Posted by: janesandell | February 14, 2020

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

If you were looking for a novel that captures the popular essence of Edinburgh in the 1930s, there’s a fair chance you would light upon The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  Whilst it’s possible that more people remember the film than the book, Muriel Spark’s best-known novel lives on in the collective memory.

It’s difficult to understand why yet another edition should be thought necessary; there already exists a plethora.  However, this one, published by Barrington Stoke, another fixture in the Edinburgh literary scene, is slightly different.  Not in terms of the text, I hasten to add.  It is complete and comes to us direct from the mind and pen of Dame Muriel.

Barrington Stoke has produced a super-readable edition.  This is the publisher’s own description.  The weight of the paper is heavier than is usual, the typeface is one that is specially created to assist reading, the pages are yellow and the text black, the typeface is larger than normal and the spacing is generous.  None of this will surprise those who know Barrington Stoke’s work.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is the fourth in a series of dyslexia-friendly classics, a relatively recent departure for the publisher and one designed to make more books more accessible to more readers.  Long may it continue!

Posted by: janesandell | December 5, 2019

Rose Campion and the Christmas Mystery by Lyn Gardner

I first came across Lyn Gardner’s books when Nosy Crow sent me a copy of Olivia’s First Term the first book in a contemporary stage school series.  I enjoyed it very much and went on to read all the books in the series and review many of them.  One of the (many) lovely things about Nosy Crow for a reviewer is that they remember the kind of books you’ve shown a particular interest in and send you others like them.  And so I also acquired the Rose Campion series by the same author.

Rose Campion and the Christmas Mystery is the final outing for this heroine and now seems like the seasonally appropriate time to mention it.  Rose is a feisty and independent leading lady, a foundling who has made a life for herself at Campion’s Palace of Varieties and Wonders.  She’s solved mysteries before this but now faces something more deadly.  The Duchess, ruler of London’s criminal underworld, is about to be released from Holloway…

Lyn’s books are immediately appealing, written with a light touch, and full of strong and believable characters.  As soon as I opened this one I wanted to know wat was going to happen.  I can’t tell you much as almost any information would spoil the story.  But I can say that Lyn knows how to tell a good story and that, if you enjoy a good mystery, this is one you shouldn’t miss.  It’s written with upper primary school children in mind but I’m with CS Lewis in thinking that a good children’s book can be read by anyone.  This is a good children’s book.

Posted by: janesandell | December 1, 2019

The Things That Will Not Stand by Michael Gerard Bauer

Last month Michael Gerard Bauer won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for his young adult novel, The Things That Will Not Stand.  I should clarify for those who aren’t aware that the Prime Minister in question is Australian.

Michael is known to me (and, as a result, any regular readers of this blog) through his wonderful Ishmael trilogy, books about a group of male friends moving through school in Australia.  I was fortunate enough to be given them to review by Templar Books and was delighted to meet Michael briefly at the Edinburgh International Book Festival some years ago.

Since then I’ve been following his blog and re-reading the books.  I’d read about The Things That Will Not Stand and was intrigued by it.  It’s set at a university open day and the entire action takes place over a matter of hours.  Like Ishmael, it’s funny and clever and heartbreaking, often at the same time.  Michael has a genius for creating believable characters who leap off the page.  If his characters were pictures they’d be lightning sketches, so quickly and clearly do they come to life in front of your eyes.

If things were different I’d be raving about this book and encouraging you to read it and buy it for all the teenagers you know.  But here’s the thing: it’s not available in the UK.  It seems to me that all you publishers out there are missing a trick. Happily for me, Michael generously sent me a copy which I devoured overnight.  Someone out there do the rest of the YA reading public a favour and get the UK rights sorted out.

In the meantime read about Ishmael.

Posted by: janesandell | November 4, 2019

Kate Greenaway Medal

Alongside the Carnegie Medal sits its sister prize the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal.  The nominations list for it has also been published today.  The nominating and judging process is the same for the two awards and you can read about it in my previous blog.

