Friday, 26 May 2017

Railhead – Philip Reeve – CILIP Carnegie 2017 review

Petty thief, Zen Starling, is recruited by the mysterious Raven to trick his way on board a prestigious and heavily-guarded train to steal a valuable work of art in this futuristic sci-fi thriller.

This a world where the train are intelligent and the way to move between the universe’s habitable planets.

‘You step aboard a train, and the train goes through a K-gate, and you step off on another planet, and the sun that was shining on you a moment ago is now just on of those tiny stars in the sky. It might take ten thousand years to travel that far by spaceship, but a K-train makes the jump in seconds. You can’t walk through those gates, or drive through in a car. Rocket and bullets and torch beams and radio waves can’t make the crossing. Only trains can ride the K-bahn.’

It’s a dangerous mission for Zen to con his way onto the private train of the family who runs the network, but he soon suspects that there is a much bigger plan at stake and that his benefactor, Raven, isn’t simply after an ancient piece of art.

Together with the Motorik robot, Nova, sent to help him, Zen gets a glimpse of life beyond the dirty moon of Ambersai where he was brought up and things are complicated further when he forges a close relationship with the powerful family as he works out how to steal from them.

This is an imaginative choice for the Carnegie shortlist, the one that stands out for being a work of a big ideas, a terrific pacy thriller and a mindblowing vision of a life in the future.

Some of the set action pieces are breathtakingly described as the reader is transported to a world where not only trains and stations are crucial parts of the world, but where insects use their hive mind to imitate humans and where robots are used widely yet treated badly and taken for granted.

Zen is an engaging character who is easy to like, charming and confident, but soon out of his depth when he realises his enigmatic new boss, the powerful Raven, might be a very bad guy to be working for. Things get more complicated as he starts to get to know and to be accepted by the Emperor’s family whom he is going to rob.

But the best thing about this energetic and fast-moving narrative is the full force of the imaginative story-telling power Philip Reeve unleashes on the reader.

The technological world-building and the wonder and scope of other worlds make for a vivid, engrossing read. The relationships between the humans and robots, the trains being characters in their own right and the deceptive undercurrent of the Guardians (or Gods) weaves an enthralling and satisfying emotional layer through the story.

A marvellous piece of storytelling.

Nicki Thornton

Friday, 19 May 2017

Salt to the Sea – Ruta Sepetys – CILIP Carnegie 2017 Shadowing Review

In the last days of WWII while Hitler is holed up in his bunker and the Russians sweep through Germany leaving devastation in their wake, there is one last hope, and it’s moored in the waters next to a frozen harbour. ‘Salt to the Sea’ tales the story of four young people whose lives have been decimated by war as they head towards the boat, in a bid to escape the escalating violence and outrun their personal demons that hunt them.

Ruta Sepetys ‘Salt to the Sea’ is a triumph, told by multiple the perspectives of four young people, all in first person, all with distinct unique voices that effortlessly fit together to drive the plot forward, cranking up the suspense page by page as each of the secrets that hunt them get ever closer and their fates intertwine.

‘Salt to the Sea’ follows Joana a Lithuanian surgeon’s assistant who is heading for the coast with a rag-tag bunch of refugees of which she is fiercely protective of. Florian a young German whose personal mission to extract revenge against his boss and the F├╝hrer. Emilia, a polish girl tormented by shame who is venerable and courageous as she heads towards the very people who persecuted her county in an effort to get her and her precious cargo to safety. Then Alfred, a Nazi solider preparing the Wilheim Gustloff for its voyage, whose head is full of desires of heroics and delusions of grandeur. 

The four protagonists gradually meet and with each interaction their fate is cemented as the endure all the atrocities that the war can hurl at them, until finally they are all aboard the ill-fated Wilheim Gustloff that sets off across the frozen waters, massively over capacity with too few lifeboats. 

When disaster strikes all four’s true colours shine; an unlikely hero sacrifices themself, another exposes their dark nature, and the others need to make split second decisions that will define their lives. In the moments when the Wilheim Gustloff is dragged down to its watery grave all four have to face their hunter’s and greet their fate. 

Salt to the Sea is a beautiful book which highlights the aspects of war, WWII specifically that are often overlooked, (or at least in the literature that adorns the shelves in schools and libraries in the UK anyway), that the war effected more than just those in concentration camps, the allied soldiers and children who were evacuated to the country. It illustrates that war has many casualties, that many innocent civilians from war torn Europe including Germany.

