Saturday, August 19, 2006

Hitler's Canary by Sandi Toksvig

Author: Sandi Toksvig
ISBN # 0440866626
Publisher: Corgi Yearling
First Published: 2005
300 pages

It's April 1940 and German troops are pouring onto the streets of Denmark. 12-year-old Bamse is ordered by his father to keep his head down and stay out of trouble. But Bamse and his daring friend Anton can't resist playing the occasional practical joke on the invading soldiers. When it becomes clear that the trouble isn't just going to pass them by, the people of Denmark decide to take action and Bamse and his eccentric family are about to take part in one of history's most dramatic rescues - smuggling Denmark's Jewish population, across the water to Sweden, and safety. Many of the characters are based on Sandi's own family, including her father, Bamse, and the book was inspired by the stories he told to her.

World War II has been the focus of many books, both fact and historical fiction, but the story of what happened in Denmark is often, sadly, neglected and in Hitler’s Canary, comedienne Sandi Toksvig and tackled a difficult subject and brought the bravery of the Danish people to the forefront as Bamse’s family and friends work together (and sometimes against each other) during the German occupation of their country. Based on stories told to Toksvig by her father, this story has a very personal feel to it and the characters will quietly work their way into the heart of any reader who picks up this book. The horror of war and the persecution of an entire people is not diminished, but her approach is subtle and this story is filled with daring tales of amazing courage that are funny and exciting as well as incredibly moving.

This is one not to be missed!

Rating: 8

Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters by Rick Riorden

Author: Rick Riorden
ISBN # 0141381493
Publisher: Puffin
First Published: 2006
279 pages

Percy Jackson - the son of Poseidon - has had an unnervingly quiet school year. But then he discovers that the magical borders protecting Half Blood Hill, a summer camp dedicated to training young demi-gods, are failing. Unless something is done, the camp will be attacked by demons and monsters. The only way to restore power to the camp's borders is to find the mythical Golden Fleece. And the only person who can undertake this dangerous quest is Percy…

Percy (short for Perseus) has done a lot of growing up since his adventures began in Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, but he still has a long way to go! Taking his cues from Greek Mythology, Rick Riorden has created a credible modern-day Olympus which has relocated to America (above the Empire State building) to reflect the shift in political power in the West and his young heroes and heroines must face danger both from the mortal world and the mystical one as they accept their difference from normal humans and embrace their destinies – accepting quests and challenges that will pit them against monsters and Gods alike!

This adventure is action-filled and exciting, and is perfect for challenging confident readers who like their plots fast-paced. There’s also a fun fact-file included at the back of the book to give extra information on the Greek Gods and Goddesses (as well as some of the monsters) in the book.

It’s recommended that Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief be read first for best effect.

Rating: 7

The Mob by Clem Martini

Author: Clem Martini
ISBN # 0747575800
First Published: 2004
236 pages

It's springtime - hundreds of Crows set out on their yearly migration and converge at the Gathering Tree. This sacred Gathering is an opportunity for the six crow Clans of the Family Kinaar to assemble, to make decisions and to celebrate being together. But when young blood is lost, sacred laws are tested as an illegal Mob seeks revenge, and a schism threatens the unity of the flock. The Family's situation is made yet more precarious when a severe blizzard hits and the Crows are faced with the dilemma of where to find shelter. Breaking age-old decrees and working together may offer their only chance of survival. This is a startling view of the world from a bird's-eye perspective, complete with its own set of beliefs, mythologies and politics. But it's a world familiar to us too - where the needs of the individual often clash with those of the group, and where the desire to be free must be tempered with the need to be safe, to survive.

Clem Martini does for crows what Richard Adams did for rabbits in Watership Down. As the first in a trilogy that promises to be epic, The Mob does a wonderful job of drawing the reader into a world seen from above, where humans are strange creatures whose actions are indecipherable; cats are viciously sly and dangerous creatures; and the safety of family flock is the most important thing to consider at all times. It’s a fascinating story, filled with heroism, triumph over personal fears, and the philosophy that understanding each other and working together can mean the difference between life-or-death in the animal kingdom. Told from the point of view of Kalum, a crow who lived through all the trials and tribulations and is passing the story on to the next generation; this unusual approach works really well in drawing the reader into the flock and seeing things from a birds-eye view.