Once again this list is varied and I’m delighted that many non-picture books are included.  Having said that, I am probably most pleased to see When Sadness Comes to Call by Eva Eland on the list.  I’ve written about it elsewhere.  It’s a book about depression and anxiety for small children.  That makes it sound heavy and forbidding but it’s not.  It’s gentle and calming and reassuring.

An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Castles illustrated by Kate Leiper and published by Edinburgh’s Floris Books is possibly my pick of the rest.  I love Kate’s style and use of colour and the way her illustrations work so well with Theresa Breslin’s text.  (And she’s a Lossiemouth quine too! (Kate, that is.)

I had the pleasure of working with Emma Shoard at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival which makes me even happier to see her nominated for Good Boy published by Edinburgh-based Barrington Stoke and written by the late and lamented Mal Peet.  Not even Emma or Mal’s wife Elspeth was quite sure how to read Good Boy (that’s one of its joys) so Emma was faced with having to interpret it in an open way.  And she has succeeded stunningly.

And there’s The Dam by Levi Pinfold.  His illustrations are so evocative that you almost don’t need David Almond’s words.  But if you didn’t have them you’d be missing utter brilliance.  They absolutely can’t be separated from each other, a case of the whole being more than the sum of its parts.

There are plenty of other great books on the list and you can see them here:

You have until June to decide what decision you think the judges should make.

Posted by: janesandell | November 4, 2019

Carnegie Medal

The nominations for the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals were published today.  As a former judge, I’m always excited, interested and sometimes disappointed.  Like any other young people’s book enthusiast I have my own opinions not only of the books that make it but also of the general trends in the award.  It’s a long time now since I was on the judging panel and almost inevitably I have a suspicion that it was better in my day!  However, even if I could define what I mean by ‘better’, the truth is that the entire process is highly subjective.  Yes there are guidelines and criteria but it would be disingenuous to suggest that personal preference is entirely laid aside during the judging process.  After all, the panel is made up of readers who are all affected in different ways by books.

Having said all that, though, there have been some recent nominations and/or longlists that have left me feeling distinctly uneasy about the way the Medal seemed to be going.  In my opinion they were full of worthy books dealing with some kind of topical issue reminding me very much of the didactic novels of a former time that were roundly slated.  I don’t mean to suggest that none of the titles was worthy of inclusion but the lists made me feel weary.

All this means that I was nervous about today’s unveiling.  But I needn’t have been!  With reservations (see below), the nominations list (available at is one of the best, most diverse I have seen in a long time.  For those who don’t know, any member of CILIP (the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) may nominate one title.  In practice, most of those who do so are children’s and young people’s specialists working in public and school libraries.  They’re the ones who see (and hopefully read) a wide range of books throughout the year.  Many of the nominators are members of CILIP’s special interest group the Youth Libraries Group (YLG), the body that actually makes the award on behalf of CILIP.

Every year I nominate a book that I deem worthy.  Only once has a book I nominated won.  That was Buffalo Soldier by Tanya Landman.  But I persevere.  It’s tricky though as there are so many excellent books to choose from.  Even in the days when I could nominate two titles I swithered until almost the closing date.  Now it’s almost impossible and I find myself second-guessing what might be nominated by my fellow professionals.  This year I had four titles in the running and actually I was fairly sanguine as I felt they were all books that others would nominate.  BUT I HAVE BEEN CAUGHT OUT!  Two of the four are missing from the list and I want to shout at someone but I’m not sure whom.  Maybe myself.  Did I make the wrong choice?  But who’d ever have thought that no-one else would nominate the superlative Elizabeth Laird’s A House Without Walls?  I’m pretty sure it’s eligible in terms of publication date and it is brilliant.  I’m less surprised that The Light Between Worlds by Laura Weymouth is missing.  Not, I hasten to add, because it isn’t good enough; just because Laura is less well-know than Liz Laird.  As anyone who reads this blog regularly will know, I loved The Light Between Worlds.  One of the criterion for the Carnegie Medal is that the book should live with you after you’ve finished reading it.  Laura’s book didn’t do that; rather I continued to live in it.

