Children's books, children's books, series, Series I love, Uncategorized

Series I Love: Swallows and Amazons

As it’s been a week of Girls Own content, lest carry it on with another classic children’s series – this time an adventure one for boys and girls.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the series, they follow a group of children going on outdoor adventures during the school holidays. There are three families – the Walkers (the Swallows), the Blacketts (the Amazons) and the Callums (the Ds) – who appear in various configurations across the series, but the opening books (which are my favourites) mostly centre on the Walkers and the Blacketts who start off as rivals but become friends. Sailing is often involved – and many of the books are set in and around the Lake District in the North West of England.

I first encountered the Swallows and the Amazons when my Year 3 teacher read the first book out loud to our class and I carried on reading most (if not all) of the rest of the series by borrowing them from my local library. What’s not to love about a group of children going off to camp on an island and sail around a lake all summer long. There’s “pirates” and actual crime and it’s just wonderful. Let’s be honest, which child didn’t wish they’d had a grown-up free holiday or two, or been allowed to roam around without supervision for days on end – I think it’s one of the reasons why Secret Island was one of my favourites of the Enid Blyton series when I was little.

I should say at this point that I am not by any means an outdoors person. We never went camping when I was a child, so when I was first reading these the idea sounded fun – I think I “camped” on the floor of my bedroom for a few weeks after reading the first book, but I was not a big walker or hiker. I also suffered from travel sickness so being on a boat of any size was always pretty awful, but I loved the books – and still continue to enjoy them whenever I get a chance for a re-read. There’s something about children with a secret code between themselves and who go on what are basically quests that just really appeals. Also you learn a lot about various countryside-y things from the mid 20th century – most of what I know about charcoal smoking and dowsing for water comes from this series – which of course means I’m hopelessly out of date, but I didn’t know that at the time.

There are a couple of books in the series that get a bit weird – and as with a lot of books of similar era, there are some bits that haven’t aged well. I probably should have had a reread before I posted this – but I remember that I found Missee Lee very weird when I read it when I was about 10. And I don’t own all of them – I have some from when I was little and I’m picking the others up as I see nice copies at sensible prices. But I do own the first two on audio book and have listened to their fairly regularly. I treated myself to Pigeon Post (my other childhood fave) the other week and it’s next on my to listen list.

The first book has been turned into a film twice – it’s been a while since I saw the original film, but I remember it as being fairly true to the actual plot. I have seen the most recent one has had a fair few alterations to the plot – and not just the fact that they renamed the unfortunate to modern ears Titty. I’ll leave you to judge for yourself from the trailers!

Anyway, delightful outdoors fun, even if pemmican – real or fake – sounds disgusting!

Happy Friday everyone one!

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!

children's books, not a book

Not a Book: Matilda the Musical

Another post from my trip to London the other week. As well as the Elizabeth and Mary exhibition and a wander around the national gallery, we went to see Matilda, the musical based on Roald Dahl’s children’s book of the same name.

So I want to say that this isn’t the first time that I’d seen Matilda – I actually saw it in its original incarnation at the RSC in Stratford a decade ago, but it was the first time I’ve seen it in the West End. I was worried that it wouldn’t live up to my memories of it – especially as I’ve got the CD (yes I know, it’s that long ago) and have sung along to it in the car a lot, but actually it really did. There are a few bits of staging that have definitely changed since that Christmas run, but that’s probably not a surprise given that the stage at Stratford was much more of a thrust stage than the Cambridge theatre is. We bought our tickets on the day (from the theatre) and were sat in the middle of the Dress Circle, which was really good value and a really good view. There is some running around in the aisles in the stalls that you can’t see, but for me it wasn’t worth paying an extra £50+ for.

In terms of the book vs the show, Matilda’s own story is fairly similar, but there’s a secondary plot strand added to tie in (that really works, don’t worry!) and you see less of the telekinises than you get in the book – but given that you have to try and make that work on stage, it’s not a surprise. I’ve always thought that picking Tim Minchen to do the music was inspired – he’s funny and clever and a little bit dark and sly. And like the book it’s funny but funny and suitable for children – there aren’t any jokes here that parents are going to get awkward questions about. And I know it’s a children’s show so you’d think that there wouldn’t be, but actually you’d be surprised!

Anyway, we had a blast, five out of five, would recommend, just maybe don’t go on a Saturday (or in the school holidays) if chatting children during the show are going to annoy you!

