Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Come All You Little Persons by John Agard, illus Jessica Courtney-Tickle

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

It’s lovely to start the Jhalak Prize longlist for 2018 with this picture book by John Agard.

We’ve always been fans of Agard in this house. My daughter had a poetry anthology when she was small that included his delightful ‘Got a Date With Spring’. And his poem ‘Half Caste’ is a punch in the gut must-read for older children and adults. Sot to find a new poem by him is a delight.

The first test for a picture book is how it reads out loud. And, as you would expect from a poet like Agard, Come All You Little Persons has the rhythm that makes that a joy.

Each little person that is called forth is described by their clothing, and each summoning introduces different words – from a feathered cape, to a shirt made of spray, from an apron that shines, to an invisible gown – so there is plenty to talk about.

Jessica Courtney-Tickle’s illustrations are filled with detail that can be pored over night after night. The style edges towards pointillist and the colour palette is rich but soft and slightly muted. Most importantly, the little persons called forth come in all shapes and sizes – male and female, tall and short, chubby and slim – and with every shade of skin from pale to dark, so every little reader can see themselves reflected.

The final page shows all the little persons circling the earth in a great dance – those we have seen called forth and many more besides that you can have fun creating identities for yourself.

The second great test for a picture book is whether is stands being read again and again, with enough to hold the interest of both adult and child. Come All You Little Persons passes that test with flying colours.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Lullaby Hullabaloo by Mick Inkpen, Owl Babies by Martin Waddell

Avoid If You Dislike: Rhythm, Dance, Reading Out Loud

Perfect Accompaniment: Bedtime cuddles

Genre: Picture book. Children's


Available on Amazon



Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought:

The Richardsons’ house is burning down. It wasn’t an accident.

Wealthy (four cars in the drive), comfortable (doyenne of Shaker Heights) and happy (three and a half high-achieving children), Elena Richardson knows life is good. She’s generous and charitable and good with people. So why would her youngest daughter set their house on fire?

Celeste Ng takes on a ‘perfect’ society and peers around the façade. Shaker Heights, a small town outside Cleveland, Ohio, is a model community, where everyone toes the line. There are rules here and everyone obeys.

When Mia Warren and daughter Pearl blow into town to rent an apartment, Elena sees a chance to do some good. An itinerant artist with a young daughter – similar age to hers – why not help the woman out. After all, she likes to patronise the arts.

The families’ lives become increasingly intertwined to the extent they almost swap daughters, but there are other familial questions threatening to bust through the neat backyards. Whose child is the abandoned baby? The parents who adopted her and lavished her with love or the biological mother who wants her back? Whose is the child made with surrogate sperm? Who gets to choose whether or not to terminate a teenage pregnancy?

Ng weaves this omniscient perspective with huge skill, making the reader change sides almost every chapter. Her depiction of character is economical, wrong-footing assumptions and avoiding cliché. Finally, the fuses that lead to the fire are far more complex than the fire service or even Elena can understand.

Wholly absorbing and thoughtful, this book kept me thinking.



You’ll enjoy this if you liked:
Jodi Picoult, Helen Fitzgerald, Maeve Binchy

Avoid if you don’t like: Awkward questions, teenage girls, multiple POV

Ideal accompaniments: Satay sticks, banana milkshake and Jerry Springer in the background



Genre: Literary fiction



Available on Amazon



Wednesday, 7 February 2018

My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:


This is a book I have had on my radar for a long time.

Leon is almost ten years old. He doesn’t look anything like his mother or his new-born half brother, but he loves them both very much and wants to take care of them. In fact he takes better care of Jake than his mother does, which is just as well, as she keeps disappearing off and leaving them alone. Leon manages all right most of the time, but one day they run out of food. He goes to a neighbour for help – and that’s when things really starts to go wrong.

Leon and Jake are taken into foster care with a women called Maureen. Maureen is kind but she’s not his mum. And now some people want to take Jake away for good. All Leon wants to do is keep his family together. But how can he do that? Adults lie and keep secrets and take things away from him without asking. There is no one he can trust, so he is going to have to solve everything by himself.

Set in 1981, riots and racial tensions run through the background. The novel addresses adoption, fostering, the complexities of multi-racial families, and the many ways we let children in care down.

Reading as an adult, we may see the good intentions of the grown-ups around Leon. But de Waal understands that, no matter how dysfunctional the birth family or how caring the foster family, having one’s family broken up is still going to be traumatic. She takes us deep inside Leon’s head and makes us feel what it’s like to be tumbled from one place to the next, to lose the people you love through no fault of your own, and to have no control and little say over what happens to you or them.

It’s hard to place whether this book for young adults or not. The story is told entirely through the eyes of almost-ten-year-old Leon, and the story-telling is simple and accessible. But some of the themes and language used are probably not be suitable for younger children.

A tender, heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting story that sidesteps a fairytale ending in favour of realism and warmth.

My Name is Leon was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award. The author is the founder of the Kit de Waal scholarship, a fully funded bursary on the Birkbeck College Creative Writing MA, for a student from a disadvantaged background. She is also the editor of Common People, an anthology of working class writers, currently seeking funding on Unbound.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman, The Bed and Breakfast Star by Jacqueline Wilson

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories about adoption and fostering; children as point of view characters; strong language in Young Adult novels.

Perfect Accompaniment: Bacon sarnie with ketchup, and lots of tea

Genre: Literary Fiction; Young Adult

Available on Amazon

Agatha Raisin and Kissing Christmas Goodbye by M.C. Beaton



Reviewer : Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter, Closure, Complicit, Crimson Shore, False Lights & Sacred Lake (www.gillianhamer.com)

What we thought: If there is anything more Christmassy than turkey and all the trimmings it’s revisiting the world of Agatha Raisin over the festive period.

Agatha doesn’t have a good track record in life with two things – firstly men, ex James Lacey in particular, and secondly her attempts at creating her idea of a perfect world. So, when she decides to host the Christmas party to beat all other parties, then regular readers of the series are already sitting on the edge of seats chewing their nails.

Added to this, Agatha and her team of private investigators are faced with a complicated case of poisoning in a remote Cotswold village that has elements of witchcraft, family betrayal and intriguing historical links. She is grateful for the services of her latest protégé Tony Gilmore, a young girl from a similarly troubled background as Agatha, who has the makings of a top detective.

There are the usual cast of characters here lined up for this Christmas special - DS Bill Wong, Sir Charles and Mrs Bloxby to name a few. And there twists and turns galore to delight ardent crime fans in this very clever murder enquiry. For once Agatha’s personal life takes a back seat and seems a little more settled ... but then she never knows what is round the corner!

It was the perfect time of year to listen to Penelope Keith narrate the audiobook version of this novel and it was with a huge sadness that I had to say goodbye for a short time.


You’ll enjoy this if you like: J.J Marsh, Agatha Christie, Mandy Baggot.

Avoid if you don’t like: Crime fiction with a gentle touch.

Ideal accompaniments: Christmas pudding and a glass of mulled wine.

Genre: Crime

Available on Amazon