Disclaimer—Marie-Louise is a dear friend and one of the loveliest people I know. She's been a picture book artist and writer for many years, and this...moreDisclaimer—Marie-Louise is a dear friend and one of the loveliest people I know. She's been a picture book artist and writer for many years, and this is her first junior novel. I'm not even going to pretend to be unbiased—I loved this book and read it in one sitting on a rainy Sunday afternoon with my cats playing tag-team on my lap and a couple of small squares of home-made chocolate fudge to hand. Perfect reading conditions, in other words.
But friendship and personal admiration aside, I really did love this book. It's a classic adventure novel, with ghosts and a type of time travel, but also with a slightly darker contemporary edge. Set in the old mill building where Marie-Louise had her artist's studio for many years, it's the story of 12 year old Jessie, recently moved to Dublin after the death of her father, who stumbles across a bead factory with her dress-designer/maker mother. The bead factory turns out to be a front for a couple of private detectives, who are actually investigating paranormal activity in the building in the shape of a mysterious portal at the top of four steps that lead to a brick wall—and a couple of ghosts.
One of these ghosts is the enormous Greenwood, who was hanged on the site of the building in 1201 and has been trying ever since to solve the riddle of the Timecatcher (a kind of vortex behind the portal where time past continues on), which he accidentally opened before his death.
The other ghost is that of G, a boy about Jessie's age, who died in an accident in the abandoned mill building some forgotten years earlier. G can't remember who he was, which he puts down to the head injury sustained in the accident. G quite likes being a ghost, but is frustrated by his inability to leave the confines of the mill, and remains angry with the friends who left him to die.
Add to the mix the evil spirit of a man hanged alongside Greenwood who is determined to re-enter the Timecatcher and steal the source of its power, chuck in a bit of Viking mythology, a great big whack of Irish history, all in the hands of a writer with great control over her narrative (voice and rather complicated plot) and you end up with a terrifically fast-paced but also intellectually challenging plot for smart kid readers (and others). Enjoy. And think of my friend M-L! (less)
I loved Penni Russon's mysterious, elliptical novel of place, dreams, grief and identity. I was going to add time to that list, but that's not strictl...moreI loved Penni Russon's mysterious, elliptical novel of place, dreams, grief and identity. I was going to add time to that list, but that's not strictly accurate—it's not a time slip novel at all, although it feels very much like one, and reminds me of books like Charlotte Sometimes and even somehow Jill Paton Walsh's Goldengrove Unleaving. (The latter, I think, largely somehow in a shared mood or tone, as well as the non-straightforward narrative, of which, it must be said, I am a fan. It might also have something to do with the melancholia in fairy tales that Penni refers to in her author's note.) I also reckon fans of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy would find much to be challenged and intrigued by in Only Ever Always—there are echoes of Lyra-like characterisation in Clara in particular. And from there we can also draw a line to 19th century literature, in the somewhat Dickensian overtones to Clara's world (has there ever been a more over-used word in book reviews than Dickensian?!) and the narrative courage of the great Victorian novelists.
There's a lot to say about Penni's narrative choices in Only Ever Always—in particular, the use of the second person narrative voice in certain sections of the novel, which somehow seems to draw in and implicate the reader as a participant, as a third version of Claire/Clara—but that might be best left to my teaching (and personal ruminations). What can I say, I'm a narratology geek (although not as big a one as I'd like!).
With parallel stories, worlds and characters, this is not a novel for a casual reader—it requires close attention, not just from the intellect, but from the heart. It's a book where not having all the answers is the most satisfying and in fact only conclusion—because life isn't always neat and tidy, and open endings suggest adventure and the great wonder of uncertainty—for the brave. If that sounds like a book for you— as it is a book for me—then I whole-heartedly commend Only Ever Always to you.
The usual thing to say about books like this is that anyone who has ever loved (and lost) a beloved pet will adore it (and BYO tissues), and that is c...moreThe usual thing to say about books like this is that anyone who has ever loved (and lost) a beloved pet will adore it (and BYO tissues), and that is certainly true of Just a Dog, but it's also selling it a little short if one were to leave it at that. Just a Dog is a beautifully balanced and modulated sequence of stories about Mr Mosely (aka Moe), best-beloved dog of the Ingram family, told by the eldest child, Corey. As Corey relates funny and sad and scary stories about Moe, he also reveals much about the hardships and trials, as well as the joys and loves that come to his family over those dog years. It's a beautiful device, but it only works so well because Moe is such a great dog-character, and Corey rings so deeply true as a child-narrator who doesn't entirely understand everything that's going on in his family, but who does, at the heart of it, understand Family. And it's also just a really lovely book about a great dog and the boy who loved him. And you can never have too many of those. (less)
Books like this make me feel kind of warm and nostalgic for my own favourite childhood reading. I have been bemoaning for years now the fact that we h...moreBooks like this make me feel kind of warm and nostalgic for my own favourite childhood reading. I have been bemoaning for years now the fact that we have been badly negecting the dedicated (Australian) child reader of somewhere between the age of 8 and 12, more or less, and this book reminds me why I feel that way. It's a deeply intelligent book, but also highly accessible; complex on one level (big ideas about physics and time travel) yet straight forward on another (shifting friendships and Working Out How the World Works). It's a puzzle and a mystery, and yet at the same time a classic schoolyard yarn.