Book of the Week, children's books, Young Adult

Book of the Week: This Book is Anti-Racist

As I mentioned yesterday, I changed my reading plans last week and focused on books by black authors and other authors of colour. And so for the second week in a row, this week’s BotW pick is a book for young people.

Tiffany Jewell is an anti-racism educator and this book does exactly what the subtitle suggests – it is a beautifully illustrated (by Aurélia Durand) and brilliantly to the point book that will make children first think about and understand their levels of privilege and then start to look at what they can do to change the status quo and deal with systemic racism. It has activities in every chapter aimed at making readers think and examine their own lives and actions, where ever on the scale of privilege they live. It also helps you work out what you can do to make a difference – how you can use your skills and talents to be anti-racist. Written from the author’s lived experiences – whilst also reflecting the fact that racism manifests in a multitude of insidious ways – it’s absolutely centring the experiences of people who are experiencing racism. This is a great starting point to try to show children what they can do and how to feel less powerless. This would be a great tool for the classroom. It’s also a great tool for adults – to read, digest and think about what you should be doing in your own life. I’m obviously older than the target audience for the book, but I still got a lot from it.

My copy of This Book is Anti-Racist came from NetGalley, but it is on offer at the moment on Kindle for £1.99. You may be able to track down a copy via your local independent book seller, but a lot of books about racism are out of stock at the moment and I think this may be the same, as Amazon don’t have any paperback stock at the moment. Hopefully the publishers are working on getting more copies out there, so that it can be in school libraries and classrooms when we get to the new normal.

Keep 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!

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

Book of the Week: Paperback Crush

Another super quick BotW post – I’m sorry.  It’s been so busy. And it’s a day late because of the end of the month Stats.  Sorry again.  Anyway, this week’s BotW gave me some happy hours reminiscing about some of my teenage reading last week, and I thought it was worth a mention here.  If you’ve been hanging around here a while, you’ll know that I’ve written a fair bit about fiction for teenage girls and middle graders in the past – from my weekend at a book conference all about them, through my enduring love of classics like Drina and the Chalet School, through new books like the Wells and Wong series, the Sinclair Mysteries and everything in between, so you can probably tell from looking at the cover that Paperback Crush would be right up my street…

Cover of Paperback Crush

Paperback Crush’s subtitle is “The Totally Radical History of 80s and 90s Teen Fiction” and author Gabrielle Moss takes a fairly deep dive into the American books of those two decades.  If you read the Babysitters Club, any of the Sweet Valley iterations or the revamped Nancy Drews, there’s something here for you.  I was delighted to rediscover a couple of series’ I’d forgotten about  – like the boarding school series which I read a few of in the school library and was never able to find again.  This also covers some of the single titles and the notable authors – like  Caroline B Cooney’s Face on the Milk Carton, and it’s sequels which I remember devouring as an early teen and then watching the TV movie of!

This is an exclusively American book though, so if like me, you were a reader in the UK, some of your favourites and the series that you remember most won’t be here – there’s no Trebizon for example, which was one of the few “new” boarding school stories I remember reading.  It’s also exclusively about girls fiction – so there’s no three investigators, or Hardy Boys – but it does touch on career books a little.

My copy came via NetGalley, but Paperback Crush is out at the end of the month in the US and the UK – my suspicion is that you’ll need to order it in specially, rather than happen across it in the store.  Here’s the link for Amazon paperback and Kindle pre-orders if you want to get your bids in early.

Happy Reading!

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

Book of the Week: Strangers in Fleet Street

This week’s BotW returns to my old stomping ground of Girl’s Own fiction.  However it is slightly out of my usual wheel house in that it’s not a school story, but a career book. Compared to my reading of school stories, I haven’t read many career books, but one of my favourite books that my mum passed on from her childhood was Shirley Flight, Air Hostess so a book in a series called Sally Baxter, Girl Reporter definitely appealed to me.  I found it in the Oxfam Bookshop in York (on the same trip that I picked up two Oxenhams and Dorita Fairlie Bruce) and I bought it, because after all, I am a journalist after spending my childhood pretending to be one, so what could be more perfect?!But this is definitely a recommendation for people who are afficiados of the genre – because it has some… let’s call them issues.

Hardback copy of Strangers in Fleet Street

So, Strangers in Fleet Street is apparently the 15th book in the Sally Baxter series and it sees Sally, who is a teenager working as a reporter at a national newspaper, taking charge of a group of foreign readers of the Evening Cry (her paper) who won a competition to spend two weeks in London.  She’s their guide – but she’s also hoping to get some stories from their visit.  Sally soon makes friends with most of the visitors but a series of disappearances – of money, of earrings and of a person – lead to suspicion being thrown on her little group and Sally is determined to unmask the real culprit – not just for the scoop but to save her new friend’s reputations.