Within Salt to the Sea, Ruta expands ones understanding by showing the brutality and all-encompassing nature of war. It is a read that will bring tears, yet along with the sadness, it celebrates the humanity of individuals, showing that despite desperate circumstances people have the capacities to do great things to help on another, heroics that are lost in the magnitude of conflict. 

Salt to the Sea is a beautiful book, and is true contender for this years award.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Wolf Hollow – Lauren Wolk – CILIP Carnegie 2017

Annabelle’s life on a farm in post-War Pennsylvania and her close-knit family in the village of Wolf Hollow, are at the centre of this story about lies and truth - and how prejudice can sometimes blind a whole community.

The action centres on the arrival of new girl, Betty. She takes her seat in the single school room where all ages are taught in the same room, each taking their place in rotation in a row at the front of class. Betty's arrival disturbs cosy rituals, but it's not just the class Betty has her eye on disrupting.

She plots to hurt Annabelle and her two younger brothers for very little reason other than her wish to torment others and takes joy out of seeing people suffer. Betty's success demonstrates very neatly how effective simply telling lies about someone can be.

Betty is a brilliantly monstrous villain. One of the best (maybe worst?) of recent fiction.

Her vicious brand of nastiness soon recruits another follower to her games of torment. She is a brilliant manipulator, striking out at others, while cunningly and shamelessly avoiding any blame.

But when a girl at school loses an eye. Betty needs to find a scapegoat and blame all too believably falls on Toby. A gun-carrying veteran, disturbed by his experiences in the War, unshaven, hardly speaking, Toby lives on the outskirts of Wolf Hollow.

People already find him strange and mistrustful, except brave and clear-eyed twelve-year-old Annabelle, who has already forged an unlikely friendship with Toby and sets out to clear his name.

Her mission is to find a way to make the village see monstrous Betty for what she really is. Annabelle can only attempt to hide him from authorities while she tries to find a way to get Betty to speak the truth.

But it sparks a chain of events that only get worse and the story becomes a fast-paced roller coaster to disaster.

This morally complex coming of age tale is about how prejudice is stoked and how impossible it can be to make people see the truth when the lies are more easy to believe in.

Annabelle’s belief and determination in the face of prejudice is a bright light in a sobering tale. 

A beautifully told and complex story that gives young readers a taste of life's moral complexities and will keep them gripped until the end.

Nicki Thornton

Friday, 5 May 2017

The Smell of Other People’s Houses - Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock - CILIP Carnegie 2017

Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s ‘The Smell of Other People’s Houses’ is a small tour do force of how books allow you to slip effortlessly into other lives and feel right at home, even if those lives could not be more different from your own.
The lives and minds in this case are of a group of teenagers living in the harsh wilderness of Alaska in the seventies, inhabiting down-trodden Birch Park, which is frozen until May.
Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s truly captivating writing brings them right into our hearts.
Summers are spent fishing to help with food over winter. Shopping for clothes is rummaging through what’s been donated to the Salvation Army. Where a dream is to wear socks that have not already been worn underneath by someone else’s feet.
Four different stories are beautifully told. Four teenagers needing to be brave in different ways, growing up, finding a future, trying to escape the lives they have been born into – four stories to get wrapped up in and long for happy endings.
The story begins and ends with Ruth Lawrence, whose brief and early romance with a boy whose background is like another world, whose house smells like store-bought everything, brings excitement and the promise of change, but not the sort she was hoping for.
‘Ray let me know pretty quickly that he wanted a girlfriend who would sleep over, not one who just talked on the telephone late at night.’ 
And so Ruth must go on a long bus journey to live with nuns and find kind parents to adopt her child; a journey that also takes her back into the past of her own family.
Hank and his brothers are running away and when one is feared lost at sea, the adventure turns into a nightmare.
Alys longs to dance. It might be her way out of Birch Park, but as she spends only a few weeks at sea in the summer fishing with her father, how can she tell him she wants to cut the visit short and seek a life that will take her even further away from him?
Dora loves the time she is spending living with her best-friend’s family to avoid her own, but now she lives in less fear of her father, but has started to fear not being allowed to stay forever.
We are soon alive to their small human hopes, their big dreams and challenges, how they are already shaped by personal histories and families. And how the transformative smell a mother might bring to a different home or the smell of fish guts and blood might give rare comfort in this novel whose texture is of the ice and the sea.

