Junior fiction can be a difficult category to choose titles for but this time I was not only spoilt for choice I was overwhelmed. There is so much range, variety and versatility in this selection that I truly hope we have managed to review a book to cater for every taste. With issues of gender artfully addressed in George to children with apparently no talent becoming superheroes, it is possible to see the range and versatility of authors' choices. My Editor's Choice here is Rail Head by Philip Reeve for its brave venture into sci-fi and the stunning journey it takes us on.


The Adventures of Miss Petitfour

Written by: Anne Michaels

Illustrated by: Emma Block

Published by: Bloomsbury Children's Books

Reviewed by: Linda Lawlor

Anne Michaels' first book for children is a gentle affair, full of magical short adventures told in the sort of calm, cheery voice that might be employed by a favourite aunt or the very best of teachers. Lists abound on these pages and difficult words are clearly explained with useful examples – rather in the manner of Lemony Snicket but without the gloom.

Miss Petitfour is a lady who, whenever the mood takes her, seizes the four corners of a tablecloth and floats off on the wind, accompanied by her sixteen cats. Indeed, it happens so often that everyone in the village is quite used to seeing her drift past on her way to the pet shop, or to bring Mr Clemmo at the hardware shop something to repair. She's as dignified as Mary Poppins and as playful as Pippi Longstocking, and her voyages generally end safely back at home in time for tea.

There are no disasters or scary moments in these five short stories, and no death-defying exploits. Indeed, the worst thing that happens is the day Miss Petitfour runs out of marmalade for tea but cannot reach the grocery shop because the wind is blowing in the wrong direction.

The book is firmly aimed at the kind of dreamy, imaginative young child who thoroughly enjoys reading about worlds where the eccentric is commonplace. Such a reader will have to be a cat-lover, too: each feline has a profile section at the beginning of the book, and they feature prominently in each escapade. The illustrations are equally delicate and charming, and the overall effect is as comforting and pleasant as hot cocoa by the fire on a chilly afternoon.




The Boy At the Top of the Mountain

Written by: John Boyne

Published by: Penguin RandomHouse

Reviewed by: Margaret Pemberton

For the second time, John Boyne has taken us back to the Second World War and its consequences. 

This is the story of 7-year-old Pierrot from Paris, the son of a French Mother and German Father. When both die he is sent to an orphanage and then finally to live with his Aunt Beatrix in Germany, the year is 1936. However, she is housekeeper to Adolf Hitler, and Pierrot gradually turns into Pieter as he is subjected to indoctrination into the Nazi way of thinking. 

The main story shows snapshots of his life as he gradually changes from an innocent child into a young adult who has seen too much and lost all empathy for his fellow man.

I still remember the way I felt on finishing John Boyne’s first book, and this story has left me with very similar feelings. However this book leaves you with a sense of hope unlike its predecessor. There is a real sense of dread as we follow this young person and see how easy it is for someone to believe the words of a person they admire. 

As a seven-year-old Pierrot is naïve and trusting, with little real understanding of the wider world, and throughout the following years he is swayed by Hitler and the messages he is given. Like all zealots he does not want to listen to any other interpretations or beliefs. 

John Boyne has created another incredible story that leaves you questioning so many things. It is the sort of book which can explain extremism in its many forms, and which will no doubt form the basis of many discussions. Somehow the phrase ‘thought provoking’ does not really say it, but it is a start. 

This is a book that really should be read by adults and children alike.

 

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The Crossover

Written by: Kwame Alexander

Published by: Andersen Press

Reviewed by: Rebecca Butler

Josh and Jordan Bell are American twins. They both adore basketball. They would live, eat and breathe the game. Their father Chuck was himself a good player, having a professional career that fell just short of real stardom.

Alexander’s book tells the story of a passion for a sport, and what that passion can do to relations between the brothers, as well as relations with a girl and with their mother. The story leads the reader to the point where the father of the twins, led by his own dedication to the sport he loves and the relentless search for excellence on the part of his sons, demands a sacrifice too far.

