Book of the Week, Children's books, children's books

Book of the Week: The Unforgettable Guinevere St Clair

Last week it was a graphic novel, this week it’s a middle grade novel, I’ve got mystery book posts planned and all sorts for June. I really am giving you the full range this month aren’t it!

Amy Makechnie’s The Unforgettable Guinevere St Clair is about a ten-year-old girl who moves to Iowa to try and help her mother’s recovery from a brain injury that has left her unable to remember anything past the age of 13. Crow is where her parents grew up and Jed is desperately hoping that coming back will jog Vienna’s memories. Gwyn and her little sister Bitty are used to the bright lights of New York, so small town life comes as a bit of a shock to them, especially their new neighbour Gaysie Cutter. They soon make friends with Gaysie’s son Micah and his friend Jimmy, but they also discover that Gaysie was friends with their parents when they were at school. When Gaysie’s only friend, farmer Wilbur Truesdale, goes missing Gwyn is determined to solve the mystery but she may also find out more than she wants to know about her parents’ past.

Because of Jed’s absence and the age of Gwyn’s grandmother, the children are able to spend a lot of time running around outside without a lot of adult supervision. This gives the story an almost out of time feel – except for the references to current pop culture. The neighbourhood is full of interesting characters for Gwyn to met and things for her to try and work out. Gwyn has decided that she wants to be a lawyer and she is obsessed with finding out people’s stories, but often jumps to the worst possible conclusions (which is understandable given what has happened to her family) but also isn’t actually very good at asking the right questions or showing empathy to people. She wants to solve problems because there is one big problem that can never be solved – Vienna:

Gwyn calls her mum Vienna – because she’s not a mum to her because of her injury. Her dad is obsessed with trying to find a cure for her but as you go through the book you realise that what is initially described as memory loss is actually not amnesia, but massive and irreversible brain damage. Gwyn knows this. Gwyn’s grandmother knows this, everyone in town knows this – even if they’re not saying it – but Jed thinks a miracle is possible, because Vienna has survived this far. This all means that Gwyn is older than her years in someways, but she has her own trauma from what happened to her mum. She’s taken on the role of her sister’s protector, but she can’t see when she is hurting other people’s feelings – most notably when she is throwing herself into what she has decided is a murder investigation- heedless of Micah and Jimmy’s feelings.

Looking through the reviews and blurbs for this, I can see comparisons to To Kill A Mockingbird and I can sort of understand that – small town, weird neighbours, gang of roaming children – but there are a lot of differences too. Lots of things about Gaysie Cutter do remain unexplained, but she is a much more visible character than Boo Radley is, and you can often see glimpses of what is going on and understand her a little bit, even if Gwyn can’t.

It’s a really interesting read – and I’ve just realised that I’ve got this far without even mentioning that Gwyn has a pet cow, or the Big Peril at the end. It even made me get a bit teary eyed. And I’m still thinking about it, a couple of days on from finishing it, which is a recommendation in itself.

Anyway I read this in paperback (as you can see from the photo!) but it’s also available in Kindle and Kobo. I bought my copy online a so I’m not sure how easy it will be to find in stores – but I suspect it will be tricky as I can’t find it at all on Foyles website… But if you do happen across a copy it’s worth it.

Happy Reading!

American imports, Book of the Week, Children's books

Book of the Week: Rex Lee, Gypsy Flyer

This week’s BotW pick falls into the bonkers book category – and I just had to tell you all about it. A bit of background – my trains are not great on weekends, so when I work a weekend I stay over in London so that I can get to work on time on a Sunday morning. In the before times, it would be at one of the Youth Hostels near work, and I would go out to the theatre after work, or meet friends for drinks. In lockdown, the hostels are closed, so I’m in hotels. And this weekend’s hotel has a Design Aesthetic that includes putting old books in your room as decorative features. And Rex Lee, Gypsy Flyer from 1928 was on my bedside table and I *had* to read it.

