The final instalment of what has been a thoroughly enjoyable year of reading. I’ve found new authors, rekindled a love of authors I’d forgotten about, had recommendations, chanced my arm on unknowns, and have managed to grow a decent-sized personal library that my wife is furious about. All good stuff, and because I took part in the challenge of 2017, I am much more confident in recommending books to children – and they are now starting to reciprocate.
The 12 books of December, then:
113. Frank Cottrell Boyce – Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth
Prez has been separated from his Grandad, who is suffering from severe memory loss, possibly Alzheimer’s. As a result, Prez is taken in by the Blythe family, and one day a stranger knocks on the door – enter Sputnik, who appears a boy to Prez, but to everyone else, a stray dog. Sputnik has travelled from his own planet wto find out more about Earth. What makes it tick? What are its great successes? Why do people not marvel more at cows?
Together, Prez and Sputnik’s wacky adventures teach them both what is important about life on Earth, and helps Prez to grow closer to his family – both his Grandad and the Blythes.
As ever, Boyce’s writing is packed with humour and several threads are perfectly brought together in the final few pages. Touching and full of heart.
114. Jane Elson – A Room Full of Chocolate
When Grace’s mum finds a lump, she sends her 10-year-old daughter away to live temporarily with her grandad. This means starting a new school in a new town with a new way of living – and Grace finds it hard. She is bullied, gets into trouble at school and develops a friendship with Megan, a girl from a family her grandad doesn’t trust. The story of how Grace deals with her new surroundings and her difficulty accepting Mum’s illness is engaging throughout.
There are some dark moments here, and it is a book that would offer up lots of discussion about friendship, bullying, change, illness and much more, but the issues are dealt with in a light-hearted but appropriate manner. Grace’s naivety shines through in places and Megan is a perfect foil for her, especially as the bullying comes to light.
There are similarities with A Monster Calls, but this is certainly a little brighter for the soul.
115. Barroux – Line of Fire
This diary was found in Paris by illustrator Barroux, who hasn’t changed the words, but has brought them to life with simple but effective drawings.
The soldier in question has never been identified, but his story would be one shared by many. The most striking thing for me was the physicality of WW1 – the relentlessness of the march-dig-sleep-repeat cycle must have been an ordeal in itself, and that’s before the actual warfare is taken into account.
A stark reminder of the misery of war.
116. Frances Hardinge – Verdigris Deep
When Josh, Ryan and Chelle take coins from a neglected wishing well, their lives take turns they’d never have expected. All three develop unusual powers that help them to hear the innermost thoughts of certain individuals – Ryan’s visions soon confirm that these thoughts are the wishes of the coin-givers, and, by stealing coins, they now have to help grant the wishes. Behind all this is a bewitching Well Spirit – but is she well-meaning or does she have a sinister side?
I’ve only read The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge and this shares a similar depth and marvel in language that I had to read more than once because it was so beautifully put.
As a story, I liked the idea but couldn’t get going with it. It sometimes seemed very stop-start and too many things – for me at least – were presented or left as unexplained.
There was a real darkness to this one…More than a three, less than a four.
117. A.P. Winter – The Boy Who Went Magic
A pacy adventure as Bert discovers he might have magical powers, forbidden and illegal in Penvellyn. However, he soon discovers that it is a highly sought-after commodity, and leading the search for magical powers is the archetypal evil villain, Prince Voss.
Bert has to manoeuvre his way out of several sticky predicaments with the help of Professor Roberts and his daughter, Finch, while at the same time discovering more about his past than he ever dared dream.
Very enjoyable and would suit Y4+ I would think. A straightforward narrative that builds on themes of friendship and greed.
118. Rob Buyea – Because of Mr Terupt
I raced through this – it was such a lovely read that the pages just flew past.
Set in the fifth grade of an American school, the story of the school year is narrated by seven different students, in a similar manner to the way Wonder is told. They all have one thing in common – Mr Terupt, a teacher who challenges and guides them with love. When he suffers an accident in school, the class try to put aside their differences as they consider Mr Terupt’s true influence.
