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Book Reviews

By Gail Thompson


Beowulf Dragonslayer Beowulf Dragonslayer(1961) Heinemann Educational, Rosemary Sutcliff ISBN 0 435 12420 x

This book is relatively short, just 90 pages long. It re-tells the story of Beowulf, a character in the oldest written tale we have, dating back to middle Saxon times. The original story is written in the form of an epic poem of 3182 lines, and was thought to have been first written down in the 8th century. The story is older than this however, and is based on the the 5th century, according to the society it describes. Rosemary Sutcliff has re-told the story in modern English for children. Bringing history alive for children was a life long ambition of the author. Her first novel was published in 1950, and she went on to write over 30 books in all, achieving an OBE in 1975. Sutcliff suffered from severe childhood arthritis, leaving her wheelchair bound for life from the age of two years. She was only able to attend school between the ages of 9 and 14. At 14 she began to write her first stories. Her love of history, and the yearning for adventure come out in her books, as does the imagination of a young girl who limited in a physical way, felt none of those limitations in her writing. The language of the book fits the period that it was written, and could be seen to be a little outdated in parts. However, I think it adds to the charm of the book, and good well written English, can never be a bad thing. The structure is very effective in helping the reader to digest the whole epic tale, especially if that reader is a young person. There are a series of short chapters that each cover a separate scene, place, or topic. This also gives the tale a play like quality, subconsciously urging us to visually play it out in our heads like a private film real. The effect gives us natural breaks, just like a real viking saga would have, when the poem was recited round a fire, or during a feast. The use of the original and authentic names of people and places help to place us in the viking age with the characters. Sutcliff's use of accurate cultural roles, rites, and artifacts, not only indicates her familiarity with the history of the times, it allows her


readers to become part of the saga. We can see ourselves in the great hall of 'Hygelac, King of the Geats', feasting and listening to the tale of the visiting vikings. We can imagine ourselves joining brave Beowulf as he and his men set sail for Denmark to save King Hrothgar's kingdom by killing the fearsome Grendel. The story is set up in the first chapter, where one of the visiting seafarers tells a tale of a strange man-wolf of impossible strength, that murders viking warriors during the night. Even the best warriors have failed to beat the monster, and none who try are ever left alive. This dramatic story is told piecemeal,with frequent questions and interactions with the audience, further building up dramatic tension. This also adds to the effect of a saga tale, letting us be one of those in the hall, part of the conversation. The rest of the novel is then told in the voice of a narrator, as if we are listening to a master storyteller at the feast. Drawings with authentic period detail help us with the visualization of the story, and during that first chapter, they literally depict a story teller with people of all ages sat around listening. This all adds to the effect. In conclusion, I think that this is a well written, well thought out book. As I too am a great history lover, the story instantly appealed to me. I love the way that Viking characters are authentic but still appealing and accessible to modern readers. The language, structure, and even the artwork of the book, work together to make the reader feel that they are listening to a saga whilst feasting in a grand hall. Pass the mead horn, I'm in! I have learned: To pay close attention to the atmosphere created for readers. To think carefully about the structure of my book, and what effect that could have.


Stone Cold Stone Cold (1993) Heinemann Educational, Robert Swindells ISBN 0 435 12468 4

Stone Cold was written by Robert Swindells, who won a Carnegie medal for it. Swindells trained as a teacher, and taught for eight years before becoming a full time writer. This has obviously helped him to be familiar with his target audience, teenagers. Some of Swindells personal beliefs shine through the text, “I am dedicated to the idea that we are all responsible for one another, and that we ought to conduct ourselves accordingly, doing no harm to any human being. My work reflects this belief” This quote appears in the front of the book, and clearly states the authors aim. Certainly, in the story, there are lots of people who could help Link, the lead character, but fail to do so. Some of these times mimic what we as the public often do, making us think about our own actions. Most of us at one time or another, have walked past a homeless person without helping. We also make judgements about how they ended up there. Surely it must be their fault? Aren’t all homeless people on drink or drugs? Of course they are not, but many people think so, and images portrayed in the media back up these assumptions. This novel goes some way towards correcting that approach. The novel is written in a dual narrative, with a distinct language style for each perspective. The first voice is that of Link, a homeless teenager, who tells us straight away “You can call me Link. It’s not my name, but it’s what I say when anybody asks, which isn’t often. I’m invisible see?”


