Five Children on the Western Front – Kate Saunders

five children


This book is one of the Carnegie shortlist books and was probably one of the easiest to read. It is a kind of sequel to Five Children and It by E Nesbit which was first published in 1902. The original book follows five children (Robert, Anthea, Cyril, Jane, and their baby brother, known as the Lamb) and their adventures with a sand fairy or Psammead who they discover in a gravel pit at the bottom of their garden. He allows them to make one wish a day that will only last until midnight. Unfortunately they keep making mistakes with their wishes and end up in silly situations. Finally, because the wishes were so disastrous, the Psammead agrees to correct the last wish under the condition that they will not make any more wishes. They agree, but Anthea wishes that they will meet the Psammead again one day and then he disappears. End of book.

Five Children on the Western Front starts with the five original children waking up the Psammead two years later in their old nanny’s home in London and wishing to see the future. Not too far but far enough. The Psammead takes them to 1930 where they meet their old friend the Professor. Jane notices that the professor has photographs of the girls when they are older, but realises there are no photos of the boys. After they have left, the professor starts to weep; a portent of what is to come. The story then jumps forward nine years to October 1914 and England is on the brink of war with Germany. Anthea is now at Art School, Robert at Oxford, Cyril has joined the army and is hoping to be posted to India and the Lamb is at school with his best friend and neighbour Winterbum. They also have a new sister (not in the original book )  called Edie. Edie and the Lamb discover the Psammead one day when they are playing outside and realise immediately that he is the sand fairy of their older brothers and sisters stories. Edie falls in love with the Psammead and treats him like a pet – while the professor is doing some research about the Psammead and realises that he is more powerful then they thought. He has lost his powers and, after a visitation from a skeleton, they realise that to get his power back he needs to make amends for his past mistakes. Meanwhile the war is going on around them. Cyril has joined up and is on the Western Front, Robert is just finishing at Oxford and is then going to join the army and Anthea and Jane both help nursing the wounded. The Lamb and Edie help the Psammead to finish his quest and regain his powers and their last wish is the most heart breaking – I will admit I shed a tear.

I liked this book but I wasn’t really sure why the author decided to make the connection with the original. The book could have just been about the children’s experiences of the war and what happened to them without adding the quest to save the Psammead’s powers. Although if you had read the original it would be nice to reconnect with the characters and see what happened to them, it was a well written book about the consequences of war, and a most brutal war, and how it affected a nice middle class family. I enjoyed the relationship with the children and their reactions to the glimpses of the future – it was clever the way the author made them witness scenes so that we all knew what was going on. On the whole, if you have read the original book or seen the film then this is a nice book to read, or even if you haven’t you will still enjoy it.

The Lie Tree – Frances Hardinge

This is the second book that I have read in the Carnegie Shortlist for 2016. Hmmm, what to say about this book? It has been heavily publicised by Waterstones and I was looking forward to reading it. It has a suitably spooky cover and the blurb describes a murder mystery with a little bit of weirdness thrown in in the guise of this strange tree that feeds on lies. The main character is a young girl called Faith who is traveling to the island of Vane with her father, the eminent Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, her mother Myrtle, her brother Howard and her Uncle Miles. Her father seems to be some sort of archaeologist as well as a Reverend and they are travelling to Vane to be involved in a dig, which is being led by a man called Lambent. It soon becomes clear that Uncle Miles has persuaded the Sunderly’s to come to Vane to escape a growing scandal involving the Reverend and a fossil that he had discovered.  It’s not really clear what time the book is set in but from the way that the women are treated and the general feel of it, I assume it is set in Victorian England. Women are treated quite badly in this book, as if we have limited intelligence and can’t really understand what’s going on; flirty Myrtle is a little cringey. Faith is very interested in her fathers work but is not allowed to know anything about it; he also seems to be extremely grumpy and is obsessed with a specimen that he has brought with him and then asks Faith to help him hide in a cave. To me, this felt like the most important part of the book but it took ages to get there.

The Reverend, as you might guess, comes to a sticky end and Myrtle (the flirty mother) tries to get him buried ASAP so that there is no hint of a suicide rumour (he is found hanging from a tree). There is a big scene at the graveyard and the burial is stopped, so Faith decides the only thing to do is investigate her father’s death, try and figure out what this tree thing is all about and get some revenge at the same time. She pretends that her father is haunting the house and scares the bejesus out of one of the housemaids (who isn’t very nice anyway so that’s ok) and starts studying the tree. She then persuades a boy who takes pictures of dead people (it was a thing in Victorian times…) to help her.

It is a well written and well put together book but I found it really difficult to get in to. I didn’t really warm to any of the characters and I wasn’t really bothered if she found who her father’s murderer was because I didn’t really like him. He was horrible to her and had obviously become obsessed with the tree to the point where nothing else mattered; including his reputation, which then a big knock on effect on his family. I was also expecting some romance between Faith and Paul Clay which didn’t really happen. Some great prose though especially descriptive passages – ‘she felt like the murderess of time’ when she stopped the clocks after her father has died, is a great example.

It also made me glad that I didn’t live in Victorian times because women had no rights whatsoever and were basically just burden on their family. The Reverend is telling Faith off about sneaking through his papers and tells her ‘all that a daughter can do….. in recompense for the debt she cannot pay, is to hold steadfastly to the path of duty, gratitude and humility. That is the very least a father can expect’ because all women could do was marry to relieve the financial burden on their family. Nice eh?

Spy for the Queen of Scots – Theresa Breslin

I love a bit of historical fiction (see post on Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly) As the title suggests the book is about the life of Mary Queen of Scots through the eyes of her lady in waiting Ginette – known to all as Jenny. After a brief prologue where we realise that Mary is about to be executed we go back in time to France where the young Mary is to be married to the king of France, Francis. They have a playful relationship which is overshadowed by the King’s mother Catherine de Medici. Jenny accidentally finds herself overhearing a conversation between Catherine and one of her courtiers and decides that she is in a good position to spy on the household to keep Mary safe. There is some romance with another courtier and Jenny, and as Mary is widowed and then travels to Scotland to take up her birth right we follow her.

I liked the feel of this book. It was interesting, factual and made the story of Mary really come alive. Mary’s relationship with Darnley, her second husband and then with the Earl of Bothwell who she went on the marry as well, was really interesting. What it’s easy to forget is that during all this Mary was really young. She was married three times, was crowned and gave birth all before she was 25. She then gives up the throne and goes to live in exile in England before Elizabeth realises she is too much of a threat (and she does keep organising plots so…) and has her executed. This is not a spoiler, it’s just history! The thing that the author does well is weave a fictional plot around the historical facts and makes it all seem much more interesting. If anything it just reminds us how lucky we are to be living in the 21st century and not in the age where men gave their daughters away at 6 months to the most available suitor.

Breslin also really accentuates the monarchies perception at the time that they were chosen by God and that the crown was their birth right. Mary is portrayed as really regal and loved by the Scottish people and makes as much effort as possible to look after them, like they are her children. In all the stuff written about Henry VIII he has the same kind of mentality; he was chosen by God to lead and no one can change that. Mary is portrayed as a little bit of a schemer but who, essentially wants to continue her family’s right to the crown because she feels it is her duty. She also makes bad life choices by marrying Darnley and Bothwell but, what can you do? If you love history, read this. It really makes it come alive.