Saturday, 16 December 2017

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, reviewed by Emma Perry

I have no shame in admitting that it was with reluctance that I initially picked up Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.

I really wasn’t sure.

Nevertheless. Something pulled me to it, convinced me to open the cover, delve in – and I didn’t look back.

The overriding tone of Gilbert’s narrative is enthusiastic inspiration, as she delves into the creative process and how she believes it works. Reading Big Magic is like coming away from a REALLY inspirational workshop. You know the sort – the ones that leave you buzzing with ideas and energy. The sort that resets the creative batteries and reminds you exactly why you started writing in the first place – that intoxicating mix of energy and total absorption. There’s nothing quite like it, yet Gilbert manages to package it up into 273 pages.

What Big Magic does is open your mind, imagination and heart up to creative energies – everywhere. I hope this doesn’t sound too vague… but she opens up the pathways to allow your subconscious to be open to inspiration. As writers we do know it is all around us, but sometimes, often times – a little reminder, a nudge is really needed.

Mixing personal anecdotes with experience and knowledge, Gilbert's writing is both relatable and realistic as she acknowledges failure ('it sucks'), the need for courage, and the need for persistence no matter what form your creative journey takes. Big Magic isn't solely aimed at writers.

'never delude yourself into believing that you require someone else's blessing in order to make your own creative work.'

There’s something quite comforting about Gilbert’s voice, she manages that balance between conversational and intriguing, without falling into tedium.

If you're lacking enthusiasm, need a bit of a kick, or  an injection of inspiration then Big Magic might be just the ticket.
'Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege.'

Emma Perry is a picture book writer represented by Bell Lomax Moreton. 
She is the founder of the childrens book review site MyBookCorner and organiser of International Book Giving Day. 
Twitter: @_EmmaPerry


Tuesday, 12 December 2017

RISING STARS - NEW YOUNG VOICES IN POETRY - reviewed by Chitra Soundar

Rising StarsNew Young Voices in PoetryVictoria Adukwei Bulley : Ruth Awolola : Abigail Cook : Jay Hulme : Amina JamaIllustrated by final-year students on the Illustration course at Birmingham City University
Published by Otter-Barry Books (2017)

I attended a book launch recently – a book of poetry by young poets from varied backgrounds – the anthology Rising Stars – New Young Voices in Poetry is an amazing collection of wonderful poems from young and upcoming performance poets.

I heard these words spoken on stage by their creators, with passion and full of emotion. The words came from unique experiences yet it brought tears to the eyes of many present including me.

The B&W illustrations were created by alumni of Birmingham City University and complement the verse beautifully.

Here is a little sample:

We weaved stories into the silences.
He made me brave.

From Brother by Abigail Cook


And bread rising?
the sun on hills
the smell as it rises?
            the last dream before dawn

From How to Build a Kitchen by Victoria Adukwei Bulley


May your words stop
Letting you down.
May you laugh without thinking.
May you eat spaghetti with sugar
And fly to the moon.

May you let me in.

From Pray by Amina Jama

The Rising Stars – New Young Voices in Poetry is published by Otter-Barry Books in collaboration with Pop-up Projects. Read and find out how wonderful these young poets are.


Friday, 8 December 2017

Hilary McKay's FAIRY TALES reviewed by Adèle Geras

Please notice the title of this book. It's not  "Fairy Tales by Hilary McKay" but rather "Hilary McKay's Fairy Tales." And that is precisely what these are: tales that Hilary McKay has taken from the general stock of such stories and made entirely her own. She is well-served by the beautiful illustrations of Sarah Gibb, who has decorated this volume with a series of pictures, using paper cut-outs, which perfectly capture the flavour of each story.

For a wonder, Hilary McKay is someone I've never properly met, though we are buddies on Twitter and by post. But as ever, I have to assure my readers that I am in the enviable position of ONLY reviewing books I really want to review and this is one of them. I have form with fairytales. I've retold them several times. I have written a modern YA trilogy based on them (Happy Ever After: the Egerton Hall trilogy). I love them. I want children to know them and I don't object to Disney's contributions in this field. I grew up with the original, OLD  versions of Snow White and Cinderella and they still colour my image of these stories. I am promised the new, non-animated Beauty and the Beast next weekend, when I'm babysitting my grandchildren and I can't wait. 

It's difficult to convey exactly what Hilary McKay has done, but it's a combination of retelling of the original stories in their conventional form, together with added twists, updates, references and jokes, too, which lift them straight into modernity, without losing any of their old-fashioned magic and power. And the pictures, such as that for Snow White above (the hunter taking Snow White into the forest to kill her, on the orders of her stepmother) are old-fashioned and resolutely decorative.  They add enormously to the pleasures of reading this book.

