What Not To Do If You Turn Invisible, by Ross Welford

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‘At first, I don’t notice that I have become completely invisible.

And then I do.’

What Not To Do If You Turn Invisible is the second novel by Ross Welford, author of the bestselling Time Travelling With a Hamster (which I wrote about here). It’s the tale of twelve-year-old Ethel Leatherhead who, in her quest to cure her acne, accidentally turns herself invisible. There are two main themes: the logistics of dealing with invisibility, and the story of Ethel’s discovery of her identity.

The sections of the book which dealt with the logistics of invisibility were my favourites. Although there was not as much science-fiction as in Time Travelling With a Hamster, the detail included in these passages, the sense of the extraordinary existing alongside the everyday, were wonderful. As with the earlier book, What Not To Do If You Turn Invisible is written in the first-person, which helps to keep it people-centred. Both stories are set in the same area of the north-east coast, and though there is no overlap in characters it adds to the reality of the setting. It’s this kind of everydayness that I love about Ross Welford’s writing, and why I enjoyed this book so much.

It’s impossible to go into the story of Ethel’s identity without ruining the plot, so I won’t say too much about that here. Identity in general is something I find very interesting (it forms a key theme of my PhD after all), so for me this was naturally a fascinating aspect of the book. Perhaps strangely however, for a book about someone turning invisible, I also found this aspect to be slightly less convincing. This seems an odd criticism to make about a children’s book though, and it certainly didn’t stop me from enjoy the story. Ethel’s attempts to uncover her identity add a lovely element of mystery too.

All in all it’s another wonderful book, and definitely recommended. If nothing else, it contains all the elements of a properly classic children’s book: parents/guardians who are conveniently absent much of the time and children who seem to have far too much responsibility and behave quite terribly but still manage to get away with it without becoming the villains of the piece!

The Wildings, by Nilanjana Roy

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‘In this circle, for this time, may the winds hear my rhyme; all the laws of host and guest shall hold fast and be blessed. Safe from talon, safe from claw; I’ll harm neither whisker nor paw. Enter then and have your say; you are my honoured guest today’

I went out of my comfort zone with The Wildings. Animal books aren’t my thing as a general rule, and the statement on the back cover that promised this to be ‘a feline Watership Down‘ (Lovereading) was not encouraging. I also tend to stay in the ‘younger readers’ age category, as ‘older reader’ and YA books are often a bit miserable. But there were three things about The Wildings that won me over:

  1. It’s about cats. I love cats. A book about cats would have to really make an effort to be truly bad, in my opinion.
  2. It’s set in India. I’ve always wanted to visit India, as a child I was obsessed with the country, and the magic my mind associated with the place still lingers.
  3. There’s a map in the front. I realise I go on about maps in books quite a lot, but they really are very important as far as I’m concerned.

I bought the book for these reasons, and it was great to read something outside my usual area. It’s not a story for the faint of heart, as the realities of feline life are not dumbed down: these are hunters, through and through. But the politics and details of their lives are fascinating nonetheless, and raise important questions about the relationships between predator and prey. The cats, and other creatures, have beautifully developed characters that show a range of perspectives on the issues they face. The Wildings is the first in a series, and the ending (while dramatic and satisfying in it’s own right) feels like a beginning in some respects. But this isn’t a disadvantage – particularly given that the sequel (The Hundred Names of Darkness) has already been released!

All in all, The Wildings was an excellent read that I enjoyed immensely. It’s place on the 2017 Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize shortlist is well deserved, and I recommend it to anyone who isn’t squeamish about hunting a few rats.

Murder Most Unladylike, by Robin Stevens

murder-most-unladylike-cover‘Last year we had the Pacifism Society (dull) and then the Spiritualism Society (less dull, but then Lavinia smashed her mug during a séance, Beanie fainted and Matron banned spiritualism altogether)’

Detective society formed by plucky young girls? Check.

Cheerful 1930s boarding school setting? Check.

Bunbreak? Check.

I mean, what more could you want in a book? Oh yes, perhaps a minority ethnic heroine and strong sense of social justice. Murder Most Unladylike is the first in the eponymous series by Robin Stevens, which currently consists of five books and counting. These are children’s books with an awareness of wider issues, blended beautifully into a fun vintage setting. They are full of period detail, and perfect for fans of Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers. Murder Most Unladylike is one of two which take place at Daisy and Hazel (the Detective Society’s leaders and only members) school, Deepdean School for Girls. And who doesn’t like a jolly 1930s school story? Particularly one with multiple maps in the front. We all know how I feel about maps in books.

Reading the book it is clear that Robin Stevens is American, but I don’t think this detracts from its charm. The story is narrated in the first person by Hazel, taking the form of her casebook for the Detective Society’s investigation into the murder of Miss Bell. I love the fact that Hazel is not British, having been sent from her home in Hong Kong to attend school in England. As well as highlighting this often-neglected aspect of British history, it resonated with me as someone who has lived as an expat myself.

Murder Most Unladylike follows the good old children’s literature tradition of allowing children to deal with things that no real child would ever be trusted with, which is always entertaining (even if one does feel a little inadequate for not having investigated any murders when one was 13…). The absence of parents is at least convincingly explained by the boarding school setting. This is something at least.

Boy: Tales of Childhood, by Roald Dahl

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‘An autobiography is a book a person writes about his own life and it is usually full of all sorts of boring details. This is not an autobiography’

There’s so much to love about this book. Roald Dahl’s childhood is just as exciting, hilarious and touching as any of his fictional creations – if not more so given that these stories are true.