The unusual formal feature of this novel is that it is written in episodes of blank verse. The format, fluid or staccato, leads a reader unfamiliar with basketball to be drawn into the speed and dynamic of the sport – sometimes into its brutality. The book is, on the surface, about nothing more than a game. At a deeper level, however, it is about aspiration, about the compulsion of an individual to exceed his own capabilities on behalf of a team. It is also significant that there is a realistic limitation on the extent to which the boys can commit themselves to sport: their mother is Vice Principal of their school and will not allow academic standards to lapse.

If anyone had told this reviewer a month ago that she would enthuse over a book about sports, she would have thought they had taken leave of their senses. But she does.


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The Secret of the Blue Glass

Written by: Tomiko Inui (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)

Published by: Pushkin Children’s Books

Reviewed by: Sasha Roth

In a dusty library, in the quietest corner of a house in a Tokyo suburb, live the Little People: Fern and Balbo, Robin and Iris. Just a few inches high, sleeping in cigarette boxes and crafting shoes from old book jackets, they need only one thing from their Humans – a nightly glass of milk, served in a sparkling Blue Glass goblet, by a trusted young member of the Human family.

But when the Second World War comes to Japan, bringing a dangerous new kind of patriotism, both Humans and their beloved Little People face a world they could never before have imagined. It will take great love, bravery, and a rather loyal pigeon, to bring their unique families back together once more …

This book was first published in Japan in 1967 and Inui, was a much-loved Japanese children’s author until her death in 2002. This is the first time that one of her books has been translated into English and having lived in Japan for a number of years, but never having read any Japanese children’s literature, I was really rather excited to be asked to review The Secret of the Blue Glass.

My initial impression, given the blurb, was that this story would be in a similar vein to The Borrowers. Whilst the story is about a miniature family, the comparisons stop there, as Inui sets her story during World War Two and her descriptions of its impact on everyday life in Japan.

The Little People, Fern and Balbao Ashe, arrived in Tokyo from their native England many years ago with their guardian, an English-teacher. When she decides to return to England after 20-years she assigns their care to one of her students, Tatsuo Moriyama. All they require is a nightly glass of milk served in a special blue glass goblet.

For many years Fern and Balbao make their comfortable home tucked away on a high shelf in the quiet, forgotten library in the Moriyama house where their own family grows with the arrival of their children Robin and Iris. Each generation of Moriyama’s is entrusted with bringing the Little People their nightly glass of milk and when this obligation falls to Yuri she is dutiful in her care of them. However, slowly the world around them is changing, as first the threat of war and then its outbreak starts to encroach upon all their lives. Milk, the Little People’s sole food source, starts to become scarce, threatening their very existence. Meanwhile Robin, soon followed by Iris, discovers a world away from the library and seeks the thrill of adventure outside their safe home. He befriends a local pigeon, Yahei, who brings news of the changes in wartime Tokyo.

At this time the Moriyama family become split; Yuri’s father is imprisoned, accused of being unpatriotic, an ideology seemingly shared by her eldest brother, Tetsu, away at boarding school in Kyoto. The middle child, a brother named Shin, by turn becomes intensely nationalistic and eager to join a military preparatory school. As the war continues, Yuri’s mother decides to send her to stay with her grandmother and spinster aunt in the country. Thus, Yuri and the Little People are evacuated to Nojiri. Here she struggles to find her way and fit in, not only with her elderly relatives, but with her new classmates too. The Little People also strain to adapt to the changes in their lives, but Iris and Robin reunite with Yahei and discover a kindred spirit. 

Overall, I found the storyline lacking at points, the pace slow and the ending disappointing. This was partly due to a lack of depth to the characters, making it difficult to warm to them, and partly due to some plot inconsistencies. The Secret of the Blue Glass does, however, provide an interesting portrait of wartime Japan from a child’s perspective and Takemori has translated with great care ensuring Inui’s prose flows lyrically off the page. The book will appeal to many, although I would caution against younger readers given the war references.

 

UPDATE:

The Secret of the Blue Glass has just been shortlisted for the 2016 CILIP Carnegie Medal. It is the first year the Carnegie Awards have been open to translations and The Secret of the Blue Glass is the only translated novel on the longlist.




Holly and the Quest for Captain Peabody

Written by: Roland Chambers    

Illustrated by: Ella Okstad  

Published by: Oxford University Press 

Reviewed by: Sasha Roth

One girl. One turtle. One epic voyage!

