The Island at the End of Everything

Buy THE ISLAND AT THE END OF EVERYTHING by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Amihan lives an apparently idyllic existence on the island of Culion. She and her mother live in a quiet, laidback village surrounded by friendly neighbours, their lives revolving around school, church and trips to the palm-shaded beaches that surround their forested island home. But Culion is not really the paradise Amihan can see, and she’s old enough now to properly understand why. Culion is a leper colony.

This doesn’t really matter to Amihan, though, until the appearance of the fastidious Mr Zamora. Zamora is an evangelical bureaucrat, a suited zealot on a mission from Manila to isolate all those who have been touched by leprosy and remove healthy children from their affected parents. This means Amihan must leave her mother and the only home she has ever known for an island of strangers, from which Culion is only visible on a clear day. There’s only one way she will ever get to go back, but she’s not going to be able to manage it on her own.

When a book is so wonderfully written as this one, what flaws it has become all the more apparent, but at the same time are easier to accept. I felt the ’30 years later’-style extended epilogue unnecessary, and that the pace slowed to a bureaucratic churn when Zamora became the one driving the plot for a while in the middle, but those niggles aside, this is still beautifully written, and a story that felt modern yet still with a certain timeless quality at the same time.

Zamora might be a drag on the pace for a few chapters, but he is still the richest character in the story – unforgivable, yet never evil; his small-mindedness balanced against his strange, strange love for butterflies. But at the end of the day, his desire to preserve their beauty forever by killing and pinning them captures the unrecognised turmoil that he both inhabits and creates for everyone around him. He’s drawn with a complexity that’s unusual for books supposedly aimed at this age group.

The Executioner’s Daughter

Buy THE EXECUTIONER’S DAUGHTER by Jane Hardstaff

Moss has only ever seen the world outside the Tower of London through iron bars. The vicarious life she lives through people she encounters leaves her feeling safer where she is, protected by the Tower’s battalion, and her father. But then, when you’re the daughter of the man who lops off the heads of the enemies of the state, it’s not as if you get to mix with the cream of society.

Yet Moss is curious about the outside world all the same. It’s a place full of secrets, including those about Moss’s own past. All she has are fragments of stories, perhaps mythical, about her dead mother, and an old curse. When she finds a secret passage that leads out of the Tower, Moss can’t resist exploring. But the kind of people who need a secret passage to get in and out of the Tower are not the sort Moss should mess with. Maybe her father was telling the truth about the world out here after all.

Despite that title, this is quite a sweet story, not dripping in blood, and more grimy than gritty. It’s full of colourful characters (not least the suitably salty orphan chancer Salter, a boy straight out a Dickens tale), and whilst the ‘is-it-real-or-is-it-imagined?’ nature of some of the more fantastical elements didn’t always work for me, it’s a fast paced and vividly told adventure, and made me want to check out the sequel.

Wildwood

Buy WILDWOOD by Colin Meloy

Prue is looking after her brother Mac when the toddler is suddenly picked up by a flock of crows, which fly off with him towards Wildwood, on the edge of Portland, Oregon. Prue heads after him, joined by her nosey friend Curtis. Curtis promptly gets lost in the woods, but Prue can’t spend too much time worrying about that, especially when she is picked up by a shotgun-wielding postman and taken to a palace full of talking beasts.

There she learns how she should never have been able to cross over from the rainy normal world into this odd, odd realm. Magic should have protected the place from Outsiders like Prue and Curtis, ensuring anyone who wandered in would always walk straight back out again – even if they didn’t realise they had turned around – and enabling Wildwood’s inhabitants to live side by side with a town full of non-magical Americans. Prue is viewed with plenty of suspicion for having been able to unwittingly ignore this protective magic, and when she receives a warning message from the leader of the man-sized talking owls, she makes a run for it.

The story starts off a bit like the film Labyrinth, but quickly develops a distinct Narnian flavour. Curtis reminded me very much of Edmund when he falls under the sway of a mysterious woman who commands an army of armoured talking coyotes. The book is definitely darker than any of the Narnia books (even The Last Battle), however – Curtis doesn’t know it, but that woman once reanimated the soul of her dead son in a wooden toy version of him that contained only his teeth, and her latest scheme is even more diabolical. The world Colin Meloy has created has a timeless feel to it, but with apparently anachronistic little details to remind us this is simply a more magical version of the modern day.