I think all teachers should have a read of this. It’s interesting to see the different views children have of their teacher, but most important is the message that every child has a story which can influence their behaviour in school, for better or worse. Sometimes we forget that.
119. Ross Montgomery – Perijee & Me
Adventure abound as Caitlin discovers an alien life-form in her otherwise very lonely island. When this alien seems to lose control of itself, Caitlin thinks she knows how she can help, leading her on an adventure consisting of pick-pocketing tearaways, sinister octogenarians and, above all, a sense that family is important – and a family is not always the people you’re related to.
A warm-hearted read, similar in style to ‘Sputnik’s Guide to Life On Earth’, and perfect for year 3/4 and up.
120. Kate DiCamillo – The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
Edward Tulane is a china rabbit who has a high opinion of himself, coming across as fairly cold-hearted and passive. When he becomes separated from his owner, Abilene, he starts to find out what it is to love, to feel, to ache and to yearn. Much of his journey is hard for him, full of pain and false hope – but Edward’s story takes in great swathes of humanity in all its glory and misery. He learns, and we learn too, that living can be hard, but life is always worth opening your heart for
121. Susan Cooper – The Dark is Rising
Will Stanton discovers he is one the ‘Old Ones’, a guardian against the Dark, which is intent on destroying his world. This discovery leads him to travel through time into parallel worlds where, guided by the fatherly Merriman and the six signs, he learns and develops his powers.
There is a real darkness about this book: dark against light, good against evil, spirits against humanity. I loved the opening chapter in particular (all darkness, suspense and ominous hints of evil). I had a soft spot for Hawkin too – a man hindered by his own decisions and ultimately left to fall victim to his own greed, thereby presenting what for me was possibly the most human element of this other-worldly story.
122. Lisa Thompson – The Light Jar
Nate and his mum are escaping from Gary, mum’s cruel bully of a boyfriend, and decide to spend a few nights in an abandoned cottage. When mum goes missing, Nate has to survive on his own, with just the help of a long-forgotten imaginary friend and a girl called Kitty.
Nate’s story shines a light (pun not intended) on emotional abuse at home, split families and fears, and has a direct link to A.F. Harold’s The Imaginary as well as a hint of The London Eye Mystery.
Would be a great read for Y4+.
123. David Almond – A Song For Ella Grey
A modern-day retelling of the tale of Orpheus, with Ella the subject of his charm. The story is told through the eyes of Claire, Ella’s best friend and arguably true love, as they, along with their group of friends, explore sexuality, freedom and choice as they reach their late teens. Orpheus’ appearance heightens certain tensions between different factions of the group.
The North-East is a special place for me (which is possibly why I am constantly drawn back to Almond’s writing) and the beach and castle of Bamburgh provide a fitting setting for this group of wantaway teenagers. However, I didn’t fall for any of the characters – Claire seemed too fixated on Ella with no real explanation; Ella was flighty in the extreme; and the other characters didn’t do a lot for the story itself.
A mixed bag.
124. Rachel Joyce – The Music Shop
The first three-quarters of this book are set in 1988, following Frank, a record shop owner on Unity Street whose care-for-the-community-attitude forgoes his business sense. He refuses to believe that in the advent of CDs, persevering with selling only vinyl while other shops around him start to be swallowed up by the Fort Development.
In walks Ilse Brauchmann, a beautiful lady who faints outside the shop and returns to offer her thanks when Frank tends to her.
Their relationship grows through Frank’s passion for music, until Ilse reveals a secret that turns Frank’s beliefs upside down.
The final quarter sees the Unity Street community reunited as they try to reassemble what they once had.
Full of wry observations on life in a record shop, and in the independent retail industry, I could feel the love and warmth on every page. The love of the Unity Street community, Frank’s love of music (and fatherly, somewhat begrudging love for his Saturday assistant, Kit), and of course the unspoken love between Ilse and Frank.
If you have wiled away the hours in a dingy record shop, then this is for you. It feels like it is part of me.