The adult characters make decisions whether to be kind, be helpful, or take the easy way out and spend time and money with their friends at the bar. Will these spirited young people succeed in being able to break out of the traps they were born into?
As the stories begin to collide, the ties that bind communities together are tested and lives slowly and satisfyingly transform. The four stories become entangled to produce an outstandingly classy read. One that will take you on an emotional rollercoaster and will definitely melt your heart.
Nicki Thornton

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Review: Sixty Second Spelling Tips (plus one or two other useful things to remember!) by Charlotte Comley

Being a parent I have resorted to many creative methods and employed numerous quirky tricks to help my offspring master tasks and stills. Be it tying shoe laces, learning left from right, phonics, alphabet, counting or times tables, inevitably you end up racking your brain to invent fun ways to help you children learn.

We do these things because we want to support our children, to give them every advantage we can to empower them to be self-sufficient and be well equipped for education and their life beyond. Of course sometimes, some children require more of your creativity because they have other factors that make mastering these skills even more laborious. One obvious one is dyslexia which can affect reading but also spelling.

I know that I myself have spent hours of time and energy creating visual aids to help my son to prepare for his 11+ exams, creating picture based cards to help him learn the extensive lists of vocabulary he had to digest weekly. However our current project is to boost his spelling, which is quite a challenge as I am myself dyslexic. Whilst trying to come up with exciting and varied techniques to help him learn, I have found myself wondering what methods and tricks other parents have employed; and wouldn’t it be great if they shared a few of their successful ones.

So what music to my ears when I learnt that fellow writer, and SCBWI member Charlotte Comley has just done just that; she has penned a books sharing her wisdom called, ‘Sixty Second Spelling Tips (plus one or two other useful things to remember!)’

The book is available on Amazon for Kindle and priced at the incredibly low 99p [Press Here for Link], is formatted in an easily accessible way, and sets out different approaches and techniques in their own sections along with straightforward introduction, explaining how that work, and how to implement them.

The books starts with visuals in a section titled ‘How Pictures Can Help Your Child Learn.’ The section starts with pictorial images that are designed to help children remember and be able to differentiate between commonly confused letters, like; d g p q, by depicting the letters as things that begin with the letter for example: the ‘d’ becomes a ‘d’ and a ‘dinosaur’! The chapter then continues with small acrostic poems to help children remember to spell particular words, many of which Charlotte and her children have created; they are everything a child needs them to be; fun and amusing with an air of the ridiculous – perfect for committing to memory. To make them even easier to commit to memory Charlotte has paired them simple illustrated depictions of the acrostic poems, making it easier for visual thinker to digest.

The Book continues to tackle other spelling issues both explaining why people find them perplexing (which for me I found it very reaffirming to know that there are reasons why I find spelling difficult) along with presenting well-crafted tactics to help with mastering spelling.

In Sixty ‘Second Spelling Tips,’ generously shares all the years of her experience and plus all the tricks, techniques, she has developed, and what is peculiarly good, is that fact that she takes the time to explain spelling rules, and issues in a non-patronising way and at the same time, promoting fun and amusing alternative spelling learning experiences, such as using games and exiting practice techniques, all of which are included with the book.

I truly think that Sixty Second Spelling Tips is an excellent tool to be in any parents teaching arsenal, it certainly has helped me with my spelling, and in turn assisted me in supporting my son.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Sputnik's Guide to Life on Earth - Frank Cottrell Boyce - CILIP2017

Prez has a problem, in fact, Prez has several problem. His grandfather has become worryingly forgetful and can't look after Prez any more, so Prez is looked after at the Temporary where all the homeless children end up. 

Prez has also lost the ability to speak, although he discovers he can communicate with one person who arrives at the chaotic but friendly farmhouse where Prez has been invited to spend the summer.

That person is Sputnik, a lively alien determined to discover all about earth and finds something to be enthusiastic about in everything from chips to buses. Most humans see him as a dog, which means he can get away with a lot - quite handy when Sputnik's approach to most tricky situations is to make things go really, really fast, or ask if he can eat them.

Frank Cottrell Boyce is brilliant at tapping into kids' wish fulfilment. Who wouldn't love it if an alien dog 'fixed' your toy light sabre at a party so it slices through everything from girls' plaits to metal bars.

Sputnik can surf gravity and can fly a digger to 'fix' Hadrian's Wall.

