The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Russell Brand – A Book Review

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This book caught my eye in a second hand book shop a few weeks ago because of the illustrations by Chris Riddell more than anything else. I like Russell Brand’s work, but I was understandably wary about him writing a children’s book, given the nature of his adult material and also publishers who publish celebrities simply because they were celebrities. I flicked through it in the shop and it looked alright, and I thought my son would love it because of the brilliant illustrations by Riddell, so I bought it despite my misgivings and the fact that I have always hated the story of The Pied Piper.

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He read the whole thing in one sitting, very excitedly telling me that it had lots of rude words in it. Given that he is reading me all the Disc World books I felt that horse had already bolted, so merely sighed and thought I would have to read it before I loaned it to any other children.

When he’d finished it, he gave it to my 17 year old daughter to read, who also read it in one sitting. She put it firmly on the top of my to read pile and insisted I read it because I would love it. I did read it, and I did love it. And Oscar is right. It’s full of rude words!

I’ve always hated the Pied Piper story. I always felt so sorry for the little boy on crutches who gets left behind at the end of the story. It seemed so unfair to leave him with the horrible people of Hamelin. The whole story is just downright mean.

Brand subverts this and without changing the plot at all, manages to turn it from a mean hearted parable that smacks of Victorian morality to an anarchic, funny story in which the weakest, most despised person in the story is the one who reaps the rewards.

It’s scatalogically fruity, quite demented and at times laugh out loud funny. It’s thought provoking and clever and the illustrations by Riddell only add to the anarchistic genius of the book. I found it completely refreshing and would think it is a perfect book to entice reluctant readers into enthusiasm and would work wonderfully for the tens and overs as long as you’ve got a strong threshold for rudeness.

 

Saint Death by Marcus Sedgwick – A Book Review

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Marcus Sedgwick is an author I revisit from time to time. I’ve never ‘loved’ his books particularly but every one I have read has been unsettling, clever and powerful. he doesn’t really do cosy books. They have all stayed with me in their own way and each has been profoundly different from the other. When I got the chance to review Saint Death I snapped it up. I like authors who challenge me and who constantly reinvent themselves.

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The last work of Sedgwick’s I read was She Is Not Invisible, a thriller with an unusual plot twist that I won’t spoil for you here. Saint Death is totally different. In some ways it reminded me very strongly of Trash by Andy Mulligan. It has the same intensity, the same kind of message and the same rawness to it.

Saint Death tells the story of Arturo, a teenage boy who came originally from Guadaloupe in search of a better life with his parents. They end up on the Mexican side of the Mexican/North American border, living in a shanty town and barely surviving. By the time the story opens, Arturo is alone, scraping a living working in a local garage and supplementing his meagre income playing cards.

His closest friend, almost brother, Faustino disappeared the year before and suddenly reappears in terrible trouble and needing Arturo’s card playing skills to get him out of a situation with one of the local gangs. Faustian needs money fast, and Arturo is the only person he can turn to for help.

The book unfolds over the space of one desperate twenty four hour period in which flashbacks and memories give us the story of Arturo’s life to date and we learn what the future will hold for the two young men. Each short chapter is interspersed with sections of reports and/or almost choral poetic pieces about the political and economic situation that has put Arturo and Faustian here.

The book is short and easy to read but what it says, backed up by Sedgwick’s own research is sometimes hard to read and it really is brutal. This is very much a book for teens rather than younger children. It pulls no punches about the life of people forced to live at the very edges of existence and who simply survive against tremendous odds.

I finished the book about a week ago and I’ve thought about it every day since. It’s one of those books, much like Trash, that I think should be required reading for everyone. It’s not comfortable, but it seems very necessary if things are ever to change, that we open our eyes to how the poorest of us live, and how things could be different if we were to do our bit, individually and collectively.

The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett

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The Last Continent is the twenty second book in the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett and my son Oscar and I have just finished reading it. Well, he’s been reading it to me.