McKay has chosen 10 stories out of many. She asks questions about the tales to which she provides modern answers. In her introduction she writes: 
"It was exhausting and wonderful to write this book. I walked miles through forests. I watched swans and skies.  I read and read. I studied silks  and brocades. I visited salt marshes and windmills. .....If ever I wrote a book with love, it is this one."

The love is apparent on every page. Those readers who know Hilary McKay's other work will know what an assured and stylish writer she is. Basically, she doesn't put a foot wrong. There are no false notes anywhere in her prose. Her timing is brilliant. Look at those short sentences and see what poetry she can conjure up just by the placement of several full stops...she's a marvel.

And, of course, we know the stories are great. Most of us have read them before.  Therefore we can enjoy such twists as appear. For example, the 'Princess' in Princess and the Pea is not entirely who she seems to be and  (this is spookily prescient! Meg can, of course be a diminutive of Meghan!)  Also, the jokes are fun. There's a fabulous school in the Hansel and Gretel story, where the teacher, one Angelika Maria (I wonder who McKay could possibly be thinking of?) takes a delightful register, containing such pupils as  'Punzel. R' and asks why she's absent. Gretel tells her: "She's been locked up in a tower for ages." And Hansel and Gretel's tale is presented as a 'What I did in my holidays' composition.

The other stories are no less clever and no less poetic. McKay also provides wonderful references for older readers. For instance, the heroine of the Red Riding Hood story is called Polly, which of course will remind many people of "Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf" by Catherine Storr: another real classic. This book too is  destined to become part of the fairytale canon. Any child who gets it for Christmas will be set up for a lifetime of taking pleasure in these old, old stories. 

Published by Pan Macmillan in hardback £12.99


Monday, 4 December 2017

Star By Star, by Sheena Wilkinson, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

Image result for star by star image she

As a teenager I loved fiction which mixed real historical interest with the gentlest sort of hint at romance.  My favourite writers were Hester Burton and KM Peyton.  So I was pretty sure that I was in for a treat with Sheena Wilkinson's latest novel, Start by Star.  And I was right.

This story is set in Ireland at the close of the First World War, with the 'Spanish' flu pandemic killing even more than that terrible war had, with physically and mentally wounded young men returning from the front, and all whilst the question of Home Rule for Ireland is very much in the air, and (some) women were able to vote for the first time.  Stella tells her story, coming to stay in Ireland with an unknown aunt after her mother dies of the flu, sharing a boarding house with a mix of characters who have different life experiences and outlooks, fighting to be recognised as more than 'just a girl', and also finding a possible worthwhile future for herself.

Stella tells her story in quite a modern voice, immediately relatable to today's child readers.  She's a determined, but vulnerable, character who we immediately care for.  She observes her time and place and self with insight and humour.  I loved it when, for example, 'Mrs Phillips's mouth went cats-bottomy', or when Stella herself felt 'large and shy'.  We know exactly what the first one looks like and the second one feels like.

It's a hundred years since women were given some voting rights in our national democracy, and that disparity of treatment, and the fight that won something coming closer to equality, must not be forgotten.  Every secondary school library should have a copy of this book to help the next generation value the say they will come to have in how their country is run.  And because its a very good story, well told.


Sunday, 26 November 2017

Bonkers About Beetroot, by Cath Jones, illustrated by Chris Jevons - reviewed by Damian harvey

Published by Maverick books, Bonkers About Beetroot is a big, bold picture book written by Cath Jones and brightly illustrated by Chris Jevons.

With nobody coming to visit, Sunset Safari Park is doomed and something has to be done. Zebra is determined to save the park but ever cynical Penguin thinks he's wasting his time. 

"Nobody comes because we're boring," says Penguin. But Zebra is still determined so they all go in search of visitors.  

They don't find any visitors, but Zebra has an idea. "Beetroot!" he yells. For some inexplicable reason, Zebra thinks that people are "crazy about beetroot" and is sure that if they grow the biggest beetroot in the world, people will all come to see it. Needless to say, Penguin thinks that this idea is "bonkers" - but Zebra tries anyway.

The animals make a huge manure mountain, plant their beetroot seeds, water them and watch them grow. They soon see that one beetroot is growing bigger than the others. In fact it grows so much that hundreds of visitors come to the safari park to see it. It seems that Zebra's plan has worked but the beetroot keeps on growing and before long it takes over the whole park so that there's no room for visitors anymore. Once again, something has to be done - this time, to get rid of the giant beetroot - and Zebra knows just what to do. And once again, Penguin thinks the idea is "bonkers!" 

In Bonkers About Beetroot, Cath Jones has written a great story about the determination to succeed and achieve what you want despite other people's negative attitudes, and Chris Jevons's artwork really brings it to life. As with other picture books form Maverick, it's size and distinctive square shape make it ideal for sharing with a little one by your side, but it will also be a good one to read aloud in class as children will love it - finding lots to laugh at along the way.  


