Read in fits and starts this month, from taking ages to read a short book to racing through others in a couple of days. Favourites were The Afterwards and Strange Star. It was also a pleasure (and a bit nerve-racking) to review Michael Rosen’s newest book for the Just Imagine podcast.
110. Jane Elson – Will You Catch Me?
Nell is the daughter of an alcoholic mother, and is frequently neglected as her mum goes off the rails. Luckily for Nell, a loving family is next door in the form of Aunty Lou, TJ and Michael, who regularly take her in.
Nell decides that having her father in her life will help both her and her mum, and sets about using the school’s historical pageant to make herself known to the absent dad.
There are some desperate, poignant moments in the book, none more so than when Nell and her mum go on a treasure hunt in their flat – the treasure being mum’s secretly-stashed bottles of alcohol.
Through her learning at school, Nell is inspired by another Nell – Nell Gwyn, a woman of prominence in the time of King Charles II, and it is she who provides modern-day Nell with inspiration and guidance.
During Nell’s search for her father, the importance of friendship and community come to the fore, as well as the message that school and education really can be a sanctuary for some children – the wonderful Mr Daniels looks out for Nell and fires her enthusiasm, allowing her to take her mind off mum’s problems for a brief moment or two.
111. Michael Rosen – Uncle Gobb and the Plot Plot
A review of this book can be heard here at 14:22.
112. Ally Sherrick – The Buried Crown
After the untimely death of his parents, and his brother’s duty with the RAF as part of the war effort, George Penny has to move in with Bill Jarvis, a mean-spirited, cantankerous and indeed violent character. George senses he is up to no good, and, fearing for his own safety, absconds.
He is taken in by Kitty Regenbogen and her grandfather, a former archaeologist. As Jews, the Regenbogens left Germany to seek safety, and some locals do not trust them, saying they are spies. Indeed, Grandpa is taken in by the authorities at one point.
George is told stories by Grandpa, stories of the buried crown, one that is said to belong to the Anglo-Saxon King Redwald. When George discovers the crown, he unleashes dark forces in his village – and he soon discovers he is not the only person interested in this ancient artefact.
A WWII story with a hint of magical realism, the book offers insights into modern and ancient British history. In terms of WWII, the Kindertransport, bombing raids, evacuation and the Home Guard are all points of discussion, while the story itself is fast-paced, full of daring, adventure and a sense of doing what is right. A really enjoyable read.
113. Emma Carroll – Strange Star
Taking Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as inspiration, this book is a gothic thriller that is at times dark, moody and tense as we follow, for the most part, Lizzie Appleby and her sister Peg as they uncover scientific experiments in their sleepy village of Sweepfield.
The story begins with servant Felix looking after Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, Percy Bysse Shelley and Clair Clairmont in their Swiss escape, Villa Diodati.
A knock on the door shatters the party atmosphere, for Lizzie has travelled from England to escape – and here her story takes over.
Lizzie is struck by lightning, losing her mum in the process, and is physically scarred and partially blinded as a result. When a scientist moves into Eden Court, Lizzie is intrigued, especially when her sister appears to be involved.
From here, the scientist’s true motivations are revealed, and Lizzie is in great danger. She escapes, and we return to the present in Switzerland. Tense throughout, this would be a great class read.
114. A.F. Harrold – The Afterwards
December, or Ember, lives with her father, Harry, but without mum, who passed away. December and her father have a clear, loving relationship – it’s brilliant to see such a strong father in a children’s story.
Ember’s world is shaken further when her best friend, Ness (Happiness) dies after an accident. What happens next transcends the real world and what we assume is the afterlife, a monochromatic place where time stands still. Ember finds herself there after her wayward Uncle ‘swaps’ her for his dead dog, but she is able to move between the two worlds with help from Mrs Todd and a mysterious cat (surely Zinzan from The Imaginary).
Much like the second world that Ember visits, Harrold’s writing moves slowly, thoughtfully as Ember contemplates what to do – could she harness Uncle Graham’s ability to swap the living for the dead? Can she bring back Ness?
The end of the book is particularly poignant and beautifully written. As a big fan of A.F. Harrold I have to declare bias, but this contemplation on life, death, grief and how we approach each is deep and powerful.
115. Adam Kay – This Is Going To Hurt
A series of diary entries from (former) Dr Adam Kay, which tell of the hilarity and the difficulty of working a) with the general public and b) in the NHS. No subject is off-limit, ranging from the frankly brainless to the heart-wrenchingly sad.
In the background, struggling with being massively overworked and underpaid, it is also clear to see Kay’s life crumble ever so slowly. A wake up call to all who think NHS is an expendable commodity and a must-read for anyone who has ever used it (yes, that means all of us).
116. Karen Wallace – Think of an Eel
A lyrical, fluid study of the life-cycle of an eel, told effortlessly with both word and picture. Story, facts and image combine to bring the importance of this oft-forgotten fish to life.
117. Nikki Thornton – The Last Chance Hotel
Seth is a put-upon kitchen assistant at the Last Chance Hotel, and is spoken down to Mr Bunn, the chef, and teased and bullied by Bunn’s daughter, Tiffany.
When he sees the chance to earn some brownie points for a guest by baking an apricot dessert, he goes for it, and his beautiful creation is presented during a meeting. All is well, until one of the guests drops down dead.
Seth is of course suspected – but he knows he is innocent. He learns more about the guests, discovering their magical abilities, their possible motives, and the fact that no one can be trusted.
Can Seth solve the mystery of the murder in order to prove his own innocence?
A magical murder mystery, like Cluedo by Harry Potter.
118. Lynn Fulton – She Made A Monster
The story of Mary Shelley’s inspiration for Frankenstein, complete with moody imagery and a suitably dark tone throughout. Brilliant to use alongside Frankenstein, of course, but some of my children have used this alongside Emma Carroll’s Strange Star, which is itself an origin tale for Frankenstein.
Apart from showing Shelley’s inspiration, it also shows her determination to be recognised as an equal to her male counterparts, which itself would offer a lot of points for discussion in the classroom.
119. Philip Reeve – Fever Crumb
A prequel to the Mortal Engines series, set well before traction cities were up and moving, we meet Fever, a young Engineer who deals in facts and rational thought, a girl for whom emotion is not allowed.
This outlook on life is tested when she finds out the truth about her parents, and, when savage Londoners want her blood, she has to flee and seek protection.
We are given hints about what is to come in Mortal Engines, as ‘the Movement’ are certain to be the first to live in ME’s nomadic style, but really this story is about a person finding and accepting who they really are.