This lets us into his world right from the start, and creates empathy for the character, as well as curiosity over how he came to that situation. Link’s story is revealed in snippets as we read the novel. Pages in the Link voice are written in a casual diary entry style, with plenty of rhetorical questions. This lets the reader feel that that know Link, and that they are on this journey with him. It helps to make the story personal to the reader. The second perspective is “Shelter”, also not the characters real name, “I’m getting used to my name. Breaking it in like a pair of new boots”. Pages from this voice are written in a different style. Each section is labelled “daily routine orders” with a corresponding number. They are short, even terse at times, but with an organised point. They have military sounding words and phrases such as “tour of inspection” and “passing out parade”. Shelters attitude to what he calls “the street people” is also clear when he says they “make the place look manky”. Shelters personal mission is to clean them up, “I’d change you, my lad, if I had you in khaki for six weeks”. Several of the characters are found to be using nicknames or false names. This reflects the loss of identity in some of the characters, and a sense of shame at their situation, a disconnection from society. This is backed dup with the feeling that they are the invisible people. For other characters, the false name is a way of getting access to what they want. Shelter want access to homeless people, for own reasons. So does Gail, who wants access to the homeless community so that she can dig up a good story. The fact that these characters use homeless people for personal gain of one sort or another further shows the nonentity and disconnection of the homeless. They are seen as somehow less that us, a commodity. All this dishonesty and hiding of one’s self is in direct contrast to the realism an detail of the story. In real life, humans are always trying to project an image that is different to their own, for many reasons. This makes the characters seem even more real to us readers. Without wanting to give too much of the plot away for anyone who wants to read the novel, things are not as they seem. We find out more about Shelter and his mental state, and we find out how he connects to Link, leaving Link in grave danger. The story is told with realism and grit, and Swindells is not afraid to include details that most books aimed at children would exclude. In this novel we see desperate people, and we find out what can happen to these people. There is no magic wand waving, fairy tale ending where all suddenly becomes right with the world. This is not how it works in real life, and therefore, that is not how Swindells chose to end the story. The details and content of the story serve to make the reader think about what is happening around them. I know I question things when I read it, and thanked my lucky stars that none of those things had ever happened to me or mine. It is human nature to do so. I also think that Swindells is a keen student of human nature, as every aspect of the novel could be happening now, on a street near one of us. Every character behaves in away that some we will know behaves. Or perhaps, we even see a part of ourselves in the actions of a character. This is part of the writer’s talent, and I hugely admire his skill in doing so. What I have learned; Again, structure is important to the overall effect of the novel.


Dual narratives can be effective in offering different sides to a story. Make characters behave as they would in real life. Don’t be afraid to include gritty realism, as long as it benefits the story, and is not just included for a salacious effect.

Elidor Elidor (1965) Alan Garner, Collins Educational ISBN 0 00 330087 0

Elidor is a children’s fantasy story that is set in the modern world, or at least the world of sixties England, when it was written. Four children find a way to travel to another world, and enter on a quest for treasures to save this world. Later, the other world, (Elidor), bleeds into ours, putting the children at risk. They must fight back, closing the gap between worlds. There are 188 pages of text, and a few black and white illustrations to help the imagination of readers. The language of the text reflects the time that the book was written. For instance, children no longer say “it’s smashing,” or “Titchy, isn’t it?” Many of the things that happen in our world also reflect those times. Most households no longer have a supper trolley of sandwiches and cake; much less have all the family sitting together in the evening for such a meal. Nowadays no group of children would be left to roam freely about the City of Manchester, or indeed stay home alone for the evening whilst their parents attend a dinner dance. The story uses sound as a means of opening a path to another world. This is a fresh idea for me, as is the concept of an old man playing the fiddle to create the right song for the process to work. The fact that this old man is later revealed as a slightly younger man in his world, the warrior Malebron, adds to the initial confusion and complexity of the new world. As this is exactly how the children feel, this is intended to help us travel with them on their journey. As they find out information, so does the reader. In fact, the reader participates mostly through Roland, the youngest sibling. It is he who is identified as the strongest by Malebron, and he is named to save that world,


