Kids book review: “A Whisper of Horses” by Zillah Bethel

If you have children aged 10-12 years, I can heartily recommend this book. It’s marvellous; dark in parts (but don’t kids love that?!), but ultimately full of hope and showing that you can achieve the near-impossible if you dare to believe.

a whisper of horses imgThe novel is set in Lahn Dan, you’ll recognise the pun, but the place described in the book will be unfamiliar; it is practically a separate city-state within England, encircled by the ‘Emm Twenty-Five Wall’ that none of the inhabitants dare cross (told that there is only a deserted wilderness on the other side anyway). This is a time after ‘the Gases’ (a reference to climate change), the ‘Tems’  has deteriorated to a muddy flat and only the rich are able to live in the ‘crystal towers’  that afford them some natural light and allow them to live above the pollution layer. In a nod to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World there is a strict hierarchy in the society: at the bottom are the Pbs, who do most of the work, then slightly higher up are the Cus, the professional classes, but true power lies only with the Aus. Give the child a prize who spots that these are chemical symbols and what this says about the social order! Lahn Dan is run by ‘the Minister’ a distant and slightly mythical figure, not unlike Big Brother, whose orders are carried out by Mordecai and his Secret Police. It all has echoes of 1984.

The main character is Serendipity Goudge a 12 year-old girl who lives alone with her mother. They are Pbs and do agricultural work. They live in a ‘pod’ and have very few possessions, though Serendipity cherishes a small wooden horse her mother once gave her; she is fascinated by the creatures but they are said to be extinct and nobody has ever seen one in the flesh. Serendipity’s mother dies, leaving her nothing of any value except a locket. Hidden inside the locket is a small map indicating a route out of Lahn Dan, through the Emm Twenty-Five Wall to ‘Whales’ via the ‘HH Bridge’  to a place where there might be horses. Strictly speaking, Serendipity, as an orphan, should be taken into care, but Professor Nimbus, her ‘storyteller’ (the children get a very limited education), takes her under his wing as his apprentice. It quickly becomes apparent that this situation is not sustainable and that Serendipity’s life is in danger. She decides that she will try to escape Lahn Dan, initially with the help of the Professor, who confesses that he, along with a small group of others, is a secret agitator for change.

By chance, they meet up with Tab, and his funny little dog Mouse. Tab is part of a band of Smugglers with a camp on the other side of the Wall. Tab is like something out of Oliver Twist, a street-wise orphan who helps Serendipity escape the city. They reach his community’s encampment, but it becomes clear that Tab may also be in danger and so he decides to accompany Serendipity on her search for horses in Whales.

The rest of the book is about their quest to fulfil a dream, but, though they don’t realise it at the time, they are also looking for a better life, outside the corrupt, polluted, decrepit city of Lahn Dan. En route they come across things they have never seen before – green fields, rain, a train, fresh food. It is a story about love and friendship – initially, Serendipity and Tab do not trust each other, but they soon come to realise that their fates are entwined and that they are better as a team. The people they meet along the way  help and encourage them on their journey. The novel also has great suspense; once the authorities realise that there has been an escape, they pursue Serendipity, and nearly catch her several times.

Spoiler alert!

Serendipity reaches her goal in the most magical and unexpected way, not immediately, but many years after she has settled happily in Whales, in a brief and beautiful moment that made me cry! 

This is a fabulous book which I thoroughly enjoyed reading – kids and adults alike will enjoy spotting all the references, the links to current concerns in its themes (the importance of community, climate change, the social and economic separation of London from other regions of the country). The pace is perfect for the 9-12 age group, the characters are well-rounded, credible and fun, and I loved all the nods to other books – this would be a great introduction to titles they might come across later in life.

Highly recommended.

[My copy of this book was very kindly sent to me by the author after I posted a review of her other novel The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare which I also enjoyed and recommend.]

What sort of books do your kids like reading?

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Kids book review: “Tin” by Padraig Kenny

Tin is a debut children’s novel from Irish writer Padraig Kenny which is receiving a lot of publicity and has had some really good reviews. It’s set in pre-War Britain, and concerns the production of highly sophisticated robots (‘mechanicals’). Parts of the book take place in central London and the English home counties, other parts in the dreadful dystopian setting of Ironhaven, an ugly metallic landscape populated by  junk, by discarded and disfigured ‘mechanicals’ and by fearsome robots designed to terrorise. As such it is somewhat timeless and placeless. Reading it, I was struck by similarities to 1984, to Frankenstein (which strangely enough, I reviewed recently), to Oliver Twist, to dystopian fantasy as well as the Wizard of Oz! Most readers will be in the 9-12 age group, though, so may have little knowledge of these references.

