‘La Belle Sauvage’ Philip Pullman

It’s really never been in any doubt that Philip Pullman is a master storyteller, and I was intrigued when I heard he was bringing out another book to go alongside the His Dark Materials trilogy.  ‘La Belle Sauvage’ has been described very cleverly as an ‘equal’ in terms of the series, and that is exactly right I think.  This title takes us right back to the very beginning, when the baby, Lyra, has just been born.  With mysterious groups determined to find her, she is hidden in a nunnery on the edge of Oxford.  Our main characters in this story are Malcolm, son of The Trout inkeeper, and Alice, a complex and dour girl.  With the forces gathering, a flood of biblical proportions hits the land, and Malcolm & Alice are forced to flee with Lyra in Malcolm’s beloved boat ‘La Belle Sauvage’.  Pursued by the enigmatic Bonneville and his disturbing daemon, Malcolm and Alice face a huge journey to take Lyra to her father in London, where they hope she can be protected.

The flood and journey are so vividly described that I spent a couple of days feeling that I was wading waist-deep in flood water myself.  Malcolm and Alice have to contend with the practicalities of travelling with a small baby, keeping her clean, fed and warm in the deluge, as well as coming across fairies and almost mythological places.  Their relationship develops from initial distrust to something more confusing for them both through their shared experiences.

I have read much about Pullman’s feelings on religion and his hope to reclaim joy and positivity.  This book pitches dark, adult forces against the practicality of children living in the real world.  In case you weren’t aware, ‘The Trout Inn’ really does exist, and I have walked to it from Oxford, and had a lovely lunch there!  It is also close to the ruins of an old abbey, and being able to picture these scenes in my head gave the book even more impact for me.  This is the first of 3 titles, and I can’t wait for the next one to be published.


‘Letters to the Lost’ Brigid Kemmerer

Told in alternating voices, ‘Letters to the Lost’ has all the elements of ‘the usual’ teen story, but the writing takes it, in my opinion, above the average for this genre.  Juliet’s mother has died, and she finds some kind of consolation in continuing to write letters to her, leaving them by her gravestone.  Declan is the local ‘bad boy’, serving a time of community service mowing the grass in the cemetery.  Without realising that they actually know each other, they start to communicate, first in notes, and then online.  Both have suffered huge loss, and find some comfort in the understanding of someone feeling a similar pain.

Their connection grows steadily and is at the same time painful and cathartic.  Declan is very much the misunderstood, still waters run deep character.  With only one close friend, the fantastically drawn Rev, he plays the role of a hard nut to the point where most people are scared of him, but keeping his confusion and sensitivity very close.  His terribly difficult relationship with his mother & stepfather is developed well, and the reader really does feel deeply for both characters.  However, just like real people, both Juliet and Declan are flawed.  Their uncertainties and sensitivities threaten to destroy the connection they have forged – portrayed so realistically.  With a thread of burgeoning romance, the book has a satisfying conclusion.

The pace is really well-judged – detail enough to develop some great characters and situations, yet pacy enough to keep it moving and keep the reader interested.  This is sure to go down well with our students!

‘The Pearl Thief’ Elizabeth Wein

I have been completely, and unexpectedly entranced by this book!  Set in a fascinating period (1930s) with elements of social observation, a little light romance, a family tragedy and even a murder mystery – it really does have everything!

‘The Pearl Thief’ is narrated by privileged Julie Beaufort-Stuart , otherwise known as Lady Julia.  Her family is packing up their ancestral home and estate after it had to be sold to cover her Grandfather’s debts following his recent death.  The story takes place during the last summer the family is staying there, packing up treasures to sell at auction, including items in a collection of ancient pieces.  An archivist connected to the collection goes missing and is assumed to have been murdered, and Julia herself is knocked senseless and left with almost no memory of who might have done it. Fingers start to point at a family of travellers who have had connections to the estate for centuries.  Julia is determined to prove their innocence.

Trying to befriend Ellen, the daughter of the travellers, Julia is awash with mixed emotions, as she is constantly drawn to the acerbic girl.  Gradually memories start to return and, with her brothers’ help, the tale begins to unfold.

I just loved the mix of period atmosphere, along with the mystery gradually unfolding.  Freshwater pearls from the rivers on the estate are a complex reminder of better times, but also a draw for the greedy, and their theft is at the heart of the mystery.

This title is billed as a prequel to ‘Code Name Verity’, but reads perfectly well without having read the other title.  I loved the voice of the narrator, who turns sixteen during the story, but longs to be seen as a sophisticated woman.  She is wise, bold and naive at the same time.  She also has a self-assurance that her family position gives her, despite their poverty.  All the women in the book are portrayed fondly and as independent characters, coping with the tragedy in their own very practical and individual ways.  The ‘tinker’ family (Scottish travellers) are drawn with sensitivity, being as much a part of the estate as Julia’s family.  The suspicion of them shown by others rings very true and is unpleasant to read.

Although a mystery at heart, this is a tale of coming of age and exploring privilege and stereotyping.  I don’t think this will appeal widely to our students, but a few names spring to mind who I shall recommend this to and I am confident that sophisticated readers will also love it.