Copy of Rex Lee, Gypsy Flyer

When we meet Rex at the start of the book, he’s just left his friends at the military flying school because he’s inherited a hardware store in California. He is very unhappy about this, because being a pilot is his dream. On the train to the coast, he reads a story about Slim Lindy and his record breaking flights (it’s basically Lindberg) and decides that he wants to be just like him. When we rejoin Rex, he’s flying a taxi plane between an island off the California coast and the mainland. Just as the summer season is starting to end, he gets tangled up in adventure and saves the day and saves people’s lives. And thus the pattern for the rest of the book is set – because gypsy here is being used in the same way as it is in the theatre for dancers who move from show to show (see: the plot of A Chorus Line). Next up, Rex is flying fire spotting planes in Oregon, where he’s in charge of a group of pilots, stands up to authority figures, saves the day and saves people’s lives. Then he flies a mail plane, where he saves the day even more. And he saved the day a lot in Oregon. He ends up stopping a war. I kid you not.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. All of the saving involves crashes, near crashes, people clinging to the outside of the plane – either to balance it out, or on one notable occasion to hold a wheel on so the plane can take off – and stunt flying. Lots of stunt flying. I know I’m giving a lot of spoilery detail here, but I’m not seriously expecting that many of you are going to go out and buy it – and those of you who do will buy it exactly because of this sort of craziness. And trust me when I say there’s much more in the book than I’ve told you about.

All in all, it was the perfect way to spend a few hours on Saturday night, once I’d finished watching Drag Race. As regular readers will know, when it comes to old school children’s books, I mostly read Girls Own, but I’m not exactly averse to some Boys Own adventures when the opportunity arises. An obscure part of the University of Missouri: Kansas City’s website tells me that the author, the marvellously named Thomson Burtis, was actually a pilot who did a lot of different types of flying, but I can’t work out if that’s from jacket copy, and his Wikipedia page doesn’t mention anything about that. I suspect that if you are (or were) a Biggles (or Worrals) reader, this series would float your boat.

Anyway, I have no idea where you would get a copy of this if you want it – there are copies on Abebooks, but there all in the US and the shipping is *insane* – it’s definitely not worth spending £30+ on. But if you see any of the other titles in the series – there are 11 – in a second hand bookshop then maybe give it a try.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, Children's books

Book of the Week: How Nell Scored

Last week was a lot. I thought hard about what to pick today, but eventually decided that the craziness that is this Bessie Merchant book was the thing I wanted to write about.

How Nell Scored is not a long book, but it packs a lot in to under 100 pages. Nell lives on an isolated farm in New Zealand along with her extended family. At the start of the book her parents leave for the nearest town, to look after her older brother David who is sick. Nell and her sister Sue are left in the care of their aunt, the magnificently named Angelina Ann. No sooner are the parents gone, than a ship is wrecked on the rocks near the house and Nell and Sue (but mostly Nell!) has to rescue two of the crew from the wreckage. One man has a broken leg, the other is your stereotypical Girl’s Own “bad lot” – he tries to get out of helping rescue his shipmate and then when they’re back at the farm acting suspiciously while alone in the room of his colleague. When the sick man wakes up, he confides in Nell that he has a belt full of pearls that he needs to get to the nearest town or – and here’s a real shocker – Nell’s brother will be ruined. Yes. In one of those weird Girls Own coincidences, Nell’s brother stood surety for the mystery man and if he doesn’t get the money to town soon the bank will come to collect. This is the mystery reason why David has fallen ill. With me so far? A lot of plot isn’t it – and we’re not even halfway through! The latter part of the book involves a quest to find a doctor which turns into a 30 mile trek to New Plymouth.

It’s a lot. It’s mad, it has so very much plot and yet is strangely missing a final confrontation between Nell and the villain. It didn’t really matter though – I was too bamboozled to care. It was the bonkers adventure book I needed last week. My first Bessie Marchant, but I suspect not my last.

I have no idea where you’ll get this from. Honestly. My copy came from the local vintage emporium. It cost me a pound. And it was money well spent. Honestly the most bonkers book I have recently read – and it will take some beating to be the maddest book of the year!

Happy Reading!

book adjacent, Children's books, Surviving the 'Rona

Surviving Coronavirus: Baby-Sitters Club

Another in my occasional series of posts about things that have been getting me through the Coronavirus, and this is one that dovetails with my love of middle grade books, despite the fact that I’m no longer a middle grader – and in fact am easily old enough to have a middle grader of my own!