Rating: 7

The Cleopatra Curse by Katherine Roberts

Author: Katherine Roberts
ISBN # 00071284X
Publisher: HarperCollins
First Published: 2006
277 pages

The magnificent "Seven Wonders" series concludes with Romanic chariot race! Historical fiction meets action-packed adventure in this thrilling series for boys. Zeuxis is a 'lighthouse boy', whose duties include collecting fuel for the famous Pharos lighthouse of Alexandria and keeping its fire burning. But Zeuxis' dream is to become a charioteer, and he gets his chance when Julius Caesar plans his invasion of Egypt in 48BC to overthrow Queen Cleopatra. Caesar sends his envoys to Alexandria with instructions to create a riot on race day, so that he can invade the palace. To accomplish this, they need an inexperienced charioteer they can bend to their will!

Historical fiction doesn’t come much better than this! As the last book in the “Seven Wonders” series, The Cleopatra Curse transports the reader back to ancient Egypt and the Roman invasion of Alexandria, plunging one straight into all the excitement and action of chariot racing; tantalising with magic and mystery; and introducing the reader to warmly-drawn characters and very interesting plot that grips the imagination. This is no dry, boring history lesson, rather a colourful rollercoaster ride through terrifying events that changed an empire and the course of history.

A thrilling read!

Rating: 7

Vampire Beach: Bloodlust by Alex Duval

Author: Alex Duval
ISBN # 1862301948
Publisher: Red Fox Books
First Published: 2006
233 pages

Jason and his sister have just moved to Malibu - to a town full of rich kids whose lives revolve around money, fashion, cars and parties. Jason gets swept along by the excitement and is flattered to be included - and also very flattered by the apparent interest of the stunning Sienna. But these rich kids hide a dark secret and soon Jason finds that their parties involve a little more than the usual alcohol and music! When their secret is revealed, Jason has to decide if he can accept the status quo. Everyone else seems to be able to...and it might just mean he could get closer to Sienna...This is a fabulously glam and sexy take on the classic vampire story - these vamps can live pretty normal lives, no garlic or coffins for them!

Vampires have come a long way since we were treated to the story of Count Dracula – as humans have evolved and become more sophisticated, the vampires have had to adjust right alongside and in Vampire Beach: Bloodlust, Alex Duval has brought the genre bang up-to-date: These vampires aren’t the crusty old guys in evening dress – they’re sexy, sinister and seriously glamorous! The writing is edgy and will appeal to teenagers who will identify with the lead character, Jason, who has relocated to Miami and now has to try and fit in with a new crowd – little realising that they’re facing the same struggles themselves from a different perspective!

This is a fast-paced teen drama that promises to be the beginning of an exciting series, so look out for the second book, Vampire Beach: Initiation!

Rating: 7

Empress Orchid by Anchee Min

Author: Anchee Min
ISBN # 0747568332

First Published: 2004

336 pages

To rescue her family from poverty and avoid marrying her slope-shouldered cousin, seventeen-year-old Orchid competes to be one of the Emperor's wives. When she is chosen as a lower-ranking concubine she enters the erotically charged and ritualised Forbidden City. But beneath its immaculate facade lie whispers of murders and ghosts, and the thousands of concubines will stoop to any lengths to bear the Emperor's son. Orchid trains herself in the art of pleasuring a man, bribes her way into the royal bed, and seduces the monarch, drawing the attention of dangerous foes. Little does she know that China will collapse around her, and that she will be its last Empress.

I’ve never read anything specifically to do with China or Chinese culture (although I’ve been reading a fair bit about Japanese lately), but I’m fascinated by the Orient and this is already significantly fuelling my interest in all things Eastern.

The story seems to glide along very slowly, almost effortlessly, but although there’s not an awful lot “physically” going on, there’s the impression of a lot of background business happening at all times. The descriptions of the Forbidden City (told to Orchid by Fann) are particularly beautiful. The slow, deliberate style seems evocative of Zen teachings (well, what little I know of them, anyway), and there’s a sense of peace and harmony in everything.

An innocence of style that was very strongly in evidence near the beginning, but it became less pronounced as Orchid’s innocence was slowly stripped away. There were several very delicately handled scenes of very intense eroticism too, which served to break down the perception of innocence in the narrator.

