for the missing woman and the events which led to her disappearance. We gradually discover more about the group of women she worked with, their interwoven lives both now and in the past, but we also see the character of Falk develop as he considers his relationship with his father.

This is a really good crime novel – a plot which is just complicated enough but also makes perfect sense once you get to the denouement – and has some interesting characters. It was a fairly quick and easy read but it sticks with you for a long time afterwards: just what popular fiction should be…


*Always happy to admit I was wrong…

The Toymakers – Robert Dinsdale

When I was little we would, once a year, go to London and visit Hamley’s toy shop. I don’t think Mum ever bought our presents there, it was a pricey place even then, but we were allowed to choose one little treat. I still have happy memories of getting mexican jumping beans or some strange kind of unpoppable bubble stuff. And we were regular visitors to the toy shop in Basildon – before Toys R Us opened, I think it was called Godfrey’s? – to stock our toy farm. Mum still tells the story of having to go in and buy toy piglets and having to ask for ones that were ‘looking up’ – the assistant (without really registering what Mum meant) asked ‘looking up what?’ Anyway, what I’m getting at is that, like most people who had a childhood, I have quite a few good memories of toyshops. I think if any of the stores I visited had been quite as extraordinary as Papa Jack’s Emporium it would, quite possibly, have blown my tiny child-mind…

34846987The Emporium is a toy shop in London, on a mews off Regents Street. It opens each year with the first frost and closes when the snowdrops bloom. If that makes it sound like a place of poetry and magic, of mystery and joy then, yes, it is. It is run by Jekabs Godman, known as Papa Jack, an émigré from Eastern Europe and his sons Kaspar and Emil and creates the kind of toys which every child would dream of having. Things that glitter and fly, that grow and love you back: toys which are as full of magic and imagination as a child’s mind. Into this world comes Cathy Wray, just 16 years old and pregnant, who takes a job for the season in her efforts to escape her family’s plans to brush the shame of an illegitimate child in Edwardian Leigh-on-Sea*

The story sees Cathy become a part of the Godman family, as does her child Martha who was born in a sort of enchanted wendy house in the store. She is beloved by Papa Jack, who shares with her the harrowing story of his early life as a political prisoner, and by both brothers but she falls for the older sibling, Kaspar. The real world does impinge on the Emporium – Kaspar suffers horribly in the trenches of the Great War and Emil is shamed by the fact that he is unable to serve – and life is not always happy or easy. But the power of toys and a child’s imagination is always there to help people to survive. The book is probably best described as a sort of magical realism but the sort of magic, and reality, which lives in the heart of the very young.



*I grew up only a few miles from Leigh-on-Sea. As soon as saw this I knew I’d love this book…