Tin imgThe story begins near Aylesbury where the spivvy disgraced engineer Dr Absolom is trying to sell ‘mechanicals’. These are child robots which were initially created to perform tasks that society no longer wanted humans to do. We learn some vague details about how the experiment got out of hand when some rogue scientists tried to instil their creations with a soul. This was considered a step too far and laws were put in place to limit the capabilities of these creations, and, in particular, to forbid the building of adult-sized mechanicals. The environment we are observing, however, appears somewhat lawless, and it is clear that Absolom is operating on the margins and that there is a black market in mechanicals.

The main characters at this stage are the ‘child’ mechanicals Jack, Round Rob and Gripper, the slightly uncategorised Estelle (who works for Absolom as a specialist in making skin) and Christopher who believes himself a human orphan. Late one evening Christopher is involved in an accident which breaks his skin and reveals wires – he is not a human child, but a particularly sophisticated mechanical. He is later kidnapped by some rather shady officers from ‘The Agency’. They are merely masquerading as the authorities, however, and are in fact operating on behalf of Richard Blake, son of one of the rogue scientists, the egotistical bully Charles Blake, who was involved in illegal activity in the experiments he conducted. He is keen to get hold of Christopher who, it turns out, is the only remaining example of ‘Refined Propulsion’ – a mechanical with a soul – and to take over the world with his own giant robotic creations.

Meanwhile, Absolom’s small band of misfit mechanicals decide they must go in search of Christopher and rescue him. They seek out Richard Cormier, another one of the famous rogue scientists, for help. When they find him, however, he is hostile and uncooperative. He is an angry and disillusioned man who wants no part in society. We later learn that he lost his son in the Great War and then later his only grandson; it was in fact he who created Christopher out of grief, as a replacement for the lost child. He instilled him with memories that his grandson would have had.

The story takes the form of a quest – a group going in search of their lost friend – and the setbacks they face along the way. At the heart of it is their love for their friend, and this challenges the notion that the mechanicals do not have a ‘soul’ or feelings, because, clearly, it is their anger at his kidnap and their desire to rescue him that motivates their search. There is action and adventure, some mild peril (the sinister scientists reminded me of Dr Strangelove!) but nothing that should trouble the average ten year-old too much. Younger readers might need some guidance. The plot is quite complicated in parts and I did not always follow it easily, and some of the language of mechanics could be off-putting to some readers. It is ultimately a heart-warming story with a happy ending – good triumphs and evil is defeated.

It’s a wonderful achievement for a debut novel and I commend the author. I also like that it is not obviously a ‘boy’s book’ or a ‘girl’s book’, it will appeal to both genders and has strong male and female characters (as well as non-gender-specific mechanical characters). My only criticism would be that there are no adult females to counter the rather domineering male scientists!

Recommended for 9-12 year olds, a good and engaging read. There are some interesting references for the adults to enjoy too: Blake at times reminds us of a certain American President (he wants to “Make this nation great again”), and it raises issues around AI and the nature of warfare.

Do you find it more enjoyable to have references or jokes that are especially for the grown-ups when you read books with your kids?

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Kids book review: “Red Nemesis (Young Bond)” by Steve Cole

When I was a kid, I watched all the James Bond movies, several times over, because my Dad loved them. So, I know the storylines well and have views about who is my favourite ‘Bond’ (Sean Connery, of course!). In recent years, the Bond movies have got darker, more erotic (rather than just sexy with a smile) and have greater psychological depth, more adult in other words. But there is something about the Bond marque which remains innocent, boyish and which has an appeal across the age groups, despite the inevitable multiple death toll! And it’s not just the baddies who die, which is awkward for younger viewers. However, I watched them all as a child and I think I’m okay.

Red Nemesis imgTo my shame I have never read any of the Fleming novels (my husband has and he likes them a lot), so I was delighted to pick up this book from the children’s section of my local library and if you have pre/young teens in your household, I think they might like it. Red Nemesis by Steve Cole, is the ninth novel in the ‘Young Bond’ series by Penguin Random House (under their imprint Red Fox). Five have been written by Charlie Higson (author of ‘The Enemy Novels’ – The Enemy, The Dead, The Fear, etc) and four so far by Steve Cole (famous for his Astrosaurs books). They are all closely linked to and published under the aegis of the Ian Fleming novels. In these books, we meet James Bond as a schoolboy. He already has connections with the British Secret Services, thanks to his father’s career in defence sales, and becomes involved in improbable missions and adventures. All part of the escapism! In Young Bond we get to see the life events that shape the man we know so well. (In my case through Sean, Roger, Pierce, Daniel, et al).

Red Nemesis is set in the summer of 1935 during James’s summer break from Fettes College, a smart public school in Scotland. He is about to go home with his Aunt Charmian; his parents are dead, having been killed in a skiing ‘accident’ when he was younger. The story opens a couple of years earlier in London with a mysterious Russian, Ivan Kalashnikov, deliberately breaking the legs of his daughter, Anya, in a car crash that was meant to look like an accident. Anya is a promising ballerina set for a glittering career on the international stage. Why would a father do this?