When Nelly says she's going to do a thing, she does it, whatever it is.

Juggle tea cups in the dark? Of course!

Live on lemons for a month? Of course!

Set out in a boat with knitted sails to find her long-lost father, with only her turtle, Columbus, for company? Absolutely!

And she won't let anything get in her way!

Nelly’s father, Captain Peabody, is missing, having gone off with the Gentlemen’s Exploratory Flotilla to sail the world many years ago. Nelly misses her father immensely, whilst her mother seems to hardly notice his absence, although she is constantly knitting hats, scarves and mittens that she mails to him fortnightly. Nelly knows he’s out there somewhere, and is determined to find him. All she has is an old, dilapidated ship with no sails. But that’s certainly not enough to stop her. Because when Nelly says she’s going to do something, she does it!

She gets to work knitting herself some sails, fixes up the Nelly, packs the hold with barrels of chocolate, salt pork, beans, cheese and lemons to ward off scurvy and sets off on a huge adventure – with just her trusty turtle Columbus for company!

Comparisons with Pippi Longstocking are inevitable: not least because Okstad’s cover image is instantly reminiscent of Pippi.  However, Chambers’ quirky story draws the reader in from the first page with his eccentric characters and swashbuckling action. Nelly is an instantly loveable, feisty, spirited, young girl with an unquenchable thirst for adventure. 

Upon her journey, she has wonderful encounters with waterspouts, ferocious storms, a giant octopus, pirates, whirlpools and polar bears. All of which are vividly described by Chambers’ prose, which, throughout, is itself beautifully complemented by Okstad’s superb two-colour illustrations.

It is inspiring to see a novel aimed at young girls that isn’t in the mould of the more saccharine tales that often seem to dominate this market segment. Nelly is sure to become a firm favourite with a new generation of young girls, who will no doubt be delighted that more escapades with Nelly are planned and I for one can’t wait to read her next exciting exploit!

 

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An Eagle in the Snow

Written by: Michael Morpurgo 

Illustrated by: Michael Foreman

Published by: Harper Collins Children's Books

Reviewed by: Jayne Gould

As Michael Morpurgo explains in his introduction, his stories are often inspired by real lives, by memories written or told, or by items such as letters seen in museums. From these have sprung such books as A Medal for Leroy, War Horse and Private Peaceful. This book is dedicated to Private Henry Tandey VC, who was the most decorated Private soldier in the First World War.

When Neville Chamberlain met with Hitler in 1939, he was shown a painting that depicted a soldier carrying an injured comrade over his shoulder. This soldier was Henry, and Hitler claimed he had recognised him as the man who had spared his life in 1918. Henry had had him in his rifle sights but couldn’t shoot an injured man: if he had, the course of history would have been very different. Whilst the truth of this cannot be verified, this novel is a tribute to the incredible courage and bravery of one man.

Following a bombing raid on Coventry, in which their house is destroyed, Barney and his mother are travelling by train to Cornwall, to stay with his aunt. On their journey, a stranger, who says he once lived in the orphanage that used to be on their street, joins them. The train comes under attack from a German aircraft and is halted in a tunnel until the raid is over. Barney is frightened of the dark, so to keep him calm and help pass the time, the man offers to tell a story. He also has four remaining matches left in a box, which he lights at intervals to reassure Barney. As each sputters and goes out, he tells another instalment of the life of his friend, Billy Byron.

Billy and the man had been friends in the orphanage, had left together and eventually joined the army. In 1914, they were sent to the battlefields of Belgium. Billy, a talented artist, exhibited great courage, winning medals including the Victoria Cross. As is only to be expected, the horror of what he saw and had to do, had a huge impact on Billy and by September 1918, with the end of the war in sight, he had no more stomach for killing. So when he came across a lone German soldier, he refused to shoot him. Twenty years later, on a cinema newsreel, he sees the face of the man he saved, now contorted with rage and hate. As war looms ever closer, the enormity of the consequences of his actions overwhelms Billy and he determines to put it right. Will he now find the courage to shoot a man in cold blood?