On a more positive note I am relieved that The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay has made the list.  And so have a number of other books I enjoyed: Rosie Loves Jack by Mel Darbon, Clownfish by Alan Durant, The House of Light by Julia Green, The Way Past Winter by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, The Closest Thing to Flying by Gill Lewis, All the Lonely People by David Owen, Armistice Runner by Tom Palmer and Anna at War by Helen Peters.  If you haven’t read these make them your reading list for the rest of the year.

And, of course, to those add my nomination.  The Key to Flambards by Linda Newbery.



Posted by: janesandell | July 30, 2019

Adding to my Collection

Whilst I’m always on the lookout for books to add to my collection, there are times when I’m much more pro-active about it.  The last few months have been such a time.  Although I have an extensive general collection of books for children and young adults, most of these have been collected serendipitously: I’ve been sent them by the publisher to review, I’ve read them for events I’ve been chairing at a book festival or I’ve come across them in a library or bookshop. When I say books for my collection, I’m talking about specific authors and genres.

Back when I was a teenager, I collected girls’ career novels published by The Bodley Head.  Even then they were wildly old-fashioned but they appealed to me somehow.  I had loads of them as they were fairly easy and cheap to pick up.  My parents moved house whilst I was at Glasgow University and I spent the early part of that summer clearing out my possessions and one of the things I decided I could live without was my career novel collection.  Well, there was a mistake!  For about ten years now I’ve been trying to rebuild that collection and I have to tell you that it’s much more difficult to find the books (I’m still looking for Molly Qualifies as a Librarian) and they are much more expensive.  However I’m ploughing on and have even extended the limits of it to include other publishers’ offerings.

For a while I only collected books about some types of career (not that I could actually define that even to myself) but now I’m happy to include any British career novel.  I had a small foray into the world of American careers but in the end decided that they weren’t for me.  That is, with the notable exception of Helen Dore Boylston’s Carol and Sue Barton series.  They’re exceptional in other ways too.  For a start they follow a heroine through a significant portion of her life, rather than just being one-offs.  And to my mind they’re plot-driven stories first and career novels second.

The thing is that the vast majority of career novels are truly awful when judged on plot, characterisation and style.  There are some exceptions of course but they stand out for their scarcity value.  No, what keeps me hooked on these books is the wonderful slice of social history they provide.  Girls should use their education and find a rewarding job but they should understand and accept that they will be paid less than men and have fewer opportunities for promotion.  Girls can do (almost) any job they want but should expect to be seen as oddities if they don’t want to teach, write, nurse or sell.  Oh well being a children’s librarian might be acceptable or even, at a push, a paediatrician but there’s so much unpleasantness is training for the latter!  And naturally all the best (query) career novels end in marriage, usually to a man who thinks he’s supportive of her career but is actually pretty condescending.

But that’s me bringing my twentieth and twenty-first century sensibilities to these books.  In their time they were forward-looking.  And although I mock, there is an air of genuine excitement in the books because of the widening of women’s horizons.  And a sneaky part of me would have loved to have been a librarian in the 1950s when the profession was establishing itself and libraries were expanding.

Posted by: janesandell | June 17, 2019

Lily and the Rockets by Rebecca Stevens

I understand that some women are playing in a football competition somewhere. Honestly, I do know what the competition is but I genuinely have no idea where it’s being played. It’s fair to say that I am pretty disinterested in football irrespective of the gender of the teams. So it’s a mark of my appreciation of Rebecca Stevens’ other books that I chose to read Lily and the Rockets.

The novel is set towards the end of the Great War and revolves around Lily Dodd, a teenager working at the Woolwich Arsenal making weapons destined for the Western Front. Lily is also passionate about playing football, something women had the opportunity to do whilst the professional men’s game was suspended for the duration.

This is not a complex novel but it is engaging and it shines a light on the women’s game as well as on a little-mentioned aspect of the First World War. In truth it matters not at all whether or not the reader is interested in football. Lily is a believable and likeable character and the story clips along.

Posted by: janesandell | May 30, 2019

Back to Barrington Stoke

Yes, I know. There’s been an almighty break in service from me.  My life has taken some interesting turns in the last six months but I’m back now.  And I’m back living in Edinburgh, my birthplace.  It’s also the home of Barrington Stoke, publishers extraordinaire, so it seems fitting for me to start with the phase with two of their books.