‘The Inventory – Iron Fist’ Andy Briggs

A few years ago I watched a TV programme called ‘Warehouse 13’.  It was based on a secret warehouse that contained incredible objects with amazing and generally dangerous powers.  I loved every programme in the series!  ‘Iron Fist’ seems to be very solidly based on this (no idea if the author saw the series as well).  The basic premis is almost identical.  Dev lives an isolated life on a farm, just him and his uncle responsible for caretaking an extraordinary collection of items far too dangerous to be in the wider world.  Dev is allowed to go to school, but his geekiness means he has no friends.  After a disastrous incident at a party, Dev finds two people from school have come to the farm – one is the biggest bully, and the other a girl Dev has known from afar for a long time.  These three unlikely allies are thrown together when the security of the inventory is threatened, and the only way to come out of it alive will be for them to work together.

I found it took me a little while to get into the book.  The first few chapters swapped between Dev as narrator and The Collector (evil genius out to take over the world….).  Once I’d worked out who was who I was hooked.  Andy Briggs has let his imagination run riot with the possibilities of secret gadgets and the pacy action kept me reading on.  Yes, it’s a total take-off of Warehouse 13 with young people, and there’s a certain amount of predictability, but students will love the action and the brilliant tech!

‘Word Nerd’ Susin Nielsen

This was one of those books that you just know from the first words is going to be fantastic!  ‘Word Nerd’ is a mostly light, funny, observant read.  It has immensely likeable characters, and comes across as sincere and real.

Ambrose has a tough time at school.  He doesn’t really seem to fit in anywhere,  he and his mum have moved around quite a lot following the sudden death of his father before he was born.  They are, at the same time, very close, but at times can drive each other mad – pretty realistic I’d say!  Mum is very overprotective, although it isn’t hard to see where that stems from, and they generally live a pretty quiet life, enjoying regular games of scrabble in the evenings.  Following a horrible incident with 3 bullies in school, Ambrose’s Mum decides home schooling is the only answer.  Having more time at home, Ambrose meets his landlord and neighbour’s son, Cosmo, who has just been released from prison and is trying hard to stay out of trouble.  The only thing they have in common is a love of scrabble, and by devious means Ambrose persuades Cosmo they should join a local scrabble club – knowing that if his Mum found out he was spending time with the ex-con and leaving the house he’d be in serious trouble.

From this small deception, adventure ensues.  Ambrose is blunt with Cosmo – asking the questions everyone else is too scared to ask, but in many unlikely ways they end up helping each other to move on with their lives in new ways.  I particularly enjoyed Ambrose’s clumsy matchmaking efforts when Cosmo falls for Amanda who runs the scrabble group.

This was a very quick book to read.  It was down to earth, and I can see it being enjoyed by a wide variety of students – I loved it!

‘The Pirate King’ Huw Powell

The third and final of the Spacejackers trilogy, ‘The Pirate King’ is a very fitting ending for this series.  It’s great to find something a little different in writing for children, and the combination of pirates and sci-fi works really well.

In this final book, Jake Cutler faces his final challenges.  Can he find the father he barely remembers who is rumoured to be alive?  Can he bring the independent worlds together to defeat the  corrupt interstellar government?  In a rush of action and adventure Huw ties up all the loose ends, giving a very satisfying finish to the series.  There is an eclectic and colourful cast of characters, and the pacey writing keeps the reader gripped all the way through.

Huw is an ex-student of my school, and we all love his books.  I’m looking forward to finding out what he has planned for his next one!

‘All the Light we Cannot See’ Anthony Doerr

It’s been a while since I posted, as I have been reading the truly epic and totally absorbing ‘All the Light we cannot See’.   I’m not sure I am going to be able to do justice to this book, as it really is quite a beautiful piece of writing.

Set mostly through World War Two we see the story from two very different young people’s eyes.  Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris.  She has become blind, and her father is her protector, but at the same time guiding her to some independence.  A talented locksmith at a museum, he creates a city in miniature to help Marie-Laure navigate her way safely.  At the heart of the museum is hidden a fabulously unique diamond, surrounded by curse, myth and mystery, which Marie-Laure’s father is to keep safe through the war.  We also meet Werner, a German orphan living with his younger sister in a home run by a nun.  Werner discovers a talent for understanding electronics, creating his own radio out of discarded pieces, and listening entranced to a series of science programmes for children from across the ether.  Marie-Laure’s story takes her to her Uncle’s house in Saint-Malo, where they flee.  But life becomes harder & harder under German occupation, and they become involved in a resistance movement using secret radios to keep families in touch, and relay information.  Werner is soon noticed as extremely gifted, and is moved to a school where the harsh regime is intended to prepare boys for service to the Reich.  A terrible event leaves Werner’s only friend brain damaged by violence, and leaves Werner doubting himself as he could do little to save his friend.  Eventually the call comes and Werner is part of a small team sent out to track down illegal radio transmissions and to deal with those making them.  Marie-Laure seems to be a target in a number of ways.  The hidden radio transmitter they use to broadcast is being traced by Werner’s group, but at the same time an army General is determined to track down the missing diamond.  He is tenacious, and obsessed by finding the jewel.  As the net closes, she finds herself alone, and all these threads tangle to bring the main characters together.

The book is huge, but the short sentences and chapters keep the pace moving along speedily.  I found the first few chapters confusing, but a little way in I was completely hooked.  The characters are very well created, I felt especially drawn to the nun running the home where Werner and his sister grow up, and the housekeeper in Saint-Malo.  The novel, right at the end, revisits many of the main characters, tying up ends and really hit home to me that in the 70s (my youth) there were thousands upon thousands of people who were living lives following those terrible events who were just a little older than I am now.