If you’re my sort of age, The Baby-sitters Club was up there with Sweet Valley High as a series that you binge-read from the library. Or at least it was for me.  The books – with the building blocks logo and the house with the illustration of the story in the window were instantly recognisable. It’s hard to remember so many years later, but I’m fairly sure I read almost all of the first 50 books, and all the early super specials as well as some of the mysteries. So, I was excited – but also a little trepidatious – to see that Netflix had adapted it. How do you update a series written in the pre-internet, pre mobile phone world so that it works for children today?

As it turns out, they’ve done it really, really well. The personalities of the girls are the same – but Dawn is Hispanic and Mary Anne is biracial. Stacey still has diabetes, but now she has an insulin pump rather than having to do injections. There are mobile phones, but Kristy and Mary Anne still have flashlights to signal between their houses – because Mary Anne’s dad is so overprotective. Would modern parents really trust a bunch of barely teenagers with their kids? Well the series does try and address that. It’s got a strong focus on social justice, which I think is both true to the original books and inline with what the kids today (!) are interested in and it has enough easter eggs in there for the grownups too – like the handwriting on the episode titles being the “right” ones for each girl from the original books, Alicia Silverstone as Kristy’s mum, Kevin from Brooklyn 99 as Mary Anne’s dad. As grown up, sometimes it was all a little bit ott but I’m not the target audience- and i find that with a lot of children’s shows. It was perfect though for watching while ironing. And low-stakes drama is about all I can deal with right now. At the end of the series Mallory and Jessi were introduced, which means I’m hoping there are plans for a second series – but obviously these strange times we live in could have thrown all that up in the air and mean that the cast age out faster than expected.

Anyway, you can find the Baby-sitters Club on Netflix – and I’m off to read one of the new Babysitter’s Club graphic novels which have been adapted by Raina Telgemeier.

Happy reading!

 

Children's books, Recommendsday

#Recommendsday: Finding Langston

I had a hard time picking my Book of the Week yesterday, because there was a lot of good stuff I read last week, but picked This Book is Anti-Racist as a call to action for the times that we’re in. So as a bonus for #Recommendsay, I’m writing about the other book which I read and loved last week and just needed to tell you about.

Cover of Finding Langston

Langston is eleven and he’s just moved to Chicago with his dad. It’s 1946 and the move was prompted by the death of Langston’s mum. Unsurprisingly Langston is struggling with all the upheaval in his life, not helped by the fact that he is being bullied at school for being from the South. But Langston finds a refuge in the local library. In Alabama, the library was only for white people, but his nearest branch is for everyone. And inside Langston finds his namesake – the poet Langston Hughes, who has the words to express how it feels to be uprooted from the south and transplanted to the North.

This is just such a gorgeously written book. While you’re reading it you can see post-war Chicago absolutely vividly and clearly and understand the life that Langston and his dad are leading, on the edge of poverty but hoping for better times soon. It’s about loss and upheaval and the Great Migration, but it’s also a love letter to books, words and poetry and the power they have to help you through difficult times. This is Lesa Cline-Ransome’s debut novel (she has previously written several picture books) and has won a ton of praise and totally deserves it. It has a companion novel about one of the bullies that I would now really like to read as well. This is a middle grade novel and would make a great addition to school reading lists or just for kids who like books about people who like books. And maybe have some Langston Hughes handy for afterwards because it will make you want to read more of his poetry. It’s just wonderful.

I borrowed my copy of Finding Langston from the library, but it is available on Kindle and Kobo and in paperback. At time of writing, Amazon has just a couple of copies left of the paperback, so it may be out of stock at your local indie too, but do put it on order.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, Children's books

Book of the Week: The Good Thieves

As mentioned yesterday, monthly stats are coming on Thursday, so I can keep to my regular schedule of Book of the Week on Tuesdays and mini reviews on the first Wednesday of each month. And this week, for the first time in a long time, my pick is a middle grade book – Katherine Rundell’s The Good Thieves.