This ticked pretty much all of my boxes – it’s got a mystery and a bit of adventure.  It has a fun cast of characters and it has a lead character who is doing an interesting job, in a male-dominated profession.  OK Sally may be on human interest duty in this book, but she’s definitely doing the job and she’s not the only one – there’s a more senior woman reporter too.  Looking at the information about the other titles in the series that I found here, it seems that Sally seems to get a lot of the softer stories – as opposed to crime, trials or politics, but then court rooms and council meetings are hard to make sound exciting – but a lot of it involves globe-trotting.  Even without that list, Sally mentions trips to Hong Kong and North Africa – so it does sound like an exciting and appealing life, which has got to be one of the major aims of a career novel.  My quibbles with it are all around some of the rather old-fashioned (putting it nicely) attitudes.  Sally herself is very fair but the way the young North African boy is portrayed is definitely very stereotypical and of its time.  And the resolution to the mystery involved another trope that I’m not very keen on, but I can’t say more than that because it’s a huge spoiler.  So lets say that I won’t be lending this to my 10-year-old niece.  But if you are a fan of Girl’s Own fiction and know where its weaknesses and blind spots are, this is a very enjoyable way to spend a few hours.  And I’ve already been on the second hand book sites looking for more in the series.

As I mentioned, my book came from a charity bookshop, the secondhand dealers have lots of copies of various books in this series (please don’t beat me to them) but unless this is your secret niche book love, it’s probably not going to be one for you- and if it is, you already know how to source this sort of thing, so no links this week!

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, children's books, detective, new releases

Book of the Week: A Spoonful of Murder

This week’s BotW is the latest Wells and Wong mystery, A Spoonful of Murder, which makes three mystery books in a row, but I don’t see a problem with that.  The only surprise here is that I managed to pace myself and take two and a half weeks to read this, rather than glomming it on the day it came out, which is what I usually do and what nearly happened.

Cover of A Spoonful of Murder

Anyway, this is the sixth instalment in the Wells and Wong series and sees Hazel sent for by her father after the death of her grandfather.  Hazel heads back home to Hong Kong, accompanied by Daisy for moral support.  And she needs the support when she gets home and discovers that more has changed than just the death of her beloved Ah Yeh.  As always with this series, the mystery is clever, the action is fast-paced and you just keep turning the pages.  The stories are getting more mature as we go through the series – not unlike the Harry Potter books did – so the murder is a little bit more gruesome, the girls see a little bit more and are in a bit more danger, but there’s nothing here that should give a middle grader nightmares.  Or at least not in the way that I scared myself with Miss Marple books when I was about 10 any way.

The big change in this book from the others, is that although we are still seeing the action through Hazel’s eyes, for once it is Daisy who is the fish-out-of-water and Hazel is on her home turf.  One of the things that I have always loved about this series is the way that it takes classic boarding school stories and adds in new layers and gives you a different viewpoint.  The reader has always been aware that Hazel is seen as an outsider and that she doesn’t always know how things work in Britain, but it’s only really in this book, where Hazel is back at home and Daisy is her guest that you really realise how different her life is at home and how much she’s had to adapt to be accepted in England.  The way that you see Daisy struggle to work out a world she doesn’t understand and to figure out where she fits in and accept (well sort of) that here she isn’t seen as important the way she is in Britain is so cleverly done.  Daisy is still Daisy, but she’s realising that there’s more to Hazel’s life than she thought and that she has hidden skills that Daisy hadn’t appreciated.  And this is all done without meanness or cruelty and seamlessly with everything that we already know about the two girls.

And there’s obviously been a huge amount of research done into this.  The picture that Robin Stevens paints of high society in interwar Hong Kong in this feels grounded in research and facts, but it wears it very lightly.  I came away wanting to know more about Hong Kong’s history and what it was like as well as wanting to read more books set there.  It worked for me on every level – it’s a great mystery, with great characters and a great setting that just happens to be aimed at 8 to 11 year olds.  Perfect.  And I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, if you liked St Clares or Mallory Towers or (my beloved) Chalet School when you were little and like Agatha Christie and other Golden Age crime authors – then you should read this.  And if you have a middle grader in your house, this makes a great chapter book to read with them.  It has maps and everything.

