Friday, July 31, 2020

Fantastically Great Women Who Made History by Kate Pankhurst

Fantastically Great Women Who Made History by Kate Pankhurst

Click on image to view on Amazon


This book introduces the young reader to fourteen women who have made their mark on the world: Boudicca, Harriet Tubman, Flora Drummond, Qui Jin, Noor Inayat Khan, Dr Elizabeth Blackwell, Valentina Tereshkova, Josephine Baker,  Pocahonta, Hatshepsut, Mary Wollstonecraft,  Mart Shelley,  Sayyid al Hurra and Ada Lovelace. Each woman has a double spread to herself though mother and daughter Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley share a spread.  A final double spread displays a series of book spines, one for each woman featured.  The sub-title to each book is a reminder of that woman’s main characteristics.   

Each double spread is filled with snippets of factual material.  The text is enlightened with quirky two-dimensional drawings and some extra extraordinary facts.  Each page is very busy and the reader may not wish to read in a linear fashion.

There are a variety of fonts – mainly serif and with difficult ‘a’s and ‘g’s. Some chunks of text are boxed off. This make it easier to distinguish the different sections.  
There is also a glossary at the end of the book of some of the more demanding expressions.
This is a good book for dipping into and it’s likely that it will be read over and over again.
It seeks to motivate girls.    

Skeleton Key by Anthony Horowitz

2015, first published 2002  

This is the third of the Alex Rider books.   Alex makes an enemy of a triad that he is investigating undercover by being a ball-boy at Wimbledon.  To hide him he is sent away on a mission to work with the CIA.  This actually puts him in more danger than he was from the triad and the two CIA agents with whom he is working are killed.    
There is pace a plenty in this novel, possibly even more than in the first two books.  On the cover the novel is again described as “Action, Adrenaline, Adventure.”  Alex remains a likeable and believable character, however.  We get to know him better in each book.  In this one there is almost a love interest.  Alex is maturing with his readers. 

This is almost James Bond for children and in fact Anthony Horowitz has been involved in creating further James Bond stories.  Alex is given various “toys” to help him with his mission. 

The book is 327 pages long, - so longer than the first two books - with blocked text and an adult but simple font. The chapters are a little longer than in the first book.  There are no illustrations.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Secrets of the Fearless by Elizabeth Laird

Click on image to view on Amazon

There is a little romance and there is a marriage near the end of this story but this is very understated. This is mainly an adventure on the high seas and includes espionage, danger and risk-taking. It contains much of the drama that we would expect to see in works by Dickens or Shakespeare.   We even have a girl dressed up as a man.   
There is plenty of pace in this novel. The chapters are relatively short and each contains several exciting plot points.    
This is a slight departure for Elizabeth Laird. Much of her work is set in different cultures in the modern world. This story however takes place in a past that is just as exotic in another way, and we have details about press gangs, battles with the French and the Empress Josephine.  Laird demonstrates here that she is an excellent story-teller. 
It is a long read – 351 pages of a point 12 point serif font with difficult ‘a’s and ‘g’s.  The text is blocked.  The book has a robust spine.       

Dear Nobody by Berlie Doherty

Click on image to view on Amazon

2001, first published 1991  
Helen writes letters to her unborn baby – hence the “Dear Nobody” of the title.  The novel begins  on the day Chris is about to start university when he receives a parcel.  It contains all of the letters that 

Helen has written to the baby.  Chris reads through them and realises that their child has been born. He rushes to visit mother and child.   The story ends as Chris write s from his student room to his daughter Amy.

This is a story of an unplanned teen pregnancy.  We have little detail of how Chris and Helen become parents but there is a hint of a romantic scene and unplanned love-making.  We do get a few reality checks as Helen faces some of the physical realities about pregnancy. There is no happy ending.  We do not find out what happens to Helen and Amy after the birth. Chris decides he is not yet ready for fatherhood.

The story is told through the letters to the unborn baby and the flash backs they cause for Chris.  Thus the voice alternates between the two main characters.

It is a little dated: they use landlines and talk about cassette tapes. The chapters are quite long compared with a 21st century book.    

The book is 234 pages long, in blocked text and in an adult font.  