Hardback copy of The Good Thieves

Vita and her mother got the first boat to New York when the letter from Vita’s grandfather arrived. He’s been cheated out of his ancestral home by mobster Victor Sorrotore. Vita’s mum wants to move him to London, but Vita can’t bear to see her grandfather sad and broken and is determined to get Hudson Hall back for him. But Sorrotore is a powerful mobster – how on earth can she beat him? Well the answer involves a pickpockets, animal tamers and a trapeze artist and a thrilling heist caper through Prohibition New York. I love a strong female heroine and Vita is great – she’s fierce and brave and believes that she can do anything – she’s not letting her age or her dodgy foot (affected by polio) stop her. And if his means that she sometimes makes some stupid decisions (you’ll know what I’m talking about when you get there), they are totally in keeping with who she is. This is fast-paced, there’s loads of suspense and both the characters and the setting are so brilliantly drawn you just can’t put it down. And on top of that, the writing absolutely sparkles – the descriptions of Vita and her friends and of New York are brilliantly evocative – you can really see them and the menagerie of animals in their little corner of the city by Carnegie Hall.

My love for heist-y adventure-y books is well known, as is my fondness for middle grade fiction (despite the fact that I have not been a middle grader since the 1990s) and along with the interwar setting, maybe it’s not surprising that ticked a lot of my boxes. This would be great for children who’ve read the Enid Blyton …of Adventure series or the Famous Five, or more modern series like Robin Steven’s Wells and Wong books and Katherine Woodfine’s Sinclair mysteries. I loved tales of derring do when I was at the top end of primary school – and read the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew voraciously as well as series like the Three Investigators, most of which I either wouldn’t recommend for modern kids or aren’t in print any more, and this would fill that gap for kids with similar interests today.

My copy of The Good Thieves is a delightful signed hardback that I bought from Foyles – who made it their children’s book of the year last year – but it’s also out in paperback on June 10th according to Foyles. And of course you can get it in Kindle and Kobo as well.

Happy reading

Children's books, Recommendsday, Series I love

Recommendsday: The Vanderbeeker series

Another week, another Recommendsday post to start off the new year.  Long term readers will know that I love middle grade stories – I’ve written before about my love of the Wells and Wong series as well as older books that I read when I was the “right” age. I discovered Karina Yan Glaser’s series at the end of last year – but ran into Christmas posts before I could write about it.

Cover of The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street

So the Vanderbeekers live in part of a brownstone in Brooklyn. There’s five children and it’s maybe not quite big enough but they’ve always lived there, their dad is the building superintendent and the building is like part of the family. All three books in the series so far are basically a modern take on the classic “children go on a quest” trope. In the first book their landlord is trying to evict them and they have to try and stop it. In the second, they’re trying to start a secret garden and in the third they’re trying to save their mother’s business after accidentally putting it at risk.

Cover of The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden

I really, really loved these books. The characters are great, the relationships between the family are just wonderful and they’re quirky and fun without being annoying. There’s all the classic characters in the gang – the dreamy one, the adventurous one, the problem solver – but they’re also people you recognise and would like to be friends with. There are inventions, there are pets, there’s special food – just like in the Enid Blyton stories you remember but the plots deal with issues like gentrification and the gig economy – which are very twenty-first century but also, when you think about it probably the modern successors of the Enid Blyton quest stories of old.

They’re also more diverse. The family is biracial, the neighbourhood is multicultural and so you can give it to children when you want them to get all the feels you got from your childhood favourite adventures but without everyone being white and a bit posh or the risks of language that can be out of date at best and racist at worse.

I’ve already bought the first one for the nieces (as a Christmas book) – that’s how much I liked them. My copies came from the library, but they’re available in Kindle and Kobo editions as well as in paperback and hardback from all the usual sources – although they’re probably a special order job (Foyles have two of the three available to order at the moment)

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, Children's books, new releases

Book of the Week: Top Marks for Murder

Another old friend for this week’s BotW: the eighth in Robin Stevens’s middle grade Murder Most Unladylike series. It was between this and the new Tessa Dare for this week’s pick and although the Dare is a lot of fun, I have a lot of thoughts about this book, this series and the importance of Hazel and Daisy.

