A lovely summer holiday spent reading as much as I could, fitting 17 books in to August. Some crackers too.
59. Katherine Rundell – The Explorer
Four children – Fred, Con, Lila and Max – find themselves stranded in the depths of the Amazon after their plane crashes.
The first half of the book is all about the dynamic of the group – the leaders, the helpful, the painful, the stubborn – and each character is vividly written. Fred is a doer, a boy who wears his cricket jumper with pride and thinks about what his father what say and do; Con is a complicated girl with multiple layers to her personality. She can appear stubborn, angry and cynical, often all within one sentence, but shows her childish love for life at other points. Lila is the mother figure of the group, not least because she looks after her younger, slightly annoying brother, Max.
They survive through a mixture of luck and opportunism – then they stumble across the explorer. What a wonderful character this man is. I picture him acted by Charles Dance, all stiff upper lip and correctness, a sharp tongue allied to a sharper temper, not to mention a wonderful way with words (‘I’ll cut off your ears and give them to the vulture to wear as a hat’ is one of my favourite throwaway lines). He teaches the children more than they ever thought as their adventure unfolds.
Simply put, a wonderful story. It’s not too much to say you can feel yourself in the jungle with the gang, and the explorer character is just fantastic. Katherine Rundell is such a fine writer that it brings both admiration and envy.
Have I mentioned the explorer is brilliant?
60. Piers Torday – The Last Wild
Set in a dystopian future, where humans and animals alike have succumbed to ‘red-eye’, we meet Kester, a mute boy who has been living in quarantine, alone, for six years. He soon realises he can talk to animals, and it falls to him to lead the creatures – the last wild – to safety, away from hungry humans, callous cullers and mad scientists. On his journey, he begins to learn more about himself – why he was in quarantine, and what happened to his father – all the while becoming more at one with his new-found animal friends.
There are some great characters here, not least the regal and righteous stag, the slightly mad white pigeon and the batty field mouse, all of whom help Kester to reach his potential as ‘the wildness’. The message of the importance of the animal kingdom rings loud and clear, and is perfectly paced for a class read. I’m looking forward to reading the sequels.
61. Lorena Alvarez – Nightlights
This was a very affecting book, both beautiful and uncomfortable at the same time. The artwork is stunning, presented as a mini graphic novel, and the attention to detail is mind-boggling.
Sandy is a dreamer, a girl who’d sooner be drawing and doodling than listening in class. She creates creatures and worlds from her dreams, but begins to question herself when she meets the new girl at school – Morfie. Is Morfie real, or is she another – a more powerful – figment of Sandy’s imagination?
A dark, disturbing picture book, and one that would be interesting to read with older children.
62. Maz Evans – Simply the Quest
The much-anticipated follow-up to Who Let the Gods Out? continues at a blistering pace from the get-go. Elliott is still being chased by the daemon Thanatos, who wants to get his hands on the Chaos Stones. He makes Elliott an offer he finds difficult to refuse, and much of the story is about Elliot dealing with his own personal demons as well as those trying to hunt him down, the most prominent of which are his mother’s ill health and a revelation about his father.
Elsewhere, Virgo is desperately trying to regain her immortality, the gods are stuck in Elliott’s house and Patricia Porshley-Plum is out for revenge.
I enjoyed this book much more than the first – the pace is excellent, the humour is non-stop and the story is based more on Elliott’s life than the intentions of the huge cast of gods.
63. Kieran Larwood – The Legend of Podkin One-Ear
Kieran Larwood has written a classic in under 300 pages: a sprawling, magical fantasy world of rabbits is under attack – chieftains are being killed and warrens ransacked as the Gorm seek to take over all the land. Podkin, along with his sister Paz and little brother Pook, make good their escape, carrying with them Starclaw, one of the Twelve Gifts – which the Gorm are intent on finding. They have to think on their feet, always being wary of where the Gorm might be lurking, as they make their way through this impressively constructed rabbity realm.
My favourite thing about this story is the way it is told – we begin with a wise old bard sitting with a group of younger rabbits in the middle of winter, readying them for a story. Their enthusiasm is boundless, but the bard holds them all in the palm of his hand (or paw). He goes on to tell Podkin’s tale; the book is interrupted with interludes as the bard questions his audience about things like the morality of gambling, or the importance of storytelling. And this book is a perfect example of the art – wonderfully written.
64. Elizabeth Laird – Welcome to Nowhere
A gritty tale of escape as Omar and his family make their way out of Syria, which has just descended into civil war.
I really wish I’d read this book with my class. They were genuinely interested in the wider world but often said they were unsure how people became refugees. This book maps it out clearly – much like an illness, displacement can happen to anybody. It is indiscriminate – the trouble Omar and his family go through show this perfectly.
A thoughtful story that would be perfect for any learning around the current refugee crisis.
65. Polly Ho-Yen – Fly Me Home
I love Polly’s writing style. She builds this magical realism into her stories which I love in other authors too (Almond and Murakami, for example).
In this story, Leelu is afraid – she is new to the country, new to her school, and as such struggles to find her voice. Through the help of her friend Betsy, her growing relationship with her brother Tiber, and the ‘wonders’ that are left by Bo, she grows.