I found the interplay between Orchid and An-tei-hai (her chief Eunuch) very interesting and the relationships in general between the concubines and eunuchs were fascinating – the fact that the word of a eunuch could elevate or destroy a concubine’s position within the Forbidden City made every action fraught with danger – it made for some very tense moments that increase the pace very nicely.

The jealousy involved in court life, as seen in other historical novels I’ve read, seemed to be vastly increased under these circumstances as Orchid tried to avoid the pitfalls of living in the Forbidden City and being known to be the Emperor's favourite.

The part that superstition played in all their lives was very interesting to me. It seemed that Orchid wasn’t all that superstitious, despite being considered to be not-so-well-educated as Nuharu (the Emperor’s first wife and Empress above all the concubines), who seemed to be incredibly superstitious and religious by contrast.

This is a fascinating story, with characters based loosely on actual historical figures, firmly entrenched in events that are historically true; a beautifully written tale that draws the reader into a world of political espionage, where the wrong word to the wrong person can mean execution.

Highly recommended.

Rating: 8

Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists

Author: Gideon Defoe
ISBN # 0753818701
Publisher: Phoenix
First Published: 2004
162 pages

1837: the Victorian Era approaches and the golden age of piracy draws to a close. Worried that his pirates are getting bored with a life of winking at pretty native ladies, sitting about on tropical beaches, and trying to stick enough jellyfish together to make a bouncy castle, the Pirate Captain decides it's time they had an adventure. A chance encounter with the young Charles Darwin - embarked upon the voyage of discovery that will one day make him famous - leads the Captain and his rag-tag crew from the exotic Galapagos Islands to the fog filled streets of Victorian London, where they encounter grisly murder, vanishing ladies, a diabolical Bishop, the Elephant Man, and have an exciting trip to the zoo.

If you’re a fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, you simply MUST get yourself a copy of this book! Seldom does one come across a book so funny that it literally knocks you off your chair and leaves you not only gasping for breath, but requiring medical assistance to sew up your sides, but this one does. The Pirate Captain could give Captain Jack Sparrow a run for his money and I, for one, am desperate to know the secret of his silky beard. His hapless crew (with names like “The Scarf-Wearing Pirate” and “The Albino Pirate” because the Pirate Captain isn’t all that good with remembering names) are so hilarious that you’ll be screaming “raaarghh!” right along with them.

Apparently Mr Defoe wrote this book to impress a girl. Well, consider this particular girl suitably impressed! Honestly, my timbers have never been so shivered!

Rating: 9

Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre

Author: D C Pierre
ISBN # 0571215165
Publisher: Faber & Faber
First Published: 2003
279 pages

Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2003
Winner of the 2003 Whitbread First novel

Named as one of the 100 Best Things in the World by GQ magazine in 2003, the riotous adventures of Vernon Gregory Little in small town Texas and beachfront Mexico mark one of the most spectacular, irreverent and bizarre debuts of the 21st century so far. Its depiction of innocence and simple humanity (all seasoned with a dash of dysfunctional profanity) in an evil world is never less than astonishing. The only novel to be set in the barbecue sauce capital of Central Texas, Vernon God Little suggests that desperate times throw up the most unlikely of heroes.

Well, although I wouldn’t necessarily go as far as saying this was one of the 100 best things in the world, this was quite an enjoyable piece of escapism. It explores exactly how badly things can go wrong when people are quick to lay blame at the feet of others without examining all available information and how the situation can be made even worse if the accused is not allowed to stand up and have his or her say. Of course, it’s also a portrait of a person who is permanently in the wrong place at the wrong time and does absolutely nothing to better his situation with any of his subsequent actions.

A little of the shine was perhaps dulled for me, as I’d so recently finished We Need to Talk About Kevin (which I hated) and this had similar themes – both had a fifteen year old boy accused of murder as the main protagonist and both examined the effect this had on those around him. However, D C Pierre displays far more wit and humour, making Vernon God Little far easier and much more enjoyable to read.

A lot of the action is more than a little far-fetched and one can’t help thinking that a hero who is unlucky enough to live in a town where the local law enforcement is slightly nutsy-cuckoo and in no way fit for duty is nothing short of fantastical, but the extremes illustrate how easy it is for a situation to go off the rails.

If you’re going to read a book about a teenager accused of massacring his classmates, pick Vernon over Kevin – you might just survive with your sanity intact and have a few laughs along the way.

Rating: 6

Vernon God Little was my Olympic Challenge choice for Mexico.