Cover of Top Marks for Murder

We rejoin the detective society as they return to Deepdean after their extended break visiting Hazel’s family in Hong Kong and then their appearance in a play in London. And they’re back at school just in time for the anniversary weekend, which proves to be a rather more dangerous time for the girls than you would hope, after one of the gang sees what she thinks is a murder from their dormitory window.

The girls are back on the trail and are happy to be distracted from the things that have changed at school while they’ve been away. But this isn’t the first time that there’s been a murder at Deepdean, and Daisy and Hazel are older now and are seeing more of the consequences of what’s going on as well. After all how many parents want to leave their children at a school where murders happen. So the girls may not need to just solve the case, they might need to save the school as well.

What I’ve always loved about this series is the way that it takes familiar tropes from the school stories that I loved when I was little and update them so that they will work for kids today. I’ve spoken before about revisiting old favourites and realising they’re now problematic (to say the least in some cases). I’m lucky with the Chalet School – LH Johnson recently wrote a lovely piece about the Chalet School Peace League and Elinor M Brent Dyer quietly advocating peace and cooperation – but I’ve bought and read a couple of Shirley Flight books over the last few weeks and although they’re mostly fun adventures, there are some horrible attitudes towards non-Brits and especially non-Westerners. One of them is downright racist to a point where I now wouldn’t want to lend any of them out to a modern child of the age I was when I read the first book in the series. But if you want to give the next generation the sort of warm feels you had from Girls Own books but without the nasty undercurrents, this series will do that for you.

And that’s not to say that these are populated by perfect exemplars of modern day life sticking out like sore thumbs in the olden days. They’re not like that. You see the nastier side of 1930s boarding school life because because you’re looking at it from Hazel’s point of view and nothing she can do will change the way some people look at her just because she’s Chinese. Daisy definitely isn’t perfect – she doesn’t handle the fact that while she’s been gone a fascinating new girl has taken her place very well at all. And she’s still dealing with the fallout for her family after the events at her house in book 2. This is full of realistic characters learning real life lessons as well as solving a tricky mystery. As a grown up, I really appreciate and enjoy what Robin Stevens is doing – but it does works for its actual target market too, as my niece as well as several of the ten year olds my sister taught last year (who lent her copies of books in the series) prove. And when my niece is a bit older, I’ll lend her the Golden Age mystery stories these are influenced by and she can read the grown up versions of some of these plots (this one is very Sayers inspired). But with a few caveats about old fashioned attitudes.

Now, I’m going to be very careful how I phrase this section because: spoilers, but in the last book we learned an important piece of information about one of the main characters. A piece of information that both is and isn’t a big deal. Inside the last book it was treated exactly right by the character who learned it and in this book nothing has changed about that piece of information but it is absolutely not an issue or a Big Deal. And that is exactly as it should be. If you’ve read Death in the Spotlight you’ll know exactly what I’m talking abut and if you haven’t, then I’m sorry for that impenetrable paragraph, but go and read it and you’ll understand.

I had First Class Murder pre-ordered (and had to remember to change the delivery address to the new house!) but you should be able to get hold of it easily from any shop with a children’s section. It’s also available online – from places like Book Depository – as well as on Kindle and Kobo.  And you can read some of my previous posts about the series here and here.

Happy Reading!

Cover of The Skylark's War
Book of the Week, Children's books, children's books, Prize winners

Book of the Week: The Skylark’s War

This was such an easy choice this week. As soon as I finished The Skylark’s War, after I’d blown my nose and got rid of the tissues, I turned around and went back and read the last 20 pages all over again. Then I messaged my sister and my mother to tell them that they had to read it with a big happy (and soppy) smile all over my face.