Michael Morpurgo has woven a deft and compelling story from the strands of Henry Tandey’s life, exploring courage and the effects of guilt, with a twist at the end as the train resumes its journey. The black-and-white illustrations by Michael Foreman provide context and understanding for the reader, conveying mood and detail.



Heartsong

Written by: Kevin Crossley-Holland

Published by: Orchard Books

Reviewed by: Laura Brill

The very appearance of Heartsong singles it out as one of those precious books that, once the front cover is open, is able to stop time and immerse the reader in a magic place.

Written by one of the finest writers of his generation, Kevin Crossley-Holland, and illustrated by the incredibly talented Jane Ray, this book has a lyrical quality both in its writing and its artwork.

Based in eighteenth-century Venice this is the tale of Laura, a mute orphan raised in a convent where Father Antonio instructs some of the children in music playing. He is no less than Vivaldi himself, and the composer takes Laura under his wing, allowing her to communicate through music. Though Laura loves playing and is fond of many of the companions at the Ospedale, she longs to meet her mother and her family.

The tale is not long, divided into four main sections, introduced by the image of a tree changing through the seasons; we are dealing with Vivaldi after all! Every page is enriched by atmospheric images. The Ospedale, the orphanage, is a place populated with mischief, laughter, sadness, and vividly described characters. However, the Venice described here is not the stereotypical one etched in tourists' imagination, but a mysterious, sometimes even dark and threatening, place, and incredibly lyrical for that.  This is wonderful storytelling, a perfect tale, and accompanied by stunning illustrations.

Do read the both the author and the illustrator postscripts, gems in themselves.




The Boy Who Sailed the Ocean in an Armchair

Written by:  Lara Williamson      

Published by: Usborne Children's Books

Reviewed by: Jackie Spink

Becket and his little brother, Billy, feel like the world is a ‘complete mess with us in the middle of it’.  Unceremoniously uprooted in the middle of the night by their dad, they are forced to leave the ‘almost mother’ they love, without so much as a goodbye. Still struggling to find a way to say goodbye to their real mother, who died unexpectedly seven years earlier, it’s no wonder that Becket feels all at sea.

This might sound like a gloomy read but, in fact, it’s the opposite. It’s crammed with ridiculous humour, and Lara Williamson has a terrific eye for the absurd. Becket is caught between Billy’s crazy, seven-year-old view of the world and the equally nonsensical, bewildering ways of adults. Since Dad is determined to keep them in the dark, SNOOP is set up: the secret network of observations, operations and probing – after all, there are mysteries that need to be solved.

This is a wonderful novel. It celebrates the powers of story-telling to help us weather storms and find our ‘happy-ever-afters’. It is also compassionate with the adults that inadvertently muck things up. Nestled in amongst the wisecracks, there are soft, heart-breaking riffs from children who grieve for those they have lost. But rest assured, young readers are in safe hands with this author.




The Wolf Who Fell Out of a Book



Written by: Thierry Robberecht

Illustrated by: Grégoire Mabire

Published by: Ragged Bears

Reviewed by: Sheena Wilkinson


In this Belgian story, a wolf falls out of a book – literally – and ends up in Zoe’s bedroom. In his own environment – the book – Wolf is a scary figure ‘jet black with pointy teeth’, but in this unfamiliar world he is small, scared and alone. Alone, that is, apart from Zoe’s cat, a huge grinning ginger beast that to our little lupine hero is a terrifying predator. And as the big bad cat points out, ‘You’re not in your book now … and this is my patch.’

So begins the wolf’s efforts to escape back into the safety of his own world. But in his panic, he can’t find the right place in the story, entering too early or late, and being thrust out again. In desperation he climbs up Zoe’s enviably well-stocked bookshelf looking for a book – any book – in which to hide.

Sadly the stories he chooses – a fairy tale and a dinosaur story – can’t accommodate a wolf, and the wolf once again experiences rejection. While all the time, the fat ginger cat closes in …

Eventually the wolf finds himself in – where else – Little Red Riding Hood, where a small girl is crying because the wolf she is waiting for hasn’t shown up. She and the wolf go off arm-in-paw to Grandmother’s house. Even though the reader must know what is in store for the wolf there, this feels like a satisfying ending, because the wolf has been returned to a story where he has a definite role.

