Book review: Curious cats, dark magic and fur-raising fantasy
There are books to delight and thrill from two Dutch master storytellers, a lyrical tale set in the heart of Australia, a dizzying rescue adventure, a gripping re-telling of the Robin Hood legend and the moving story of refugees fleeing war.
Age 9 plus:
The Cat Who Came in Off the Roof by Annie M. G. Schmidt
When is a cat not a cat? When she’s a magical minx called Minou.
Welcome to the wonderful world of Annie M. G. Schmidt, the queen of Dutch children’s literature and part of the ‘Canon of Dutch History’ taught to Dutch schoolchildren alongside big names like Spinoza, Anne Frank and Vincent van Gogh.
Schmidt, who died aged 84 in 1995, wrote poetry, songs, books, plays, musicals and radio and television drama for adults, but is best known for her amazingly inventive children’s books.
One of the most seductive is The Cat Who Came in Off the Roof, an offbeat story about a cat who turns into a young woman and finds herself caught between the animal and human worlds.
Translated from Dutch by David Colmer, it has been produced by Pushkin Children’s Books, an enterprising publisher whose aim is to share tales from different languages and cultures with younger readers, and to open the door to the wide, colourful worlds these stories offer.
Mr Tibble is a talented writer but he is struggling as a reporter at his local newspaper. His editor is growing increasingly dissatisfied with his endless stories about cats and he is getting ready to give Mr Tibble the sack.
Then along comes Minou, a young woman who has moved into Mr Tibble’s flat. Until recently, she was a cat but, after a freakish turn of events, she is now a human being and doesn’t use spit to wash herself any more. But she still hates dogs, likes to climb trees and rooftops, drinks milk from bowls and loves the local fishmonger.
Mr Tibble first met Minou when he rescued her from an angry dog and invited her in for a saucer of milk, and now both their lives have been transformed.
Grateful Minou decides to help Mr Tibble by asking her feline friends and their cat grapevine to listen out for all the local human news, insider information and town gossip.
Before long, Mr Tibble’s career has taken off but when he decides to take on a powerful businessman on behalf of the local cats, his new found confidence and determination are put to the test.
Is Minou the answer to all Mr Tibble’s problems, or just the beginning of them?
The Cat Who Came in Off the Roof is an enchanting and magical story purr-puss made for cat lovers young and old. Wry humour and an irreverent sense of fun shine out from every page as animals big and small strut their stuff on Schmidt’s quirky catwalk.
Not to be missed!
(Pushkin, paperback, £7.99)
The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt
For over 50 years, English-speaking youngsters have been missing out on one of the best children’s books of the last century… and now the wait is over.
The Letter for the King, a remarkable fantasy story rich in colour, action and verbal virtuosity, was first published in 1963 and is now a classic of Dutch literature.
Its author is Tonke Dragt who was born in 1930 in Indonesia. During the Second World War, aged just 12, she was imprisoned in a Japanese camp where she wrote her first book using begged and borrowed paper.
After the war, she and her family moved to the Netherlands where she became an art teacher and published her first book in 1961. A year later, she wrote her most famous story, The Letter for the King, which has sold over one million copies and been translated into 16 languages.
The story centres round a teenage medieval squire who is entrusted with the fate of a kingdom. When sixteen-year-old Tiuri answers a desperate call for help, he finds himself on a perilous mission that could cost him his life.
He must deliver a secret letter to the King who lives across the Great Mountains, a letter upon which the future of the entire realm depends. It means abandoning his home, breaking all the rules and leaving everything behind – even the knighthood that he has dreamed of for so long.
Tiuri must trust no one, keep his true identity secret and most importantly he must never reveal what is in the letter…
Translated seamlessly from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson, The Letter for the King has all the essential and traditional ingredients of a timeless and heroic tale with its motifs of friendship, first love, courage, loyalty, chivalry… and vile villainy.
Despite its relentless pace and thrilling action sequences, the compelling, twisting and turning story has an ethereal and hypnotic elegance which delights as much as it excites.
A super swashbuckling treat for any adventurous young knights and daring damsels…
(Pushkin Children’s Books, paperback £7.99)
All the Colours of Paradise by Glenda Millard
From Australia comes the fourth book in the award-winning Kingdom of Silk series from an author who uses the rural communities and landscapes of her homeland as the rich source of inspiration for many of her tender, lyrical stories.
The extraordinary and yet, in many ways, ordinary Silk family live in Cameron’s Creek – mother, father, grandmother, five sisters and little brother Griffin Silk – and their lives and adventures explore all-important themes of love, loss and home.
Since his arrival at the Kingdom of Silk, Perry Angel has learned a lot about love from the Silk family and their dog Blue. Some things will always be hard for him, but other things he understands very well. Perry knows, for example, that you can find the key to Paradise in a box of pencils or a tube of paint.
This is because apart from dressing up as Superman, Perry’s favourite thing in the entire universe is drawing. But then something happens to upset him at school, and his friends Griffin and Layla are worried that he might never draw again.
But kind Mr Kadri from the Colour Patch Café, one of Perry’s new friends, understands that sometimes there are no words to describe our feelings. So when he announces a new category at the annual art exhibition, he gives Perry all the colours of Paradise, just in case he needs them.