Beginning with a brief account of his parents’ lives, and continuing until the point where he leaves the UK aged 20, Roald Dahl recounts such classic tales as The Great Mouse Plot, Goat’s Tobacco, and that time he was a chocolate taster for Cadbury’s. As evidenced by this last entry, those familiar with his writing will notice many occasions where the seeds of later stories appear. But even if you didn’t read Roald Dahl growing up, there’s still plenty enough here to keep you hooked.

One of my very favourite stories is the account of the family’s holidays in Norway. Not having been to Norway myself I can’t confirm whether it really is as marvellous as the depiction given, but the story does a wonderful job of conjuring up the magic of childhood holidays regardless of where you went. It includes excellent depictions of food, making the whole thing reminiscent of classic adventures such as those of the Famous Five or Swallows and Amazons. As is the case with those stories however, I suspect the food isn’t quite as good in real life as it seems in the reader’s imagination! I can confirm the the sweet brown Norwegian cheese known as gjetost really is delicious though.

But while the Famous Five and Swallows and Amazons conveniently skip time spent at school, much of Boy is spent describing the trials and tribulations of attending a 1920s boarding school. This makes it reminiscent of classic school stories as well as adventures, which only adds to its charm.

It’s one of my all time favourite books, and I highly recommend it to everyone, regardless of whether you’re familiar with either Dahl’s fiction (though I find it hard to imagine anyone is totally unaware of this) or with the other classic tales it brings to mind. It’s witty and magical, and guaranteed to make you smile.

 

Bartlett and the Ice Voyage, by Odo Hirsch

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‘Some people said that its flesh tasted like spicy currants dipped in honey, while some said it was like spicy honey mixed with currants. Others described it as cinnamon custard with walnut syrup. Others who had eaten it refused to say what it was like, claiming that there was nothing on earth so sweet, smooth and delicious with which it could be compared’

Melidrops. Surely no other literary food can compare with the glory of a melidrop? Odo Hirsch must surely be the king of writing food, from the chocolate rollos in Hazel Green to the limeade in Antonio S. and the Mystery of Theodore Guzman his books are guaranteed to make you feel very hungry all of a sudden. And melidrops are the best.

There is, admittedly, more to this book than melidrops alone. Odo Hirsch’s writing is very distinctive, the worlds he conjures up are unlike any others. Bartlett the explorer, and his trusty companion Jacques le Grand, are sent by the a young Queen to bring a melidrop back to the palace. But melidrops spoil quickly, and in an age before refrigeration, electricity or aeroplanes transporting one that far is virtually impossible. The moral of the story lies both in patience on the part of the queen (who is all too eager to send the dashing but inept Sir Hugh Lough) and the intelligence, desperation and perseverance of the explorers themselves.

One of my favourite things about it it is that there are no real villains as such. Everyone is flawed in their own way, and everyone has their good points too. It’s not good guys vs bad guys, it’s just an adventurous exploration. With lots of good food. All the best adventures involve lots of good food.

Cogheart, by Peter Bunzl

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‘The trouble was, Lily reflected, as she sneaked up the last set of stairs to the girls’ dormitory, she didn’t want the life of a well-bred Victorian young lady, she wanted the life of an air-pirate’

I feel that there is a worrying trend in children’s books. We all know, of course, that it is traditional for literary children to lack parents. This has been established for a long time. If the parents aren’t actually dead then they are made conveniently unavailable for the duration of the story – my favourite example of this is the classic case in Five on a Treasure Island where Julian, Dick and Anne’s parents decree that they are going on holiday alone, and sending the children to stay with their hitherto unheard of eccentric Uncle Quentin. We all take this for granted now, but it really does seem odd when you look back on it. Nowadays however, it seems that not only are the parents almost always absent but that the point of the story is to rescue them. This was the case in the last two books I discussed, Time Travelling with a Hamster and Rooftoppers, and it’s also the case in Cogheart. Admittedly I don’t have children, but I’m pretty sure parenting isn’t supposed to work like this.

Even so, I still recommend Cogheart tremendously. Lily’s attempts to locate her missing (believed dead) father has many points in its favour: a feisty red-haired heroine, steampunk air-ships, a map in the front (I automatically regard any book which includes a map as a book worth reading) and a sassy mechanical fox named Malkin. How could anyone say no to a book with a mechanical fox? Cogheart prompts one to think about home and family – strong themes that have become somewhat clichéd but are nevertheless important to remember. It also strays into very thought provoking territory with the conundrum surrounding mechanical beings, providing an accessible steampunk equivalent to the debates surrounding artificial intelligence. But it’s an adventure story at heart, and it was this that I enjoyed most about it. Who doesn’t want to be an air-pirate after all?

Rooftoppers, by Katherine Rundell

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‘She hated official letters. They made her feel nervous. The people who wrote them sounded like they had filing cabinets where their hearts should be’

It’s phrases like this that make me love Katherine Rundell’s books so much. My mother picked out Rooftoppers for me and I read it extraordinarily quickly. As soon as I finished it I immediately ordered The Girl Savage (Katherine Rundell’s previous novel) to read as well. Rooftoppers draws on several themes common in children’s literature – eccentric guardian, wild children, a journey, missing parent, lots of food, they’re all there. Sophie, from the ocean, has been adopted by Charles but still longs to find her real mother, whom she is convinced is still alive. The book is an account of her quest.

The day to day existence of the characters isn’t as grounded as in some similar novels (such as Eva Ibbotson’s The Star of Kazan or Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord), and that it ends rather suddenly. But these are minor problems in a book which is truly magical.The writing is beautiful, highly poetic and imaginative, and makes you see the world in a whole new way. It’s a dream of a book, which really reminds one of childlike imagination and confidence. ‘Never ignore a possible’ is the motto of the tale, and it whisks one along with such ease that one never gets around to even considering otherwise. Wholeheartedly recommended to anyone with big dreams, and anyone who doesn’t have big dreams but ought to. So everyone really.