Frank Cottrell Boyce is an absolute comic genius, but he doesn't use his brilliant comic writing to create a book full of gags. His humour is used very cleverly to deflect all the bad things that are happening.

Prez is so full of optimism, so accepting, that it takes a while to sink in just how bad his situation is, especially as he learns Sputnik's real purpose is to write a report on what is worth keeping about the world so it won't be destroyed - if he can't find enough good things to say about Earth, soon no-one will have a home.

And although the story is funny and full of madcap wishes coming true, at its core it is a wonderfully compassionate story about how the kids with no homes of their own need fixing most of all.

With any funny story it is easy to be swept along and lulled into thinking of this as a light read. But as with all Frank Cottrell Boyce's books, there is a serious story at its heart. It's only when you look at how many other writers attempt to tell stories about such serious issues and decide to do it with such brilliant humour that you even begin to appreciate how difficult it is to tread such a fine line. To come up with a book that delivers its serious message in a way that simply feels like great entertainment? Frank Cottrell Boyce is really in a class of his own.

This is a brilliant book from a brilliant author. The book also has enchanting illustrations from Steven Lenton.

Frank Cottrell Boyce won the Carnegie medal with his first book for children 'Millions'. If you think the best way to tell a story full of hard-hitting truths is to do it with humour, then this should be the one you want to win.

Friday, 21 April 2017

The Bone Sparrow – Zana Fraillon – CLIP Carnegie 2017 - Shadowing Review

The clocks have jumped forward, the days are getting longer, the blossoms are blossoming, spring is well and truly sprung- which can only means one thing – it’s time for SOTB’s annual CLIP Carnegie shadowing!

First up is The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon, which has gone straight from the 2016 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize shortlist and on to the shortlist for this year’s Carnegie medal. The Bone Sparrow is engaging, empathetic, enlightening and harrowing; in short it is a work of poignant beauty that shines a light on a very contemporary humanitarian crisis: refugee camps.

Just the cover speaks volumes, the illustration depicting an open toped birdcage surrounded by barbed wire, with a sparrow flying to freedom, along with best tag line in this year’s shortlist; ‘hope can set you free,’ promises a tale about hope.

The Bone Sparrow is told from two viewpoints, predominantly in the first person by Subhi, a nine year old boy who was born in the camp. The second being told in the third person following the adventures of Jimmie, a curious girl from the other side of the fence.

Subhi – or ID-DAR-1 is an endearing child whose outlook on life is optimistic as he finds hope in stories; ones other tell, ones he makes up; ones he dreams, and ones he draws. Having no experience outside the fences of the compound, these stories are Subhi’s; history, identity and aspirations for the future.

In a place where everything is rationed; water, clothes, food, toilet roll, and hope, the resident’s mortal rapidly starts corroding, and unrest begins to cloud the air. The ominous feeling is exacerbated by the presence of a sparrow inside Suhbi’s tent, and people whisper that the bird is an omen, a precursor of death. Subhi is taken under the wing of ever so slightly older, street wise entrepreneurial Eli, who shares his black market business with Suhbi, literally keeping shoes on his feet. Together the best friends navigate the dangers of life in the camp, from other restless angry youths to bad food, and the trigger and fist happy warden Beaver. When Eli is moved from the family compound to Alpha where the adult men are housed, Subhi takes comfort from his new friend Jimmie.

'May you forever bring us luck and protection, and may you carry our souls to freedom.'

Jimmie, is curious about the people behind the fence, breaks in, and soon becomes friends with Subhi , sharing food, and Jimmie late mothers stories that Subhi reads to her. Subhi is practically interested in Jimmies necklace, an heirloom from her mother; a sparrow pendant carved from bone, which protects her family. Despite the pair being from completely different worlds, they are kindred spirits, and when in the midst of chaos with the camp, Subhi risks everything to save his friend. But as he does so the question is on his min;, is the sparrow a guardian or an omen?

With The Bone Sparrow, Fraillon, shows the hardships, indignities and dangers of life within refugee camps, without shying away from the realities and yet keeping it censored enough for the audience. It is perfectly balanced; revealing just enough to open our eyes but not so much to make it unreadable or inappropriate for the audience, whilst interweaving a deeper fabric of tales creating a rich, multi-facetted unique tale about hope. Both hope of individuals; like Subhi’s unfaltering optimism, and larger hope; the hope that society can change and humanity will prevail.

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