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I confess that having been a Pratchett fan right from the beginning, when this was first published I had a falling out of love with Pratchett. I really didn’t like this book, and didn’t read another one for a few years after this. This is the first time I’ve revisited it, and I still believe it is a low point in the series. It seems too much of a joke, and almost like a return to the Colour of Magic in some ways. Everything is a bit obvious, a bit too funny and the finesse that starts with Small Gods seems lacking in development here.

I confess that it was lovely to see the Librarian get such a juicy role in this book and his shape shifting scenes were the thing that saved this for me.

Having said that, Oscar really enjoyed it. He always loves anything with Rincewind and the Luggage in, and he was delighted to see them return here, roaming through the continent of XXXX, a thinly veiled Australia, which heaves with jokes about kangaroos and sheep and Mad Max type figures and which he found rip roaringly funny.

He was sad that it finished. I wasn’t.

As ever. It’s a book for teens at best, unless you’re broad minded and willing to explain a lot of stuff to an enquiring mind.

Black Cats and Butlers (Rose Raventhorpe Investigates book 1) by Janine Beacham

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I was sent Black Cats and Butlers, the first volume in the Rose Raventhorpe Investigates series by Amazon Vine in exchange for my honest opinion. I thought this would be rather like the Katherine Woodfine book, The Painted Dragon, that I reviewed a few weeks ago. I like a historical whodunnit so I was happy to try something new.

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Black Cats and Butlers is a fun read. It’s an easy read, not too taxing and the emphasis is on more of a romp than any attempt at historical accuracy from the author Janine Beacham. The story is set in a fictional version of York, called Yorke, yet it is recognisable in many of its features, including the cathedral, which features prominently in this book.

Rose Raventhorpe is the only daughter of a wealthy couple who are, for some reason, living in Yorke, despite the fact that Rose’s father is a member of parliament and Rose’s mother is always going to London to have her portrait painted, conveniently leaving Rose alone. In this story, the only person who Rose can rely on is the butler, Argyle who acts as parent, friend and confidante to Rose, as well as a kind of nanny/governess.

Rose’s life is torn apart when Argyle is the third butler in Yorke to be assassinated by The Black Glove. Rose is determined from that point on to track down Argyle’s killer and hopefully solve the mystery of whoever is also removing the watchful cat statues which are said to act as guardians to the city of Yorke.

Along the way, Rose gets caught up in romance, a secret society of butlers and tangles with body snatchers.

This is a funny, page turner of a book that would be ideal for 8-12 year olds.

King Flashypants and The Creature from Crong by Andy Riley – A Book Review

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King Flashypants and the Creature from Crong by Andy Riley is the second book in the King Flashypants series, the first being King Flashypants and the Evil Emperor. I was sent the first book to review by Amazon Vine, and Oscar and I enjoyed it so much I snapped up the second book when it was offered to me.

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King Edwin is a boy who also happens to be king of Edwinland. All his subjects love him because he’s a kind boy, and he also likes sweets as much as his subjects. When the story opens everyone is a bit miserable because Edwin’s right hand woman, Minister Jill has put a stop to all the sweet eating and is making everyone eat ten lots of fruit and vegetables a day.

Things look up when a hermit who lives in a house of dead wasps arrives from the wilderness to say that the land is about to be ravaged by a creature called the Voolith. Edwin decides to go on a quest and save all his subjects from death by challenging the creature to single combat.

The plan goes awry when he is challenged to a duel by the evil Emperor Nurbison, who hates Edwin with a passion and who wants to conquer Edwinland for himself.

Can Edwin defeat the Voolith, foil Nurbison’s evil plans and somehow avoid eating ten portions of fruit and veg every day?

I’d tell you, but then you might not read the book.

This is just as much fun as the first book in the series. Andy Riley does all the illustrations as well as the text and I particularly love the way he depicts Emperor Nurbison. Also Nurbison has the best laugh of all evil villains ever.

A great chapter book for children aged 7-10. Funny, silly and full of great jokes. It took me a few days to finish it as I was reading several other things at the same time, and my son hovered around the desk every day pestering me until the day he could take it away and have it for himself. He’s thoroughly enjoying it. We hope there are many more in the series.