and his siblings, whilst he is doing it. This creates a wish for Roland to succeed, not just for a good story, but in the traditional triumph of the underdog sense as well. The fact that the children know what is going on and the adults do not, creates a bond with the reader. We are in on the secret too. As this book is aimed at children, I’m sure that they would enjoy the sense of being more in the know than adults. A quest is a traditional element to any fantasy story, and there is an element in this story. The four siblings, Nicholas, David, Helen, and Roland, are all asked to retrieve “treasures” from inside a mound. It is dangerous in the mound, as the darkness will try to trick you. In fact the older three siblings try first, but end up trapped by the darkness. It is left to Roland, who saves his siblings, and organises the recovery of the four treasures in order to save Malebron’s world. Malebron then urges the children to take these treasures home with them to keep hope alive, preventing the darkness from winning. They agree to this. As the treasures pass into our world, they transform into everyday objects to protect themselves. However, they give off static electricity, and begin to cause problems for local people. The treasures also become the focal point for darkness trying to send shadow men after the children in our world. This cause chaos, and only the children know what is really going on. In this story, the children are the heroes, and they bring resolution to the tale. I thought that it was a good story with some intriguing ideas, and I didn’t mind the sixties setting in the least. However, I found the ending rushed in comparison to the rest of the novel, and the resolution was not as clear as it could be for my liking. Having said that, it is still worth a read on a rainy afternoon. What I have learned; Sound can be used as a way of opening transition between worlds or realities. Interesting use of historical artifacts in the description of a fantasy realm.


The Prince in waiting

Prince in Waiting (1970) John Christopher, Collins Educational ISBN 0-00-330010-2

The story is told from the point of view of the central character, the protagonist, teenage Luke. As the story opens, he is about to turn thirteen, and he is concerned with typical teenage boy things, such as friends, fighting, and competition. Luke has been practicing with his sword ready for the big contest, and battle game where armies of boys are led by four captains against each other. This book is set in feudal England, with a medieval level of technology. Each of the cities across England has their own Prince, who rules as an absolute monarch. There are no parliaments. However, The cities all have modern names. Each of these cities is competition with one another, and there is constant conflict and war between them all. It is expected of each Prince to lead his army out against a neighbouring city. Any perception of weakness will bring another city’s army to your door. All cities are therefore walled and fortified. Machinery is outlawed, and perceived as evil. To mess with machines is thought to bring about ruin. The mythology of the society says that the machines brought about the great destruction. All buildings are made of wood, and characters express the idea that constructing large buildings out of stone or concrete is asking for trouble. They think that using machines, and building in anything other than wood, is arrogance leading to an individual’s, or a society’s downfall. “Although no one would now be so foolish as to build in stone it was used in foundations, and from time to time men took loads from the ruins for this purpose”. Along with this medieval style thinking, women are only allowed household duties, and must not have any occupation other than running a home. There are such things as “Polymufs” who are humans that have deformities. They are not classed as human,


have very little rights, and must work as a servant to a human. Humans do not do manual work. Polymufs are really humans of course, and there is a veiled reference to polymufs occurring after the great destruction. This gives the idea that these people are suffering deformity due to radiation or chemical exposure of some kind. If a human has a polymuf baby they must give it away to be a servant. Animals that are born polymuf are killed. The segregation of human polymufs, and the slaughter of animal polymuff is the character’s way of containing the abnormalities. There are also Dwarves, again human really, just suffering from dwarfism. These too are treated as a separate race, and all dwarves are trained as craftsmen. No human works a forge etc, he employs a dwarf to do it for him. All of the characters in the novel believe in “spirits” that guide them. These spirits are the spirits of the ancestors. Seers who are secretive, and wear white robes similar to priests interpret these spirits. When someone wants to ask the spirits something, a seer will consult the spirits for them, and pass on the answer. Magic is a part of this process, and adds to the spectacle created by the seers. Christians are mocked, and live in poor conditions alongside polymufs, who they consider equal to humans. The rest of the society sees this as laughable. “When one thought of the Christians in the city, a handful of wretches living mostly by the north gate, so warped and degraded that they accepted polymufs as members of their sect and as equals” Clues are slowly revealed that this is actually the future, and not the past. The first clue was the name of the cities, and the second some writing on a piece of wood. “The section of wood in which the bar was fixed was a piece salvaged from olden time. There had been letters painted on it once and though the paint had long worn away one could see, when the sun shone brightly, the outlines of the words that had been written there. I had traced them one day, with difficulty. RADIO & TV DEAL, the message ran. A wasted labour, to find something that meant nothing”. I like the way this passage reveals something in a casual manor, using an unimportant object. This really made me want to work out what was happening, and helped to get me on the lookout for further clues as to what was going on. This is really useful for getting people to read your entire story, and it makes things more interesting if you find out little bits at a time. There are many subtle layers within this book, and the fortunes of the characters flip and change throughout the novel. There are many twists and turns. Even the secret sect of the seers that publicly eschews all machines, and communes with spirits, is revealed to be the power behind all things, manipulating events. Behind close doors, they admit to being frauds, using tricks to make it look like there are spirits, and even using machines. Just when you think the Prince in waiting has lost his chance of becoming a Prince, he is offered the chance to become more than that, the prince of princes, a leader for united England. That is where the story ends, and we never know if Luke will unite everyone, if he learns about all of the machines, etc. I feel as if there is another book in there somewhere. I seam to remember Scheherazade saying to the sultan in Arabian nights