Oh, and—time travel! Whee! Always loved the conundrums and this handles them beautifully. Plus, well drawn characters, convincing but not overwhelming period setting, carefully controlled lot development. I can't recommend it highly enough. (less)
Gleitzman may at last have found the perfect character for his particular style of storytelling, which frequently employs a child protagonist who is n...moreGleitzman may at last have found the perfect character for his particular style of storytelling, which frequently employs a child protagonist who is naive and unworldly—in some cases, perhaps a little unrealistically so, although he always pulls it off in the end. In this case, Grace, the protagonist-narrator, is truly unworldly and believably naive. She's been raised in a closed, fringe Christian sect, kept away from outsiders/sinners, but also encouraged to ask questions and always be true to herself by her parents. But when her father oversteps the mark with the elders and is expelled from both church and family, Grace has to sort out the truth behind everything she's been raised to believe. Recommended. (less)
Kate DiCamillo is an amazing writer and this book is a small, perfect gem. It's in the classic storytelling tradition familiar from DiCamillo's Tale o...moreKate DiCamillo is an amazing writer and this book is a small, perfect gem. It's in the classic storytelling tradition familiar from DiCamillo's Tale of Despereaux and Edward Tullane--which of course, harks back to an earlier (to my mind English) tradition of stories of orphans and magic, of lamplit streets and wise beggars... Every word counts, and counts beautifully, and each character's story is ultimately woven together to a deeply satisfying conclusion. Familiar, and yet wholly new too. Highly recommended. (less)
This is a wonderful children's novel in the tradition of classics like The Secret Garden and Tom's Midnight Garden. Eloise is grieving for her dead mo...moreThis is a wonderful children's novel in the tradition of classics like The Secret Garden and Tom's Midnight Garden. Eloise is grieving for her dead mother, while her father runs after one get-rich-quick scheme (and bad girlfriend) after another, eventually dumping Eloise with a grandmother she doesn't know. When Eloise meets Anna, a girl in the summerhouse of a derelict house, she thinks she's travelling in time. By the end of the summer, Eloise realises just who Anna is and shy she's so important to her. Highly recommended! (less)
This novel for older children and younger teenagers is an intricately structured, sophisticated character study. It is a carefully crafted novel that...moreThis novel for older children and younger teenagers is an intricately structured, sophisticated character study. It is a carefully crafted novel that builds on theme and character as it weaves in and around the family and friendships of main character Frankie over a few months in the year he is about to turn 13.
Frankie carries worry with him like a comfort rug. He gets about OK most days, as long as the battery is the fire alarm is fresh and someone in his chaotic household has remembered to leave him his bus fare, but every night at 10pm he sneaks into bed with his mother and asks the questions that are worrying him the most. Well, not the most—the question that worries Frankie the most is the one question he can't ask.
This novel is people with the most wonderful cast of characters: Frankie's best friend Gigs and their new friend Sydney (who isn't afraid to ask questions but has problems of her own). Snarky big sister Gordana and man-about-town brother Louie. Uncle George, actually Frankie's father. The posse of gleeful, obese great aunts. And Frankie's mother, centre of the family in unexpected ways.
I loved this book. I admire the masterful control de Goldi has over her characters, over the world they inhabit, the language she (and they) creates to build that world, and her incredibly skillful control of narrative time. One of my creative writing students mentioned in class tonight how character contributes to mood, and this book is a perfect example of that. Oh, and it's also very funny, the melancholy permeated by a great good humour.
Not one for plot-driven readers, but having said that, plenty happens. Highly recommended. (less)
I am a huge fan of Pratchett's children's fiction--I think Johnny and the Dead is one of the all time great children's books, and I'm sorry it's not m...moreI am a huge fan of Pratchett's children's fiction--I think Johnny and the Dead is one of the all time great children's books, and I'm sorry it's not more widely known. Nation is the latest, and it's a stand alone, not set in the Discworld, but on a South Pacific-ish island in an alternate version of our own world. It's about faith and love and family and community and race (similar themes to the film Australia, which I saw the day after I read Nation and to Octavian Nothing in that regard) and while I think the plot got a bit unnecessarily messy towards the end, it's still one of the more philosophical and thought-provoking children's books I've read in some time. Recommended. Let's hope Sir Pratchett has many, many more books still to come. (less)