Wildwood is an epic, slightly episodic novel, maybe a little self-indulgent in places, but it is also a busy story with lots going on and a large cast of distinctive characters, all well developed regardless of how small a role they play. It touches on politics, bureaucracy, nationalism and war, all with a fantastical (sometimes even bonkers) twist, but it did make me wonder if it had been written consciously with the crossover market in mind. Whilst superficially it’s just a great fantasy adventure, there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface that I think would go over the heads of many kids.

Murder Most Unladylike

Buy MURDER MOST UNLADYLIKE by Robin Stevens

When I was younger I was a big fan of books where people my own age started their own detective agencies. My favourites were the Three Investigator books, which remained a mainstay of my reading into my teens, even when the rest of my tastes were getting decidedly more blood-soaked. I wanted to live in a junkyard and have a secret office hidden by a pile of junk. Their plots were a little safer (missing objects, etc) than the storyline of the first Wells and Wong mystery, which starts with the murder of a teacher at the Deepdean girls’ boarding school.

Hazel Wong finds the body of Miss Bell spread-eagled on the floor of the gym. She runs to get help, not least from Daisy Wells (President of the Detective Society, for which Hazel is Secretary – though really there are just the two of them anyway). When students and staffs descend on the gym, however, the body is gone. As Daisy and Hazel deduce, it can’t have been an accident (or suicide), because someone has obviously tried to cover it up. With a mysterious resignation note showing up, nobody else believes Miss Bell is even dead, let alone murdered, so it’s down to Daisy and Hazel to solve the crime on their own.

The story is set in that timeless version of quintessential England that probably didn’t even exist in the early 1930s, but it offers Robin Stevens the chance to affectionately pastiche Agatha Christie’s oeuvre. There are a few herrings so red they are practically neon as Daisy and Hazel work their way through the teaching staff, establishing who has motive and who is protected by an alibi. At one point things seem to be getting all Murder on the Orient Express, with everyone – perhaps even a couple of students – having a possible reason to want to snuff out Miss Bell.

Daisy and Hazel are a teenaged Holmes and Watson, with Hazel writing up the case and Daisy hanging over her shoulder, improving the text from off the page. They bicker, they fall out, they realise they need each other to solve the case. It’s a sparkling relationship that pushes the book onto another level. This is the first in a series and I’ll certainly be checking out the others.

Boy in the Tower

Buy BOY IN THE TOWER by Polly Ho-Yen

Strange things are afoot in South London. First it rains non-stop for weeks. Then buildings start to collapse of their own accord. And then odd blue flowers begin to grow amidst the debris. Everyone starts calling them Bluchers.

Ade only half notices this happening, despite having a splendid view of the city from the balcony of the tower block where he lives. His mum recently suffered a brutal attack near to where she worked and has become increasingly more reclusive, to the extent where Ade has to go out and buy food for them both. But he can’t ignore what’s going on when everyone else in the block decides to leave. Ade’s mum won’t leave her bed, though, so Ade stays behind with her. Except, as he soon discovers, he’s not the only one left behind.

There are all sorts of things going on here. Ade’s life hasn’t really changed all that much. He was just as lonely before the Bluchers appeared. His experience of this apocalypse comes down to missing going to school and not being able to spend time with his one friend, Gaia. His home is a place where hundreds of people are all living on top of each other, but his world is one of alienation and isolation. It takes calamity to change that.

Ade is the sort of innocent, sensitive and kind character that makes for an instantly familiar and likeable narrator, his only flaw his slight naivety. Whilst he’s never passive, it’s only towards the end of the book that his true strength emerges.

Any story about killer plants is obviously going to draw comparisons to John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids. Even though the Bluchers aren’t walking around the place, that doesn’t make them any less menacing. Their level of sentience is left rather vague, which doesn’t help. You’d like to believe they are actually quite innocuous, only killing us all by accident. And perhaps that’s they way they like it.

Knightley & Son: K9

Buy KNIGHTLEY & SON: K9 by Rohan Gavin

Dogs have been disappearing all over London. Meanwhile something is stalking the wilder parts of Hampstead Heath each full moon, leaving grisly animal carcasses and what appear to be unbelievably large paw-prints.

Young sleuth Darkus Knightley, who has left the shadow of his famous detective father following the events of the first Knightley & Son book, is soon investigating. Unfortunately he has competition from a nosey wannabe student journalist, the police, his potential stepsister Tilly, and an uneasy alliance of despicable chaps who only want to discredit Darkus and his dad. There is of course a connection between the disappearing dogs and the beast on the Heath, but things are a lot more complicated than any of the above realised.