Grégoire Mabire’s illustrations are delightful – rich in detail, with a strong but soft palette. The style is varied in the two stories the wolf tries to hide in, visually reinforcing the wolf’s inability to fit into these alien worlds.

The Wolf Who Fell Out Of A Book isn’t the first children’s book to rehabilitate the maligned character of the big bad wolf, but, with its message of finding your place in your own story, it is probably one of the most charming.

Sheena Wilkinson’s Name Upon Name is out now (Little Island).



Harper and the Scarlet Umbrella

Written by: Cerrie Burnell

Illustrated by: Laura Ellen Anderson

Published by: Scholastic Children's Books

Reviewed by: Anja Stobbart

Harper is a little girl with a rare musical gift; she can play every instrument she picks up, without ever learning a single note.

Harper lives happily, albeit unusually, in the enchanting City of Clouds with her cat Midnight and her Aunt Sassy the dressmaker. One day her Aunt has to leave suddenly, Midnight goes missing, and Harper’s umbrella is damaged – and in this city, everyone needs an umbrella!

Harper, much to her delight, is given the magical Scarlet Umbrella and is soon swept away in search of her dear cat Midnight, and, as Harper soon discovers, every other cat in the city, gathering a troop of friends on the way to help her.

Will they reach the cats in time? And if they do, how will they rescue them? Maybe Harper’s musical gift can help?

Written by Cerrie Burnell – yes, the lovely Cbeebies presenter – this is a delightful book filled with musical magic that weaves its way throughout the story.

Little girls will love every page.




The House of Eyes: A Connie Carew Mystery


Written by: Patricia Elliott

Published by: Hodder Children’s Books

Reviewed by: Gill Vickery

Connie Carew, an engaging and bright 12 year old, is an orphan living in London with her aunts, Sylvie and Dorothea.  Eccentric Sylvie is single whilst Dorothea is on her second marriage, to Mr Thurston, a domineering gambler running briskly through his wife’s money. Aunt Dorothea is reclusive and reserved; trapped in a mind-set formed after the harrowing kidnap of her baby daughter, Ida, several years before.

When a young woman turns up and seems to be the missing Ida, Connie is suspicious and determines to discover the truth. What follows is a thrillingly perilous romp through Edwardian London, including its seedier parts, as Connie gradually untangles the story of little lost Ida.

Connie is an isolated and scared eight-year-old when she arrives at Alfred Place after the death of her parents.  By twelve she has become self-assured and determined. Her longing for a young companion is partly what lies behind her determination to find Aunt Dorothea’s lost daughter.

When I finished The House of Eyes I felt a sense of regret that I hadn’t been able to read it as a child; I would’ve loved to get lost in its world and follow Connie as her invisible companion. 




Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot

Written by: Horatio Clare

Published by: Firefly Press

Reviewed by: Andrea Rayner

Aubrey is a boy who is always ready for a challenge. However, he is about to face his greatest challenge yet.

Aubrey’s father, Jim, has fallen under the spell of the Terrible Yoot, and has become extremely sad. His father is no longer going to work and has trouble getting out of bed each day. At first Aubrey does no know what to do, but then he finds out that he must challenge and defeat the Terrible Yoot in order to save his father.

Aubrey does not know how to defeat the Terrible Yoot, so he asks the advice of the wisest animal he knows – an owl. The owl introduces him to various other animals from Rushing Wood near his house, and each aids him as he tries to make things better for his father and searches for the Yoot. However, the more Aubrey finds out about the Yoot, the more he realises that it is invincible. Not only that, but time is running out, can he save his father?

This is not only an enjoyable story that combines myth, fable and family life but it is also a subtle and empathetic look at depression and the impact it has, such as the inability to function and suicidal thoughts. It addresses this difficult topic in an age-appropriate way. 

As part of this, it is also creates an imaginative fantasy world where anthropomorphic animals help people. This, not only makes the subject of depression less threatening, but also conveys the possibility that even if it cannot be completely defeated it can be controlled.

The sensitive and engaging text is accompanied by lyrical illustrations that nicely contrast a realistic representation of the animals with an impressionistic representation of Aubrey’s family. Overall this is an enjoyable, intriguing and important book.