On the train back from Scotland, Charmian hands James a backpack which belonged to his father and which has been retrieved from the ice where he died. The contents are mysterious and include items which James senses are clues to an unsolved mystery in which his father may have been involved, in particular a cryptic postcard penned to his brother Max, James’s uncle and Charmian’s late husband. James also feels the contents of the backpack may bring him closer to the truth about his parents’ untimely deaths.

Following the clues, James goes to London. He first visits the Secret Intelligence Service to hand over copies of the documents in his father’s backpack to a former acquaintance of Max’s, the SIS agent Adam Elmhirst. He then goes to the Mechta Academy of Performing Arts, an international school near the SIS building. He masquerades as a prospective pupil, the son of a diplomat, pretending he has made an appointment to look around. He is given short shrift by the cold foreign authorities at the school but manages to break free of security. He conducts his own tour of the basement and finds a large stock of a powerful explosive. He is discovered and gets into a fight with a young man who is apparently a pupil. James wakes up in a cell, locked up for trespassing on the premises of the school without permission, until he is rescued by the aforementioned Elmhirst, who immediately invites James to accompany him to Moscow to help solve the mystery of the contents of the backpack, which Elmhirst says will lead them to uncover some malign Russian plot.

Most of the rest of the book is set in Moscow, as James and Elmhirst get into numerous scrapes. There are dramatic chases, villains, fights, plus of course, a bit of young love interest when James tracks down Anya Kalashnikov (he was clearly already powerfully attractive from quite a young age). Anya becomes James’s sidekick after her father is brutally killed; she realises she is not safe and has nothing to lose by getting involved with the mystery-solving activity.

There is violence, peril, quite a few deaths, unlikely villains, stereotypes and spies, but all of it in true James Bond fashion. It’s not as tongue-in-cheek as some of the earlier Bond films; there is an element of the troubled soul, the three-dimensional human we have come to see in the Daniel Craig incarnation of Bond (though not that dark), which is probably truer to the Fleming novels.

I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed this book – it has nail-biting action, problem-solving, and James feels like a well-developed character with fears, feelings and flaws as well as bravery, resilience and strong fighting instincts. There is quite a bit of violence and death, so I would recommend for 12-14 year olds. Alongside James, Anya provides a strong female character so I think both girls and boys would enjoy this. I did!

What do your kids think of the ‘Young Bond’ novels?

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Kids book review – “Kick” by Mitch Johnson

I read a super little book for children last week – Kick the debut novel from Mitch Johnson. It is set in Jakarta, Indonesia, and the characters are the poor people of that city, and, more specifically, young children who have to work in the sweat shops and on the streets of that city to help their families make ends meet. The theme is an important one and it is a book that will enlighten your child to international issues about which they may know very little, but it is not preachy.

Kick imgThe central character in the story is Budi, a football-mad eleven year-old boy whose hero is an English footballer called Keiran Wakefield, who plays for Real Madrid. Budi and his friends spend all their free time playing football, role-playing their favourite teams and stars. One of Budi’s friends has an old television and they sometimes watch matches together too, late at night Indonesia time. To that extent Budi and his friends are like any other boys their age and your children will be able to identify with their passions and their aspirations. The similarities end, however, when you compare the daily lives of these children with ours in the developed world; Budi and his friends work in factories, mainly sweat shops, where the conditions are poor and where the manager is cruel and exercises discipline through the use of corporal punishment. Budi makes football boots that are shipped off to Europe. They work for a pittance and, despite both Budi and his Dad working, the family still does not have enough income to eat a meal every day. Budi’s best friend is Rochy who lives with his mother and two sisters (his father is dead). Budi tells us that Rochy is the cleverest person he knows but that he had to withdraw from school because he needed to work to support his family. His existence is altogether darker – his mother barely communicates (depression?) and there is the suggestion that the two sisters are involved with the sex industry, although younger readers will not pick this up.

The community is also threatened by corruption; a local gangster, the Dragon, extorts protection money from local businesses and residents with impunity due to his familial links with the head of the police, and is reputed to have murdered his own brother. Unluckily for Budi, he crosses paths with the Dragon one day when he accidentally kicks a ball through the window of the Dragon’s apartment. The Dragon demands that Budi steal a pair of football boots for his nephew from the factory in recompense. He tells Budi that if he fails to deliver, then his family will be evicted and they will have to go and live in the slums.

Budi perceives the task as impossible and is ready to accept his fate, even to die, but then miraculously, the boots get to the Dragon. There is uproar in the factory as the foreman threatens everyone that they will suffer unless and until the thief is identified. A young girl is blamed and brutally ejected from her job. Budi learns only later that it was Rochy who stole the boots and passed them on and that he has effectively saved Budi’s skin.