McTavish Takes the Biscuit is the third story in Meg Rosoff’s series about the Peachey family’s rescue dog.  In it poor McTavish feels obligated to save the family from Pa Peachey’s baking. But even the most devoted dog can only eat so much.  Clearly something must be done.  But then disaster, in the form of a town bake-off, strikes.  Pa is confident of his ability to win, a confidence his long-suffering family think misplaced.  Only McTavish can save the day – which he does with the help of Betty and a misplaced ball.

As ever, Meg has written a satisfying story full of fun and family.  There’s a warmth to the relationships and an enjoyable story arc.  Young readers will be engrossed by the characters and plot whether or ot they have met the cast before. This is another book in the Conkers series designed to help children continue to develop their reading.

New to the Little Gems collection is Special Delivery by Jonathan Meres.  Little Gems books are for readers just underway on their own and they’re a diverse lot.  Frank starts helping his big sister Lottie with her paper round to so he can earn some money for a new bike.  Together they enjoy being out early in the summer holidays and Frank makes an exciting new friend.

Mary, the elderly lady Frank meets, has dementia and Jonathan Meres introduces the subject sensitively in the context of a very readable story.  The book is short but still well developed in plot and character and is enhanced by Hannah Coulson’s illustrations.

It’s no secret that I’m hugely enthusiastic about Barrington Stoke’s books and I’m delighted to have these to add to my collection and share with children.


Posted by: janesandell | December 25, 2018

Christmas Day

DE Stevenson was a best-selling author of her day, the mid-twentieth century. She wrote romances and family stories often with a bit of an edge. A number of different publishers have re-issued her titles recently but it’s also possible to buy first editions of many of the books. She’s another author that Mum read and collected; I read them intermittently over the years and kept Mum’s collection after her death. I have lots of favourites: Charlotte Fairlie, The Blue Sapphire and Katherine Wentworth spring easily to mind. But my choice for this list settled on Listening Valley. I like the settings, the heroine and the meandering story without any real plot. I feel as though I’ve just stepped into someone else’s life when I read it.

And finally we come to Until We Win. It has so much going for it: written by Linda Newbery, published by Barrington Stoke and with a plot about the campaign for votes for women, it ticks loads of boxes. But actually it’s a self-indulgent choice as it’s dedicated to me. I never ever imagined that an author, a well-respected, prize-winning one at that, would even consider dedicating a book to me. And on days when I feel disheartened by my impending redundancy it helps me to remember that maybe I have made a difference through my work.

Posted by: janesandell | December 24, 2018

Christmas Eve

If you’ve been reading this blog of mine for any length of time you’ll be familiar with my panegyrics on LM Montgomery. I make no apologies for these; she’s a great writer. I recently had the chance to purchase a first edition of my favourite, Anne of the Island, but had to decline due to the ridiculous (albeit realistic) cost. However, I did avail myself of the opportunity to buy a first edition of Rilla of Ingleside, the last in the Anne sequence. For a whole raft of reasons it’s another of my favourite books. It’s the story of four years in the life of Anne and Gilbert’s youngest child, years that see her develop and change from a somewhat spoiled, self-absorbed fifteen-year-old into a fairly mature young woman. I think it’s a wonderful character study. But, as the story begins in 1914, it is also an account of life on the home front of the Great War, the Canadian home front of course. Looking back I realise that it’s the first First World War novel I read. I can’t honestly say that it’s what sparked my interest in the period but it may well have contributed to it.

As I’ve commented on elsewhere I’ve recently started reading detective fiction having eschewed it all my life. One of my favourite newly discovered authors is Jill McGown, author of the Lloyd and Hill series. I’ve read and re-read these a number of times and love the developing relationship between Lloyd and Judy as well as the murder mysteries. I chose Murder at the Old Vicarage (originally entitled Redemption), the second in the series, fairly randomly. It’s set during a snowy Christmas and the descriptive writing is evocative. As well as great characterisation and an engrossing mystery, there are some interesting side issues to consider. It’s an ideal Christmas read, I’d say: involving and gripping without being too complex.

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