Once again, Millard gives youngsters moving insights into life’s most important concepts – love, understanding and family – without resorting to gushing sentimentality. The characters speak loudly of gentleness and kindness in a world which sometimes seems as if it doesn’t care.
Stephen Michael King’s beautifully conceived illustrations add to the story’s dreamlike quality making these books a favourite to share with younger children or as read-alone for older, more confident youngsters.
(Phoenix Yard Books, paperback, £5.99)
Age 11 plus:
Close to the Wind by Jon Walter
What would you take with you if you had to leave your home forever, and all this at just a moment’s notice?
This is the dilemma faced by Malik, a ten-year-old boy whose world falls apart when he is forced to leave his war-torn country and take his chances as a boat refugee.
Close to the Wind is a beautiful, moving and thought-provoking debut novel from Jon Walter, a photo-journalist with a passion for social welfare issues. It’s a shadowy story of cruelty and suffering but with a message of hope in adversity shining out from its warm and inspirational heart.
Separated from his mother after the arrival of the soldiers, Malik’s home is unrecognisable. The only family member left to support him is his grandfather, Papa, and along with a thousand other refugees, their only hope for escape lies in getting on board just one ship, The Samaritan.
The journey will take them to a country which promises safety and a new life. The only problem is, they don’t have a ticket, and people are stopping at nothing to get a place on board.
‘Keep quiet and keep the hope alive,’ Papa tells Malik and luckily the old man has a secret that could change everything. But who can they rely on to help them?
Leaving behind a nameless country where greed and desperation warp perceptions of right and wrong, we travel with Malik on a journey from innocence to experience in which he must discover resourcefulness and learn to be brave.
A novel about greed, love, trust and what matters most when your life has been shattered, Close to the Wind will make you re-think not just the plight of refugees but your own view of the world.
(David Fickling Books, hardback, £10.99)
The Broken King by Philip Womack
Imagine placing a curse on your annoying sibling, only to find that the wish comes true…
Using the age-old traditions of good and evil, cause and consequence, trial and retribution, Philip Womack works up a fabulous and fantastical story which grips from start to finish.
The Broken King is the first book in Womack’s haunting trilogy, The Darkening Path, which takes Robert Browning’s poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came as its starting point and then develops into a haunting adventure exploring love, courage, fear and friendship.
When Simon’s little sister Anna proves a noisy nuisance, he decides to act out a sequence from one of his scariest poems, playfully summoning up the legendary Broken King. But then Anna disappears and Simon discovers she has been mysteriously snatched away to a dark ‘other’ world.
Visited by a golden messenger, he is sent on a dizzying quest to save his sister and fight terrifying supernatural forces in a shadowy universe in which it is impossible for him to predict what will happen next.
Alongside him is a girl called Flora, whose brother has also vanished, and a strange boy who rescues them from a violent attack, and to enter the land of the Broken King, they must complete three tasks… Eat the Shadow, Steal the Sun and Break the Air. But how do they even begin? What lies in wait for them in the land of the Broken King and will Simon manage to rescue Anna?
The Broken King is an exhilarating, magical story exploring powerful themes and full of unforgettable and spectacular visual imagery.
A classic in the making…
(Troika Books, paperback, £6.99)
Shadow of the Wolf by Tim Hall
Robin Hood was a good guy, the leader of a band of merry men who robbed the rich to give to the poor…
That’s what the legend tells us, but it’s not the Robin conjured up by Tim Hall in a dazzling debut novel which transports the medieval bandit into new and terrifying territory.
Shadow of the Wolf is the first of a trilogy and it promises to be the talk of the burgeoning teen novel community as Hall takes us on a spellbinding journey into the dark heart of an unrecognisable Sherwood Forest.
It’s a place of unspeakable horrors, vile villains and menacing supernatural powers where 14-year-old Robin, a ruthless assassin, is hell-bent on a mission to avenge his father’s death and the brutal abduction of his soulmate Marian.
At just eight years old, Robin Loxley finds himself abandoned and alone in a quiet corner of the forbidding forest. His parents and siblings have mysteriously upped and left him and now he must fight for survival armed only with his father’s shortbow strapped to his back.
And then Lady Marian, a wild, impetuous girl with a dark, fierce glare, walks into his bramble-covered shelter and life will never be the same again.
Marian is from the large manor house, a home she despises, and she senses something of her own free spirit in Robin, the wilding boy she calls ‘Sir Robin of the Hood.’ ‘You and I are the same,’ she tells him. ‘No one else cares about us… We will survive and prosper, but we must be quick and brave and clever.’
By the time they are 14, their lives are entwined with no clear intimation yet of the horrors to be released in this place of illusion and lies. They seemed destined to be together forever until Marian is kidnapped and Robin, his unseeing eyes opened at last, determines to do whatever it takes to get her back and discover the truth about his family…
Hall is a wonderfully descriptive writer as he brings to life an elemental and energetic Robin, more a creature of the wild than a flesh-and-blood warrior, and creates a landscape that is both seductive and scarily alien.
Although he presents Robin with a deliciously dark and highly original new spin, Hall still pays homage to the familiar heroes and villains we have come to love and hate… the Sheriff of Nottingham, Will Scarlett and Much.
This is Robin Hood as you have never before imagined him… mean, menacing and far from merry.
(David Fickling Books, hardback, £10.99)