Claude: Going for Gold by Alex T. Smith – A Book Review

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My family are united in their love of Claude, the delightful dog and his equally delightful sidekick Sir Bobblysock. We have loved Claude from the beginning and he never fails to please. Claude, Going for Gold was sent to me to review by the Amazon Vine programme in exchange for my honest opinion.

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Honestly and promisedly, we love it. Alex T. Smith is both a brilliant illustrator and a brilliant writer. His books work for both adults and children because his humour is beautifully multi-layered. Children will enjoy the slapstick nature of Claude’s adventures and adults will love the subtle humorous asides. I particularly love the character of Sir Bobblysock for these qualities.

In Going for Gold, Claude and Sir Bobblysock are stumped as to how to spend their day when they get inadvertently caught up in a sporting parade that takes them to an arena sports day. Claude dons a pair of borrowed ‘snazzy knickers’ and competes in many different events. Success eludes him until Sir Bobblysock spots some nefarious activity going on near the trophy table.

A wonderful transitional book which would be a fabulous addition to any primary school library and which would work equally well for both boys and girls. A delight to share as a bed time story and from my own experience, Claude books make excellent stocking stuffers for those in their late teens as an unexpected and wholly welcome Christmas gift.

Giant by Kate Scott – A Book Review

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Kate Scott was kind enough to send me her earlier series of books for young readers, Spies in Disguise, which you will find reviewed on this site. I enjoyed them very much and it was a pleasure to receive her latest book, Giant.

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Giant is not in the Spies in Disguise series but is none the worse for that. It’s an altogether more thoughtful book than its predecessors, telling as it does, the story of Anzo, a young man who is deeply distressed by the fact that he is so short that his drama teacher casts him as all seven dwarves in the school play. As with Spies in Disguise, there is humour here, but it is humour that is laced with sadness and for those of us who never fitted in at school, a sense of recognition for Anzo’s plight.

The story is told from Anzo’s point of view and we see how hard it is for him in a family of extroverts, a school full of regular sized people and teachers who are unwittingly patronising and adding to Anzo’s problems. This is before we get to the inevitable fact that Anzo is being bullied.

Anzo believes that all his problems would be solved if only he were taller. His friend Elise, a girl who wants to be a therapist when she grows up, suggests that Anzo tries the power of positive thinking. He’s not convinced, but decides in a moment of desperation to give it a go. Much to his amazement it seems to work, except that what he hoped would happen when he was taller, doesn’t happen at all.

Anzo has to find a way to be himself, short or tall, and this book is his journey to that awareness. It’s sweet, and at times rather poignant. It’s funny and sad, and it really struck a chord with the child me who knows exactly what it feels like to be Anzo.

A perfect read for eights and ups. It would be a particularly good addition in school libraries and for any teacher trying to find a book that tackles the subject of fitting in. It reminded me a little of Wonder, but perhaps for slightly younger readers.

The Painted Dragon by Katherine Woodfine – A Book Review

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The Painted Dragon by Katherine Woodfine is the third book in her Sinclair’s Mysteries series, which feature the young women detectives, Lil and Sophie. The first two books in the series are The Clockwork Sparrow and The Jewelled Moth. I actually own these as the series was highly recommended to me by someone last year. I hadn’t got round to reading them, but I will be putting them higher up my to read list after finishing The Painted Dragon for the Amazon Vine review programme.

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I loved this book and there are already a list of people I know who will love it too, and I can’t wait to recommend it to them.

The books are set at the time of the beginning of women’s emancipation. The suffragette movement is on the march, and girls are beginning to get jobs and a real sense of independence. Lil is an actress. Sophie works in the millinery department of Sinclair’s famous department store, but what excites them both most, is solving mysteries, which it turns out they have a knack for.

In this book, things are in the doldrums rather and Sophie is beginning to get bored selling hats all day, when things look up. A famous art collector proposes to hold a unique art exhibition at Sinclair’s. Not only will it feature rare and famous paintings, but it will also turn the shop windows into living art displays and feature new works by up and coming art students at the famous art school, The Spencer. Lil is abuzz with the news, as she is about to become one of the living paintings. Sophie is less enthralled until the most famous painting in the exhibition, The Green Dragon, is stolen on the very morning the show is supposed to open.