Monday, July 20, 2020

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls (1 & 2) by Francesca Cavallo and Elena Favilli

2016, 2017, 
These are gorgeous books. They are hardback and have smooth, pleasing to the touch covers.  Each one contains 100 double spreads, featuring a page about a woman who has made a difference and a full page portrait of her. A variety of artists have been commissioned to produce the portraits.  On almost every portrait there is a quote from the woman featured.   The range is wide and includes Margaret Thatcher, J K Rowling and Billie Jean King. In both books the women are listed in alphabetical order by first name.      
How should one read these books? 
I admit to reading both in just a few sittings but perhaps the titles suggest that one story at a time should be digested just before the reader goes to bed.  Are these books just for the girls? Maybe. They are indeed aspirational. But maybe the boys should read them too so that they can appreciate what women can do. Ideally as well each woman should be scrutinised carefully and each entry should be discussed in detail – between mother and daughter, maybe, but also between class teacher and the whole class?   
The concept started as a crowd-funded project and each book lists all of the backers.  It has now been taken over by Particular Books, an imprint of Penguin.       

Anne of the Island L M Montgomery

2017, first published 1915

Anne goes to Redmond and studies there for her B A. Readers get a taste of university life.  This must have been quite innovative at the time it was written and isn’t too old-fashioned even for a 21st century reader.  Anne and three of her friends enjoy an interesting house share.   

We meet several old friends from Avonlea – Gilbert Blyhte, Diana Barry, Marilla and Mrs Rachel Lynde.  

Anne has to face death. One of her best friends from school, Ruby Willis, dies of TB.

There is romance as well. Anne meets handsome Roy Garner, the romantic hero of her dreams. He woos Anne but in the end she tunes him down; she does not love him. At the end of the novel Anne and Gilbert become engaged.     

Childhood friend Diana marries her Fred.  Housemate Phil, who can never make up her mind and waivers for a long time between two suitors until she finds a third in her dear Jo, soon to become a minister. Anne attends this wedding and several others. Anne herself receives three proposals before she accepts Gilbert’s second attempt.  

Typically for this age group, Anne only realises she loves Gilbert after Roy’s proposal but Gilbert seems to be seeing a lot of another girl, Christine.  In the end Anne finds out that Christine was already engaged to someone else, and that Gilbert was just looking out for her; she was the sister of a good friend of his.  

L M Montgomery is a skilled writer. Her characters come alive.  They are rounded and believable. Her smooth prose carries us along. We are given a real sense of time and place.
She portrays a life that will be somewhat alien to the modern teenager.

The book is 306 pages long.  The chapters are of a reasonable length and each has a self-contained story though some longer stories run through the book  