Obviously there’s a big element of homage to The Hound of the Baskervilles running through this book. However, despite a splash of fantasy requiring some suspension of disbelief, it’s actually a bit less silly than the Sherlock version. There’s the same zany humour as in the first book, though balanced this time by some surprisingly violent scenes in its more action-led moments.

The book ends not so much on a cliffhanger as a sharp poke to read the next book in the series. Some untied bows are unravelled at the last moment, but the characters are quite penned in by their development during the course of this book. Knightley Snr slips into a convenient catatonic state (again) partway through the story, a contrivance to allow Darkus to come to the fore once more. But he would do that anyway, having overtaken his dad in sleuthing abilities. Plus the truth is, the stories are always more interesting when he isn’t around, when Darkus is more or less alone, in danger, and can’t rely on dad showing up with the car to save the day.

The Imaginary

Buy THE IMAGINARY by A F Harrold

Rudger may be imaginary but his friendship with Amanda Shuffleup is entirely real. That she first meets him in a cupboard is irrelevant. That her mum can’t see or hear him doesn’t mean he isn’t there. Together Amanda and Rudger get up to all the things normal friends get up to, like fending off aliens in the back garden or exploring a cavern under the stairs.

But then Mr Bunting starts sniffing around. Despite appearing middle aged, Mr Bunting still has an imaginary friend. He can see everyone else’s too. Which is handy for him, seeing as he eats them. Or, more accurately, drinks them. He’s not really middle aged, of course. Like a demonic Dorian Gray, Mr Bunting has been prolonging his life by lapping up the fruits of the imaginations of children for a century.

Amanda knows she has to keep away from Mr Bunting so that he doesn’t swallow Rudger too, but when fleeing from his clutches she ends up running in front of a car and being knocked into a coma. This is the story of what Rudger does next, alone, and with nobody to believe in him.

A F Harrold’s Fizzlebert Stump (The Boy Who Ran Away from the Circus (And Joined the Library)) was like a slightly zanier Roald Dahl. The Imaginary is zanier still, especially when Rudger finds out what other lonely imaginary friends get up to when they’re left on their own. However, the story remains rooted in a real, believable world visited by darkness and tinged by sadness but which is made all the nicer to live in thanks to the imaginations of its inhabitants.

It also has a perfect ending, for reasons I couldn’t explain without spoiling it. So I won’t do either.

The grown-up in me can see this is a book about the power of imagination, the importance of libraries, and about how growing up invariably involves saying a few final goodbyes (even if you don’t realise they were the last ones until afterwards). But at the same time the little boy in me can see this book as a vindication – Jimmy really did exist, and he really did live somewhere near Grandma (and whilst Jimmy’s best friend Ponk probably was imaginary, he was obviously a product of Jimmy’s imagination rather than mine).

Publication day!

Today my first children’s novel was published.

The Thieves of Pudding Lane

The Thieves of Pudding Lane is the story of Samuel and Catherine, two children orphaned by the Plague in 1666. When the Great Fire of London breaks out they become involved in a plot to rob the abandoned houses of the rich, but when the gang of thieves discovers a lost little boy hiding in one of the houses, it is split over what to do with him. The book is a fast-paced historical adventure aimed at readers 9 to 12.

I first had the idea for The Thieves of Pudding Lane in 2004, so it really has taken a decade to make it to the bookshelves! The concept came to me whilst watching a documentary about the Great Fire. When one of the historians mentioned that the richest people in London left a lot of their most expensive belongings behind, I wondered whether anyone had taken advantage of the opportunity to help themselves. The title came to me instantly.

I didn’t spend 10 years writing it, of course. I made my first attempt back then, but it ran aground pretty quickly. After a few chapters I realised it wasn’t working. Maybe the idea wasn’t that good after all, I thought. I had this thought several times over the next few years, and gave up on several drafts. Each time I went off for another year or so and worked on many other ideas, and even published three non-fiction books in the meantime.

But the idea just wouldn’t go away. In 2011 I thought I would give it one last shot, finally get it out of my system once and for all. And now it’s been published.