that all the best storytellers ended on cliffhanger. How else are you to keep people interested in your work? Well I was definitely interested in reading more. What I have learned; • • •

That information can be eked out throughout the book This information can be revealed casually, and does not always need to be a big announcement Many changes in circumstances for main characters keep the reader interested

Ending on a cliff-hanger, or indicating that there may be more to the story will keep readers interested in further books written by that author


Killer Planet

Killer Planet (1989) Bob Shaw, Pan Macmillan’s Children’s Books ISBN 0 330 31696 6

This is quite a short book, about an hours read. Again this book is set in the future, and it has a male teenage protagonist, although he has a female sidekick that is more than a match for him. Jan steals his father’s specially designed space rocket in order to reach the planet Verdia. He has to outrun the authorities, as Verdia is forbidden to all, and is nicknamed “the Killer Planet” as no one has made it off there alive. All technology fails on the planet, which has strange magnetic properties. However, Jan is determined to reach the planet as his older brother was part of an expedition there, and all of those expeditionaries have been declared dead. Jan does not want to believe that his brother is dead, and neither does his father, who has specifically designed the space rocket for Verdia, to compensate for the magnetic anomalies. Petra, best friend of Jan decides that he will not succeed without her, and manages to get on the rocket with him. They reach the planet, only to find out that they are the planet’s next intended victims. Using all their wits, strength and luck, they explore the planet, narrowly missing death several times, until they find the centre of the disturbance in the electrical field. An evil alien causes this disturbance, along with the death and destruction of the expeditionary force, and Jan and Petra have to thwart him to survive. This is an old-fashioned adventure story, just set in the future with a space rocket and an evil alien. The story is fast paced, and there is plenty of interaction between characters to keep things lively. This helps to keep children interested in the story. Children tend to like the good verses evil, and the kids triumph over all type stories, and two teenage friends being “trapped by the malign forces of a monstrous alien” qualifies this novel as one of those stories. There is plenty of imagination, and detailed descriptions that bring the setting to life;


“Nothing could have prepared them for the actuality of the Verdian jungle. Trees, vines, giant flowers, thorny shrubs, mosses and waist-high grasses fought for every inch of space. So virulent was their growth that in some places the movement was discernable – the tendrils of climbing plants could be seen blindly probing for their grip on trees; carnivorous flowers closed with audible snaps as they engulfed their prey”. Language is also used creatively in generating atmosphere, and clearly defining the mood of the story. Emotive language is placed within the description, and the effect is very clever indeed. In just a short few lines, the mood of the chapter is set, and readers are in no doubt as to the character of the mysterious alien; “Several hundred meters away was a squat, windowless black tower – the stronghold of the inhuman fiend which had descended on Verdia centuries earlier. The force of evil and of hatred emanating from it was almost tangible, a silent assault on the mind which made all who encountered it want to cower away”. I am a huge fan of the way Shaw writes. There are no waffly bits, no story lulls, and nothing is there just for the sake of a plot inconvenience. There are no spare parts in this story. Every line is carefully thought out, and the characters well rounded. There is plenty of dialogue between characters, and the show me don’t tell me adage has been well and truly applied here. I would love to read more stories from this author. What I have learned; • How to use emotive language in description to create vivid images To be selective about content, and not to waffle


Book Reviews  

A booklet containing five reviews of children's books including references and an image of each book cover

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