Badly Drawn Beth

Written & Illustrated by: Knife and Packer

Published by: Orchard Books

Reviewer: Damian Harvey     

Badly Drawn Beth (Life Can Be Messy), is the latest from the comedy writing/illustrating duo Knife and Packer, creators of (among other things) Fleabag Monkeyface.

A first glance at this book would suggest that it might attract fans of books such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Captain Underpants or Tom Gates as each page is packed with cartoon style illustrations – though Beth’s world is far more chaotic and full of mayhem than any of them. 

When we first meet Beth she is surrounded by crocodiles, holding a briefcase full of fish fingers, wearing a swamp monster mask – and Miss Primula, her new form teacher, is about to call her parents.

Thankfully, Beth takes us back to the beginning in order to show how she comes to be in this predicament and to introduce us to some of the people in her world. First there’s the embarrassing parents, swotty older sister and younger brother Bertie who 'drools a lot', spills stuff and not much else. Then there’s Beth’s best friend, Cordy, and the dreaded Clarissa Hortence Musgrove who looks down on everyone and everything – especially Beth. But it doesn’t stop there as Beth’s world is packed full of weird and wonderful characters: human, insect, animal, and fantastical.

Throughout this chaotic tale, Beth has to survive school, a family barbecue, a trip to a safari park, Granny’s evil pet parrot, Otto, and lots more besides.  

Badly Drawn Beth is lots of fun and full of laugh-out-loud humour that will keep many a reluctant reader glued to their seats – and fans of this book won’t have long to wait for more mayhem as Badly Drawn Beth (The Show Must Go On) follows in 2016. 


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The League of Unexceptional Children

Written by: Gitty Danshvari

Published by: Little Brown Books for Kids

Reviewer: Anne Harding      

Jonathan Murray and Shelley Brown are entirely nondescript. So much so that even their parents fail to notice them, and people who they have been around for years call them by the wrong names. It is their very invisibility that brings them to the attention of a covert spy network, the League of Unexceptional Children. Children who do not get noticed are exactly what is needed to track people down and discover hidden information.

There is a national crisis: the vice president has been kidnapped, and everyone from the president down is terrified that he will divulge government secrets. Despite less than a day of training, the mission to rescue him falls to Jonathan and Shelley. Their complete lack of brilliance causes some problems, but in the end it is they, not the British brainiacs brought in to help, who save the day.

There’s a good deal of humour in this book. Indeed the very idea of a spy ring composed of children who do not shine in any way is amusing, and there are plenty of nice touches.

The secret entrance to the League of Unexceptional Children is a giant fridge in Famous Randy’s Hot Dog Palace. Shelley has an unerring ability to miss the point. It has to be said, though, that the constant running jokes on the same themes wear somewhat thin. This is the first in a series aimed at mid-graders.


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George


Written by: Alex Gino

Published by: Scholastic Children's Books

Reviewed by: Bridget Carrington

George is ten, and has become increasingly convinced that s/he is a girl in a boy’s body.  As s/he moves closer to puberty s/he becomes increasingly distressed at the prospect, and is determined to express him/herself as the person s/he really is.

Home is hard, as George secretly collects tweenage girls’ magazines, and keeps his/her feelings bottled up, way from his/her mother and elder brother.  

School is particularly difficult, with other boys accusing him/her of behaving like a girl, especially when George sheds tears over the class reader, Charlotte’s Web. George is desperate to take the title role in a school dramatisation of the novel, feeling that in this way s/he can express his/her true personality, but boys aren’t allowed to audition for the part. However, Kelly, George’s longstanding best friend gets the role and, once she discovers his/her wish to be a girl, comes up with a solution to several of his/her wishes.

Alex Gino writes with an inside knowledge of what it is like to be trapped in the wrong gender. George secretly calls him/herself Melissa, but is too afraid of the possible reactions of his mother and brother to tell them who s/he feels s/he is. In fact, once s/he tells them, it is his/her big, tough brother who is sympathetic, while his/her mother finds it hard initially to come to terms with her son’s feelings.