You should be able to get this from any bookshop with a children’s section and I’ve seen them in the supermarkets too.   For best effect, start at the beginning with Murder Most Unladylike, especially if you’re giving to a child at the younger end of the age spectrum as it’s less for them to cope with on the death and violence spectrum.

Happy Reading!

Authors I love, children's books, cozy crime, crime, Fantasy, romance

My Big Obsessions of 2016: Revisited

It’s that time of the year when I look back at what I read the previous year and look at whether my habits have changed at all.  And as previously mentioned, this post is slightly later than it should have been because we’re already into 2018.  Sorry about that.

I think this year I’ve grown more slightly more consistent – if I was writing an obsessions post this year from scratch, several of last year’s obsessions would still be on it.  One of those would definitely be Fahrenheit Press. I had their subscription again this year and it’s given me another swath of great books to read.  My Dad is currently working his way through the Christy Kennedy series (and thinks they should be made into a TV series) and I can’t wait to see what they dish up this year.  I do hope the subscription is going again this year…

Another of my 2016 obsessions which has endured is Girls Own fiction. I’ve widened the pool of authors that I read again this year – adding some more classic authors like Elsie J Oxenham to my reading and to my little collection upstairs and some more obscure ones too.  Some were good, some were… not, but I had a wonderful time reading them.

My pace of working through The Chronicles of St Mary’s series has slowed somewhat this year – not because I’ve gone off them, but because I’m catching up to the end of the series – and as we all know I’m a terrible binge reader with no will control who would one click through to the next book without thinking and I’m meant to be regulating my book purchases. I’ve read a lot of the short stories and extras this year but no more of the actual novels.  Writing this has reminded me that I’ve got one waiting to be read on the kindle so you may well see that popping up on a Week in Books post soon!

Well this is one obsession that has well and truly endured this year – I’ve read another eleven of Sarah Morgan’s books this year – ranging from her new releases, through recent series and right back as far as some of her medical romances.  And she’s been the gateway into me reading a lot more contemporary romances this year than I would have expected.  Of that, more in my 2017 obsessions post – which will be coming soon.

And this final obsession is the one that hasn’t really endured.  I don’t think I’ve read a single Book with Brontes in it this year, unless we count Trisha Ashley’s The Little Tea Shop of Lost and Found which is set in Bronte country.  Publishing goes in phases and fads and clearly one of last year’s phases which hit my reading pile was the Brontes. As I’m not a particular fan of the Bronte’s I haven’t been looking out of anything else about them this year, and so I’m not surprised that it’s died off somewhat as an obsession.

So there you had it: Verity is still reading lots of crime and noir, Sarah Morgan and has a lingering fondness for time travelling historians.  Tune in to my next post to find out what I was obsessed with in 2017!

 

children's books, Recommendsday, Series I love

Recommendsday: The Sinclair Mysteries

For #Recommendsday this week I wanted to talk about the Sinclair Mysteries – as the final book in the series is out tomorrow (October 5).  Regular readers will be well aware of my love of detective fiction and middle grade novels and Katherine Woodfine’s Sinclair mysteries are a great meeting of the two.

In the first book in the series, we meet Sophie and Lily – newly employed to work in Sinclair’s department store which is the biggest thing to happen in Edwardian London since, well, a long time.  Sophie’s father has recently died and she’s having to find her own way in the world.  Lily works in the shop by day and is trying to break through onto the stage at night.  Over the course of the books they gather a gang together and solve crimes, with department store owner Mr Sinclair (think Mr Selfridge) always hovering somewhere in the background.  Starting with the theft of the titular Clockwork Sparrow and moving on to things more dastardly and complicatated.  There is a big bad here, although I can’t say too much about that without giving far to much away.  Suffice it to say that although you can read this on their own, they work best as a series, building to a wonderful climax that pulls all the threads from the previous books together and ties them into a nice neat bow.

If you grew up on a diet of Enid Blyton and Nancy Drew, then these books may well be for you.  Or for your children if you have them.  I’ve lent (given?) my copy of the first one to Eldest Niece who has been tearing her way through the Famous Five and Secret Seven.  I came to these after reading the first Wells and Wong book – and needing more middle grade mystery in my life and they filled that gap admirably.  I’m sad that the series over – but really looking forward to seeing whatever Katherine Woodfine does next.

You should be able to find these in any bookstore that has a good children’s department, as well as in supermarkets – I got my copy of the first book from Tesco (although I got books 2 and 4 from NetGalley) and I can’t remember where I bought book three.  Anyway, read them in order wherever you buy them from.

Happy Reading!