Really, though, the seeds for The Thieves of Pudding Lane were sown when I was the age of my intended readers. When I was that age I loved disaster movies (secretly I still do). My favourites were The Poseidon Adventure (about a cruise ship that is turned upside down by a massive wave) and The Towering Inferno (about a massive fire that breaks out in a skyscraper). They’re entirely made up, of course, whereas my book is based on a real-life disaster of epic proportions.

You can buy The Thieves of Pudding Lane (RRP £5.99, ISBN 978-1-4729-0318-1) through all good bookshops or online retailers, including Amazon.

Knightley and Son

Darkus Knightley is the oddball son of an oddball father. Knightley Snr has been in a catatonic state since Darkus was nine years old and, now thirteen, Darkus only really knows his dad through reading the copious notes he left behind. Alan Knightley was a maverick detective, you see, on the trail of a mysterious and sinister criminal group known only as the Combination. In his coma he is unable to prevent his young son from absorbing all the information he has collected about them.

This comes in handy, however, when the Combination launch their masterplan and, perhaps not coincidentally, the elder Knightley suddenly awakes. A strange self-help book is having a bizarre effect on an apparently random selection of individuals, causing them to have hallucinations after reading it, and then driving them to do wild, crazy and illegal things. Alan Knightley is sure the truth can be found in the evidence he gathered before falling into his coma, but unfortunately the Combination gets to his notes first. Fortunately, however, all is not lost, because Darkus Knightley has something of a photographic memory.

I loved the Three Investigators mysteries when I was around the age this cracking yarn is aimed at. So much so, in fact, that adult crime fiction has failed to make much of an impact on me – I miss the trailer hidden in the junkyard, the English chauffeur Worthington, and the epilogues in which logical genius Jupiter Jones sat down to explain how he solved the case to none other than Alfred Hitchcock.

Reading this story reminded me a lot of reading the Three Investigators books. Darkus is quite a similar character to Jupe, and the adult characters here are (with the odd exception) similarly encumbrances to the mystery being solved. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is another clear influence. Darkus is rational, precocious, antisocial and sometimes rather knowingly superior. But he’s also quite charismatic with it; precisely the kind of character to carry this kind of tale.

It works just fine the way it is as a standalone novel, but I hope Rohan Gavin goes on to turn it into a series, perhaps with Knightley Snr taking more of a backseat (or having another prolonged snooze). The story works best when Darkus is alone and surviving (and succeeding) by his own wits.

One Day in Oradour

Oradour is the village that appears at the beginning of the first episode of The World at War documentary series. It also appears at the end of the last episode, bookending the series with a symbol that shows the war was not really about glory or sacrifice or changing the world one way or the other, those are just the more acceptable colours draped over senseless carnage.

In June 1944, only a few days after the Allies landed in Normandy, the SS blocked all the ways in and out of the picturesque rural village of Oradour and divided its 650 inhabitants into several groups. Five groups of men were taken to various barns. The women and children were herded into the church. The SS then proceeded to massacre almost everyone, notionally because Oradour was a Resistance hideout. They left the village a ghost town, and one that survives largely untouched to this day – after the war Charles de Gaulle insisted it be left as testament to what happened.

Helen Watts’ Carnegie-nominated novel tells the story of that day in Oradour from the perspective of Alfred, a little boy who managed to survive. He drifts through this nightmare, like the little girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List. He has no story arc because this is not a book where characters learn or develop and everything gets tied up neatly at the end. For most of its length, as soon as the Germans arrive, this novel is a documentary, walking through events and imagining how the victims felt.

Perhaps necessarily this is a fictionalised account. Few people from the town survived. Most of those who did had fled before the killing began. The story has been put together from those few survivors, and the few men who were brought to account after the war, who together could confirm that the SS were ordered to only shoot their victims in the legs so that they would still be alive when set on fire, amongst other horrors inflicted that afternoon.

Most of the names have been changed, amalgamating several survivors into Alfred and several perpetrators into one cruel SS commander, Gustav Dietrich. Seven-year-old Alfred could be a curious scamp from just about any children’s book, but Dietrich suffers from this fictionalisation, with some cod psychology about father issues cribbed on to make him seem a bit more understandable.

This book is aimed at 11 and 12 year olds, who have probably seen enough movies to be inured to violence. But this novel reins things back. Gunfire and explosions bring terror, not excitement. Watts starts by focusing on making her version of Oradour seem very real, so that when she starts reporting, in an often cold, observational manner, what happened there, it all seems quite scarily real too.