This is a deeply felt novel, which is sensitively pitched at KS2 readers, both in style, presentation and content. It fills a gap in what is available for readers in this age range who feel uneasy with their birth gender, and will allow them to explore their own feelings. Just as important, it introduces a wider readership to the hurdles to be overcome, both physically and emotionally, by young people with similar concerns, and should help them to understand and empathize with transgender peers.


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The Icarus Show


Written by: Sally Christie

Published by: David Fickling Books

Reviewed by: Deborah Fajerman

The story builds slowly in this book, as we try to pick up the clues scattered like the feathers along the narrator’s path. It doesn’t help that the narrator himself is a little suspect. He’s a bit of a sneak, trying to keep in with the school bully and his crew, while doing his utmost to remain invisible. But his long-held policy of staying safe by never showing his feelings begins to be chipped away by a series of anonymous messages from a mysterious individual.

It’s not just Alex who is uneasy about the strange events. The whole class, bullies included, are undermined. As certainties erode, so do walls, even the emotional walls between parents and children.

Although Alex tries his best to be beige, you can’t but feel for him. He’s facing bullies at school, the loss of an old friend, and a much-too-perfect and popular younger brother. When the magnetic English teacher sets them learning the story of Icarus, the scene is set for a tale of escape and self-determination. Of course we already know what happens to Icarus. But who’s who in this story – who is Icarus and who is Daedalus? Can a boy really fly? And where does all that chewing gum come from?

We also wonder right up to the end exactly how much of a punch each character really pulls, as each one develops their own mystique. Although another individual is acting out the big drama while Alex attempts to be a neutral country, it’s Alex’s world we inhabit. As he becomes drawn in, he can’t stay separate from other people any longer. How he and his friendships are changed is centre stage in the Icarus Show.

The book looks at bullying through the eyes of the collaborator. It explains from the child’s point of view the mental hold of the bully over the group, not just the threat of physical violence. It’s a great read with powerful themes playing out in the shadow of an awesome Greek myth.  

I would like to know why there are no illustrations in a book that seems to be crying out for images. I tend to think that all young people's books should have pictures, and on top of that, one of the characters in this book is an artist so it could be 'his' drawings that populate the book.


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Railhead


Written by: Philip Reeve

Published by: Oxford University Press

Reviewed by: Simon Barrett

Zen Starling is a railhead.  He regularly rides the Great Network, relishing the experience of travelling on the still-majestic sentient locomotives that go through K-gates leaving one planet and arriving on another.

Zen is also a petty thief from a backwater planet.  When Raven recruits Zen, he wants more than Zen’s criminal skills to pull-off the greatest art heist of all time.  He needs Zen’s genes.

Railhead imagines humanity, having settled countless planets, now reliant upon the technology of K-gates, a gift from the gods.  The alternative – space travel – would take tens of thousands of years.  Although rarely seen the gods advise the people to uphold the benevolent rule of the Emperor.  Faced with his own family rivalry and that of other powerful families, the Emperor manages to keep power through political marriages and strategic alliances.  Meanwhile law and order is dealt with by the fearsome firepower of Railforce, the Empire’s military police force.

The story weaves around three main characters.  The hero Zen, at least at the beginning, is Raven’s hapless pawn.  The anti-hero, Raven is a mysterious Prometheus-like figure, stealing secrets from the gods and threatening to bring down the whole of civilization.  Malik is an old and weary soldier having hunted Raven and killed him successfully numerous times.  Somehow Raven does not stay dead.  The story follows Zen and Malik pursuing Raven across the galaxy, but for very different motives.

Zen however is not the only Railhead.  The author Philip Reeve could be another.  He describes beautifully the sentient locomotives that run the lines, giving them a personality, perhaps, even a soul.  The sounds of the twin-engines Wildfire and the Time Of Gifts on the Emperor’s train are described as harmonizing into song.  There is also nostalgia for a past golden age of trains.  Many of the locomotives in Railhead lie dormant in desolate stations and upon closed sidelines, brought back to life in the service of Zen and Raven.  The fantastically named Damask Rose engine helps Zen in exchange for a restoration to its former glory.  More sinister is Raven’s Thought Fox, an old war train and mass murderer, reputedly killing its own crew when they tried to stop it.

Railhead takes the reader on an incredible galactic journey.  Once aboard, there is no alighting.