The first half of the book is good fun: young readers will be able to engage in some gentle comparison of their lives versus Budi’s, the differences in wealth and circumstances as well as the similarities in outlook and dreams. The author subtly juxtaposes the poverty in the factory and in the society more generally with the excesses of the footballing world which the children so admire. Budi and Rochy discuss Western advertisments for cars, which they see whilst watching football matches, and to see the absurdity of them through their eyes is very funny and very enlightening

The second half of the book is darker. Budi’s life becomes even more challenging and some of his innocence is lost as he has to grapple with the realization that his dream of becoming a professional footballer like Keiran Wakefield may never be realized. We learn more about the activities of the Dragon and in particular a plot to traffic people to the West that Budi becomes embroiled in. This strand of the plot involves a dock-side shoot-out. There is also an earthquake in which Budi’s Grandma dies and Rochy’s mother and sisters go missing and are presumed dead.

This is a book which will need to be read with younger readers; parents will need to be on hand to explain and reassure. For readers 12+ the characters and writing style may feel quite immature on one level, but they will better understand some of the themes, which may well complement their secondary school syllabuses in a very accessible form.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book myself and ultimately it is uplifting. Although some of the events are bleak, Budi hangs on to his dreams and hope ultimately triumphs.

“The trouble with being a dreamer is that occasionally you’ll have nightmares – you’ve just got to make sure they don’t ever spook you enough to want to wake up.”

Recommended for 10-13 year olds.

How do you feel about exposing younger readers to difficult issues, such as the human rights abuses that many children in the world endure?

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Kids book review: “The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare” by Zillah Bethel

The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare imgThis book is set in a familiar country (England) but in a future time where life has changed and the world is very different: bus journeys cost hundreds of pounds, many routine tasks and jobs are carried out (not very well) by robots and everyone carries a QWERTY, which it seems is some next generation pocket computer. Auden Dare is an eleven year-old school boy who lives with his mother in Forest Gate in east London. When we first meet him we learn that his father is away fighting in the war in Europe. Climate change has taken hold and water is scarce. Indeed, water, or the lack of it, seems to be the root cause of the conflict in which Auden’s father is involved. Auden has a condition called achromatopsia, which means he is unable to see colours, only shades of grey.

Auden and his mother move to Cambridge when Auden’s uncle, Dr Jonah Bloom, his mother’s brother and a brilliant scientist, dies and leaves them his cottage. She sees it as an opportunity for them to make a fresh start. When they arrive at the cottage, however, they find that it has been ransacked, as have his rooms at Trinity College, where he worked. It is clear that there is something amiss. Auden makes a friend at his new school, Vivi, who, it turns out, also knew Dr Bloom very well. The two young people decide there is something suspicious about Jonah Bloom’s death and set about to uncover the mystery.

Very soon Auden and Vivi discover that Dr Bloom had invented a robot, Paragon, which they find in a secret chamber underneath the garden shed in the cottage garden. Initially, Auden believes that his uncle was in the process of inventing a machine that would enable Auden to see in full colour. However, it turns out that the robot, in fact, has a much higher purpose.

This book is part adventure story, part mystery and has all the usual tropes you would expect from a children’s book of that nature: a brave and bold character in Auden, a brilliant female mind in the form of Vivi, an external threat in the form of the Water Allocation Board, which also wants to get hold of Dr Bloom’s work and in particular the robot Paragon, and a race against time, with moments of high tension. There are underlying themes here around the power of friendship to overcome adversity and how individuals can take control of their own lives and defy the destiny society has decided for them. It is also about taking a stand and doing the right thing.

As a rule of thumb, kids like reading books about characters who are slightly older than them; Auden is 11, but I would say this is a book for 10-12 year olds, rather than 9-11s. For a start it’s quite long and the plot is at times quite complex. Also, some of the themes may be quite challenging for younger readers, for example, the vision of the future, a kind of police state where the head of the Water Allocation Board is hostile and threatening. There is also the suggestion that Dr Jonah Bloom has been illegally murdered by the state and that Auden’s father has been wrongfully imprisoned by a corrupt military authority. Echoes of 1984!

Spoiler alert….

Also, the robot, Paragon, who develops a strong personality and whom Auden grows to love, ‘dies’ when he self-destructs after fulfilling his purpose as a rainmaking machine. Younger children might find some aspects of the book challenging or unsettling.

In places it is really funny; it reminded me a little of Time-travelling with a Hamster by Ross Welford, so kids who enjoyed that book might like this one too (although for me it’s not quite as good or as well-written).

Recommended for 10-12 year olds who like an adventure mystery and can cope with some threat.

If you or your children have read this book, do you agree with my thoughts about the reading age?

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