Bo is an interesting character. He’s an oddball with a big heart, and teaches Leelu how to become more. He reminded me a little bit of Skellig – not in his mannerisms, but more because of the impact he has.
Another lovely read from an author who thinks a little differently.
66. Gary Paulsen – Hatchet
Brian Robeson finds himself stranded, alone and unprepared, when his plane crashes in the Canadian wilderness. He uses his ingenuity, his patience and ultimately his instinct for survival in order to make the best of his situation.
A great short story that marries well with Katherine Rundell’s ‘The Explorer’, and, as promised by those who recommended it, there are some brilliant extracts that would be useful for teaching how to write with suspense.
67. Robert Swindells – Room 13
Fliss is off to Whitby for a class residential, only before she goes she experiences a nightmare that slowly begins to become true.
At midnight, mysterious things start to happen at room number 13, including sleep-walking, illness and mirages, but will anybody believe Fliss – and will she be able to do anything about it?
68. Piers Torday – The Dark Wild
The second in the trilogy, and just as brilliant as the first. This time the focus is a little more on Polly and her secrets (or at least, the secret her family have been holding on to). Kester realises he is not quite the ‘wildness’ he thought – not all of the animals follow his command, leading to the discovery of the dark wild, a collection of animals who are looking to exterminate human life once and for all.
As with The Last Wild, Torday raises some important points about animals, how they’re treated and whether we, as humans, could do more to look after our world.
69. Graeme Macrae Burnett – His Bloody Project
The darkest book I’ve read for quite some time, and certainly the only book that has given me sleepless nights (I woke to think that Roddy was at the end of my bed).
The book is a collection of accounts of three brutal murders that took place in the Scottish Highlands. Roddy has been accused of the murders, and has accepted responsibility, but each account offers a slightly different perspective.
Stark yet enthralling.
70. Jill Paton Walsh – Fireweed
A story that feels like smoke and dirt.
Narrated by ‘Bill’ – we never find out his real name – we learn of life in London during the Blitz. Bill should be in the Welsh countryside, evacuated as other children were, but makes his way back to London where he meets Julie, another child who has avoided the authorities.
Together, they just about survive, earning money through Bill’s opportunism and finding shelter whenever possible. The final two chapters are particularly heart-wrenching.
This is perfect for use with a WWII topic, touching upon evacuation, shelters, vividly described scenes of bombing (both during raids and the aftermath), as well as lots of other smaller pieces of information of which I was ignorant.
71. Ross Welford – Time Travelling With a Hamster
This story begins with Al’s birthday, upon which he receives a letter from his dad – though his dad is dead. The letter urges Al to go back in time, using his dad’s time travel invention, in order to make small but important changes that means he wouldn’t die young.
Off Al goes, in a Back To The Future-fuelled mission to change things, but not too much, and meet people, but not affect them. There is humour, emotion and a considerable amount of darkness – death, miscarriages, swearing, hints about virginity all feature, all of which would put me off reading it with my class. An odd one in many ways, as so many books seem to be about dealing with grief, whereas this one goes against that, and actively tries to reverse what has happened. One of a kind!
72. Shaun Tan – Tales From Outer Suburbia
I spotted this for £1.50 in a charity shop window and thought there must have been some sort of mistake – always a treat when that happens.
Packed with short stories of the mundanity of suburban life, albeit with magical twists, such as the day a water buffalo was found on the street, or when the town painted a load of rockets. Unusual and entertaining, and enhanced with Tan’s unique illustrations.
73. Zana Fraillon – The Ones That Disappeared
A story about enslaved children, this is hard-hitting with a pinch of magical other-worldliness. Having escaped the clutches of their ‘owner’, Orlando, Isa and Esra make their way through drains and tunnels, trying to find their friend, Miran. Along the way they meet Skeet, a character who is the best of humanity personified – he’s enthusiastic, lovably naive, honest and open, and the three of them learn to work together.
In the midst of all this is the Riverman, a Skellig type character that Skeet, Isa and Esra build together out of mud, sticks and clay. When he comes to life, the children are unsure whether to follow him or run further from their old lives.
In a similar way to The Bone Sparrow, Zana Fraillon writes about a modern day crisis, albeit one that is less talked about than displacement. It links to the refugee crisis, something that Fraillon’s excellent author notes make clear.
Another strong read, thought-provoking and difficult at once. Would be great for KS3+.
74. Haruki Murakami – Men Without Women
Seven short stories centred around Men Without Women, exploring loss, desire, love, jazz, cats, heartbreak and loneliness. There’s a distinct sadness about this book.
75. Alex Wheatle – Straight Outta Crongton
A page-turner in the truest sense. This is the third in the Crongton series and is by far my favourite.
It centres around Mo, a 15-year-old girl from the estate whose life begins to unravel from the word go. Lloyd, her mum’s boyfriend, physically attacks Mo over a fiver so Elaine, Mo’s erstwhile and loyal friend, advises her to go the police.
Lloyd is central to the plot as Mo gets a boyfriend who stands up to him on Mo’s behalf, and her friend Naomi gets involved with local gang members. Everything moves at a breakneck speed until the most bittersweet of endings. Not suitable for KS2 but a moving, absorbing tale of life on the Crongton estate.