The two girls and their friends are drawn into investigating the theft when their friend from the art school, Leonora, is framed for the theft and it quickly becomes apparent that Leonora’s life is in danger.

This is a wonderful whodunnit featuring great heroines, a wonderful cast of extraneous characters and set against a brilliant depiction of Edwardian England. Woodfine’s attention to detail brings the story alive without bogging it down under the weight of historical detail. The atmosphere is perfect, the pace is fast and the story intriguing. It can be read as a standalone novel, which I did with no trouble at all, but it is clear by the end of this book that the adventures of the previous books are all interlinked and that there is more to come in the next volume.

I recommend it to children aged eight and up. It’s exciting without being scary, clever without being tricky to read and utterly absorbing. I loved it.

Survivors of the Holocaust by Zane Whittingham and Ryan Jones – A Review

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Survivors of the Holocaust by Zane Whittingham and Ryan Jones was sent to me by the Amazon Vine review programme in exchange for my honest opinion.

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The book arrived a few days ago, but I didn’t have time to read it straight the way. Yesterday I found my ten year old son, Oscar reading it at the kitchen table. He was utterly absorbed in it. I waited until he had finished and asked him what he thought. You could tell that he was really struggling to find the words. In the end he said: ‘Mum. It’s good…no. That’s not the right word for it. Powerful.’ I asked him if he wanted to talk about it with me, but he wanted to read it with me and talk about it then. That’s what we did today.

The book is divided into separate stories from real life survivors of the Holocaust, all of whom had very different experiences. They are told in the form of graphic novel, style stories with very simple words, a few lines to a page. Mostly the pictures do the talking and the stark simplicity of the words really works well here.

At the end of the book is a section about the real life survivors and how they look now and what happened to them after the war. There is also a time line and a short bibliography.

This is an excellent book. The production quality is high, the content has been really thoughtfully selected and arranged and it is age appropriate (Primary age, Ks2). It deserves to be a classic in my opinion and would work as a fantastic spring board to a companion piece like Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit for example.

Oscar and I discussed every page. He asked questions about the things he didn’t fully understand. He drew my attention to numerous clever quirks the illustrator had added to really bring the book to life. He was utterly engrossed in the entire thing and was so excited to show me the photographs of the people at the back of the book. It kick started a discussion between us that was profoundly affecting and he was able to draw parallels with a lot of what is happening in the world today without my prompting.

A must read.

Jingo by Terry Pratchett – A Review

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Jingo is the twenty first Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett that my son, Oscar and I have shared together. It isn’t my favourite. We’re now into the middle years for Pratchett, where I lost enthusiasm for him and we parted ways for a few years. It’s interesting to read them again after such a long break (twenty odd years).

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Jingo deals with the emergence of a new island between Ankh Morpork and Klatch that both cities decide belong to them. A small squabble over fishing rights and who gets to occupy the land, turns into the threat of all out war, and the mobilisation of ancestral armies on the streets of Ankh Morpork.

Samuel Vimes, commander of the Watch, smells a rat and investigates, or he would do if he wasn’t hampered by the political machinations of his aristocratic haters, in particular, Lord Rust, a man who wants to shut Vimes down for many reasons.

Oscar loved this because it is a book about the Watch. He brings to his reading, a wealth of knowledge amassed from the previous books and it suddenly makes him realise how valuable things like back stories are. He is beginning to predict how characters will behave in certain circumstances, and it gives him enormous joy when he is right.

I disliked this less, this time around, but then it seems to echo a lot of the political landscape in which we are forced to live at the moment, jingoism, xenophobia, racism and casual intolerance are all lampooned on Pratchett’s sharpest pen and I was moved to laugh more than once by parallels with current events. Despite the fact that they aren’t really funny. Current events that is.

It holds up better than I expected and there are some wonderful moments between Nobby Knobbs, Sergeant Colon and Lord Vetinari that I had totally forgotten about and which really made this a winner this time around.

Wonderful for teens who love fantasy, humour and satire. Not suitable for primary aged children unless you don’t mind doing lots of explaining of adult humour, double entendres, and in this case, politics and science.