Thursday, July 16, 2020

The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton

This is the first story in Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series. We are introduced to the main characters and the world of the Faraway Tree.  Each chapter contains a separate adventure.
Joe, Beth and Frannie (formerly Fanny) climb the magical tree several times and each time are taken to a different world. Some of the worlds are less pleasant. The lands move to and from the tree and the children must return before the land moves on. Getting stuck in a land is unpleasant and frightening. The children experience genuine xenophobia which after all is a real fear. Arguably this presents a balanced view of our interaction with other cultures. The tree is full of quirky characters - including Dame Slap, a corporal punishment enthusiast. In recent versions of the story she has been replaced by Dame Snap who has been softened somewhat. Joe throughout takes charge. He is always bossing the girls around. However, he is the oldest child so perhaps he would be in charge anyway. Even in newer versions some old-fashioned language exists. “I say!” “Do let’s.” This language is also decidedly middle class. Yet father is poor and “could not afford to do anything but walk there” (2). The cottage was five miles from the station. Beth makes the toffee for Moon-face. Females are domesticated(43).
Neither Blyton  nor her characters deal well with those who are different.  The clattering of the Saucepan Man’s saucepans make him somewhat deaf and he becomes a figure of fun (94-121).    
Comfort is as usual provided in the form of food. “They were so tired they could do nothing but tumble into their roughly-made beds” (3). Their big adventure starts when their mother sends them off with a picnic as a reward for all the help they have given 8). A later picnic is also described: “Mother cut sandwiches and put them in a bag with three cakes each. She sent Joe to pick some plums form the garden and told Beth to take two bottles of lemonade” (17). When they eventually find Joe, after his adventure with the Snowman, safe and sound in the cottage with Goldilocks and the three bears Goldilocks says “Come into the kitchen and we’ll all have some hot porridge and milk” (75). The actual feast she offers in the end is more lavish. Once the children and the inhabitants of the Faraway Tree get rid of the goblins Moon-Face declares: “We’ve got them all safe. My word I am hungry. What about having a  good meal?” (173). 
Perhaps more disturbingly the children are sent off on their own - a common trait in Blyton’s books - and immediately engage with strangers - in the form of elves and a goblin (12). Fantasy offers some distance and perhaps ironically when this book was first written in 1939, when World War II was imminent, “stranger danger” was not so much of an issue. Surprisingly their mother does not object to them going for tea with the strange Saucepan Man (102).                                                    
The story is loaded with fantasy. The children are warned early on that the forest is enchanted and there is even a hint that it might be dangerous (6). They meet the elves and the goblin the first time they go there. The second time they meet a talking rabbit (20). Fantasy also provides an escape but it may not always be welcome when the reality of being in a strange place kicks in. They cross the first threshold and then Beth refuses the call. “’What I’m worried about is getting home,’ said Beth. ‘Mother will be anxious if we’re not back before long. What shall we do Joe?’” (32) Tension mounts as they establish that the Faraway Tree is not quite touching the new land, Roundabout Land.   
The children soon learn about basic economics bordering on bribery: Moon-face will only let them use his special slide to get down the tree if they pay him in toffee (38-39). They also have to face the realities of war. The girls are brought into a conflict when they try to rescue Joe from the Snowman. “After all, if people are fighting you, you can’t do much but defend yourself” (67). Perhaps another reference to the conflict that is happening in Europe at the time that the story was first written comes as father bear comments: ”The white bears are cousins of ours, and have always been friendly - now they seem to be enemies” (76). They rob the old lady in Rocking Land admittedly accidentally but show little remorse:  Moon-Face says “ we can’t possibly give them back to that cross old woman in Rocking Land so we may as well put them to good use here” (115). They become greedy when they visit the land of Take-What-You-Want (114-137).
At times they confront danger and take risks. Their second adventure engages them with a land covered in snow and the dangerous Snowman (50-57). Later, the inhabitants of the Faraway tree are surrounded by goblins. The children have to get into the tree by going up the slippery-slip (161-65). There is some mitigation here. however. Moon-Face has not escaped via the slippery-slip because he does not want to leave his friends in danger. 
This first Faraway Tree story ends with a glorious birthday party for Beth. For a short while things go wrong and they are whisked away into a forbidding land. They get back to the Land of Birthdays and eventually to the Faraway Tree and home. The adventures have ended for the time being but the reader is left with hope: “Perhaps they will have more adventures one day” (210).                                          

The Bird Within Me


The story is inspired by paintings, letters and diaries of the Swedish painter Berta Hansson.
There is a lot of sadness in the text: Berta is labelled as useless, she is dissatisfied with her art, especially as it does not prevent her mother, who suffers from TB,  eventually dying. Berta and her siblings have to constantly be tested for the disease and after Mother’s death the house has to be thoroughly cleaned.
We have clues that the story is set in the past: the hold the TB has, the visit of the mother to the sanatorium, we see older sister Julia putting on stockings and we see some delightful extracts from the fashion pages of an old newspaper. Father’s attitude is a little old-fashioned; Why should a girl go away to be educated?
Yet Berta manages with the doctor’s help to go away to study art.
The illustrations represent the type of work Berta would have been doing at the age she is in the story.
Who will read this text? It is rather long for a picture book and has rather more text that we would expect in a story for pre-school children. Indeed the content is more suitable for an older child or even a young adult or adult. Yet the pictures, the story and the text work together to give us an authentic picture of Berta’s life.  It is a text that the reader can return to time and time again.    
This is a highly illustrated with full colour pictures. The pictures add to the story. There are sixty-five double spreads including end-matter which add up to the 228 pages of core text.  
At the end of the book is a twelve page biography of Berta. 

A Tempest of Tea by Hafsah Faizal

2024   Spendthrift is an innocent tea room by day and by night a den for vampires, where they can enjoy a different sort of tea and indulg...