Saturday, 18 November 2017

The Wizards of Once, by Cressida Cowell - reviewed by Sue Purkiss

This is the first of a new series by Cressida Cowell, author of the very popular 'How to Train your Dragon' series. That was rooted in the world of the Vikings; this is set in a magical long-ago time in
Britain, when woods covered the islands were truly wild.

There are two sets of beings: the Wizards, who are magical but well-intentioned, and the Warriors, who have no magic but do have iron, against which magic has no power. There was also a third set, the Witches. These had magic but were evil, and have been destroyed by the Warriors. Unfortunately, in their zeal to rid the world of the Witches and their evil, they have decided that every other magical creature must also be destroyed.

There are hints of Shakespeare's The Tempest - one of the characters is called Sycorax, for example. But there is also a nod to Romeo and Juliet: Xar, the son of the leader of the Wizards, the Enchanter, meets up with Wish, the daughter of the Queen of the Warriors, Sycorax. In a twist, Xar so far shows no signs of having magic, whereas it seems that Wish perhaps does. The two children at first squabble, but later become friends.

First Xar is captured by the Warriors, then Wish falls into the hands of the Wizards, or possibly it's the other way around. You get the feeling that everyone quite enjoys these tussles. But something much darker is going on. At the beginning of the book, Xar has found a huge black feather. He's convinced that it's a witch's feather, and he thinks that if he can summon up a witch, this will help him to gain access to the magic he desperately wants. But he utterly underestimates the power and the evil which will be unleashed if these creatures are allowed to return...

Xar and his father, the Enchanter

Xar and Wish are both delightful characters. Xar is impulsive, disobedient, and very likeable. Wish is more serious, and more wistful; she's treated with contempt by her powerful, beautiful mother, but still wishes to please her - just as Xar wants to please his charismatic father, the Enchanter. There's a host of delightful magical creatures and other acolytes of the two children too. The book is a beautiful object: hard-backed, chunky, and lavishly illustrated by Cressida Cowell. (The pictures of animals in particular, such as the wolves above, are really beautiful.) She has created another very engaging world, and I suspect this series will prove as popular as the first.


Tuesday, 14 November 2017

A Note Of Explanation by Vita Sackville–West illustrated by Kate Baylay. Review by Lynda Waterhouse

A Note of Explanation is being published by the Royal Collection Trust for the first time since its creation in the 1920’s in a 250 x175mm sized cloth bound edition with stunning illustrations by Kate Bayley.
The original miniature copy of this book is housed in the library of Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House at Windsor Castle. This Little Tale of Secrets and Enchantment was hand written by Vita Sackville-West and housed alongside works by Rudyard Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad ,Edith Wharton and  numerous other authors in the dolls’ house library. The book plates were designed by Winnie the Pooh illustrator E.H Shepherd.
Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House is more an architectural model than child’s plaything. It was designed by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens at the request of one of Queen Victoria’s granddaughter’s, Princess Marie Louise. She wanted to create a gift for her childhood friend Queen Mary. The house with all its miniature working models forms a perfect record of an Edwardian country house created in the aftermath of the First World War.
No dolls live inside its lavish interiors. There is a tiny doll in the nursery, a cat and a mouse in the kitchen and a snail and a bird’s nest in the garden. But in Vita Sackville-West’s story the house is inhabited by a lively inquisitive time travelling house sprite.
Prior to moving in she had waved Cinderella off to her ball and been present when the Prince kissed the Sleeping Beauty. One of her most treasured possessions was the pea which had given the Princess such a sleepless night. She has visited Scheherazade (whom she thought long-winded and a bore), Aladdin’s palace and travelled through the centuries always following the fashion of the country and the day.
Once installed in the house she makes full use of all the facilities in the house; riding up and down in the lift, bathing in the malachite bath, testing all the beds  and generally making a mess around the place.
The author Vita Sackville-West was a poet, novelist and garden designer, best known for designing the gardens of Sissinghurst Castle.  She is also known for her relationship with Virginia Woolf, and being the inspiration for her 1928 novel Orlando.  Dedicated to Sackville-West, Orlando tells the story of a fashion conscious, gender-fluid poet who lives for centuries, meeting famous historical figures along the way. Sounds familiar? Sackville-West created this story with its similar concept four years earlier.
 Kate Bayley’s beautiful art-deco style illustrations are perfect for this story reflecting the wit and playfulness of the text.
This would be a delightful story to read aloud. Children familiar with Downton Abbey or Agatha Christie dramas on television will relish the language.

ISBN 978 1 909741 52 2

Published by Royal Collection Trust