Cover of The Skylark’s War

The Skylark’s War tells the story of Clarry, her brother Peter and her cousin Rupert, through their childhood, the Great War and beyond. Clarry’s and Peter’s mother died soon after Clarry’s birth, their father isn’t interested in them and at first at least, Peter blames the new baby for the loss of his mother. The two children are brought up by a succession of housekeepers, with the interference of the do-gooding spinster across the road. The high point of their lives is their annual visit to Cornwall every summer holiday. Their cousin Rupert spends his holidays there – his parents are in India and have basically forgotten about him and he was sent to boarding school at a young age so Peter and Clarry’s dad couldn’t send them to live with their grandparents. During the summers, all the best things in their lives happen and they grow and mature and become a tight gang. Then Peter is sent away to school, Clarry is left alone with her father. And then there is the War and Rupert joins the army. Can their bond survive? Can they all survive?

This is a middle-grade book, and although that synopsis may sound miserable, it is anything but. I mean I did cry my way through a whole pocket pack of tissues, but some of them were happy tears and I just couldn’t put the book down. I had to know what happened. At one point I was sitting sniffling and making a scene of myself in the lounge at a youth hostel, but I was so engrossed in the book that I wasn’t prepared to stop reading for long enough to climb the three flights of stairs to get to my room. The closest I can get to a comparison for this, is if Noel Streatfeild, Nina Bawden and Elizabeth Jane Howard had a book baby. And if that isn’t enough to make you go and read it, then I’m sorry you may be in the wrong place and I’m not sure that we can be friends.

I’ve had this on the NetGalley list since the autumn but I had forgotten about it until I saw this tweet from Harriet Evans (remember her? I had some ravings/gushing about one of her books here, here and here. And that might also scratch your Elizabeth Jane Howard itch, except that it’s a contemporary story about a house not a 1930s one.)  So off I went to look at the blurb, thought it sounded familiar, looked at my NetGalley, tweeted her back and then the die was cast, my fate was sealed etc.

And now I’m telling you that you need to read it. Maybe as a double bill with The Five Children on the Western Front if you can stand all that Great War and foreboding at once. But if you can, read The Skylark’s War second. Trust me on that. I see from the Goodreads write-ups that there’s a connection to one of Hilary McKay’s other novels, so I’m off to find that and then to buy copies of The Skylark’s War to give to people. As I mentioned my copy came from NetGalley, but you should be able to get hold of a copy really easily: it was Waterstones‘ Children’s Book of the Month in January and it won the Costa Children’s Book Award, so I’m expecting it to be everywhere.  And yes, I know, this all means I’m late to the party again. But better late than never.  Here are some more links to enable your book-buying habit: Kindle, Kobo, Amazon paperback, Book Depository and Big Green Bookshop.

Happy Reading!

Children's books, Series I love

Bank Holiday Bonus post: Verity goes to a Book Conference

I wasn’t sure if I was going to write about this here, but actually, I can’t help myself.   At the end of July I went to the Sixth Bristol Conference on Twentieth-Century Schoolgirls and Their Books.  If you’ve been hanging around here for a while you’ll know that one of my big bookish passions are school stories – and one of my most enduring loves are the Chalet School series.  And this was a gathering of over 100 people who love all the same books as me to listen to talks about them, chat to people about them and yes, buy more of them.

Wills Hall quadrangle

As it’s the centenary of the end of World War One, the theme this year was War and most (although not all) of the talks had that as a theme linking them together.  Now I am quite a young enthusiast in the genre – the last run of Chalet School paperbacks came out when I was in secondary school and they were one of the last classic series left in print – so I discovered a lot of new authors at the conference – and was able to pick up books by some of them.  You may have spotted some of my purchases popping up in Week in Books and Book of the Week posts.

My book purchases!

What was really, really wonderful was meeting up with people who love the same things that I do.  I think I had underestimated how wonderful it would be to be able to talk to other people who have read the same books that I have.  I mean all of my friends – and most of my work colleagues  – know that I love reading and read a lot (some of them even read this blog) and we have conversations about books, but I never really get to talk about this bit of my bookish life because I’m meant to be a grownup reading adult books – and no one has read a lot of these books any way even when they were younger.

Saturday night dinner in the Hall

So I guess what this boils down to is find yourself opportunities to go and hang out with other people who are into what you’re into.  You’ll make some friends, learn some new things and have a marvellous time.  I’ve already got the next conference (in 2020!) in my diary.

Happy Bank Holiday!