Review: Gormless Gods and Hapless Heroes: Tim Baker and the Ancient Curse by Stella Tarakson

The first in what promises to be an epic series.

Publication date: 6th April 2017
Publisher: Sweet Cherry Publishing

Funny, compelling and oddly educational, Gormless Gods and Hapless Heroes: Tim Baker and the Ancient Curse blends realism and fantasy seamlessly. When Tim Baker accidentally broke his mother’s priceless, ancient vase, he expected to get a telling off not his own resident hero! As Hercules bursts through the life of the 21st century school boy like a bull in a china shop, Tim learns a little something about how to navigate his own life himself.

Tim and Hercules are a dynamic duo of entertainment. They are well-constructed characters, that Stella Tarakson truly brings to life. Tim is multi-faceted, and his reaction to Hercules’ takeover of his life is constructed in a sensitive and realistic way. Likewise, Hercules and Tim’s mum – who may have run the risk of fitting into stereotypes of the ‘meathead’ hero and ‘no-fun’ mum – demonstrate an unexpected breadth of character. Tarakson’s characterisation alone is a joy to experience, and the book just gets better and better.

Mythologically, it brings in more than I expected it to. The story juxtaposes the original labours of Hercules with the trials of being an awkward young boy trying to support both himself and his mother. Lesser known labours, such as the Augean stables, make a welcome appearance. Perhaps I was ready to be confronted by another portrayal of Hercules as per Disney or Kevin Sorbo, but what I got instead is a genuine adaptation of the original hero.

I recommend this book to readers who enjoy a school-and-friendship-based novel, and are open to the fantastical, mythological world the flows through it. It is the first in a series, and it ends with a cliffhanger, so I am excited to see how it develops! This is solid middle grade at its best.

 

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Review: The Jasmine Sneeze by Nadine Kaadan

Myth and reality intermingle in a refreshing representation of Damascus.

Publication date: 11th April 2016
Publisher: Lantana Publishing

The Jasmine Sneeze is a fantastically vibrant read which takes the reader through a world of senses, accompanied by a comical cat. Sauntering through the city of Damascus, the reader follows Haroun on his quest to appease the Jasmine Spirit.

I haven’t read such a satisfying picture book in a while. The story flows perfectly and has just the right balance of conflict and character progression. Haroun is thoroughly likeable – despite being a bit of a grump when it comes to jasmine – and the Jasmine spirit is portray wonderfully. She has a childlike quality, both quick to anger and quick to forgive. A real joy to follow.

The illustrations are mesmerising, with bright block colours and complementary shades. Kaadan creates a magical landscape and brings Damascus to life. Haroun is adorable and humorous, and you can almost smell the jasmine. The only thing I might note, is that the font can be distracting: a simple sans serif which can seem incongruous in its colourful surroundings.

I recommend this as a wonderful feel-good book. It cannot fail to entertain readers of all ages and genders. There are quite a few words, so it might not be perfect for very early readers, but it can easily be read by more confident children or with an adult. All in all, definitely a book worth owning.

#CoverKidsBooks: what it means when we don’t review children’s literature

When news of S F Said’s campaign to get newspapers to review more children’s books came out at the beginning of last week, I felt pride, rage (at the statistics), and a sense of being part of something bigger. Throughout the ‘Ebook crisis’, the financial crisis and all the other factors which meant we saw vast fluctuations throughout the book publishing industry, children’s fiction and non-fiction were the most steady, often exhibiting some growth. Therefore, even those philistines who believe that children’s fiction is somehow ‘lesser’ will have to agree that it is silly at best not to showcase what has proven to be publishers’ greatest asset.

Not only do myriad high-quality, beautiful books get buried due to lack of visibility, the decision not to give space to children’s book reviews is obviously informed by – and perpetuates – the notion that the child reader is not discerning enough to need ‘good books.’ Obviously, especially with younger readers, the book-buyer tends be an adult. Therefore, the review-reader, naturally, seems to be an adult. This is not necessarily true – how will you know if a 10-year-old won’t read reviews if you don’t give them the chance? – but, significantly, a space dedicated entirely to well-written children’s book reviews would force adults out of their comfort zones. It might even change something which even the most well-intentioned of parents often fall into the trap of: stop giving them an excuse to think of their child as an extension of themselves.

Children (shock, horror!) have their own personalities and their own tastes, meaning that by placing gravity on the books they read – brilliant, innovative, formative books – you are acknowledging their individuality and their right to a critical spirit. Contrariwise, if all – bar 3% – of the space dedicated to reviews in newspapers focuses on ‘adult’ books, not to mention entire publications whose sole mission statement is to review books yet which include no children’s books at all, what is it other than dehumanising? ‘Just’ a children’s book. For ‘just’ a child. As if either of those things is unforgivably, irrecoverably wanting. These things add up and affect the way our children relate to themselves and to their peers.

And if you’re tempted to ask why we need more reviews in newspapers when there are many online – the reviews page is just the bit you skip to get to the crossword, right? – then Charlotte Eyre puts it better than I can, reminding us of the ‘stumble upon’ factor. People seeking out reviews for new children’s books can find thousands online, but the beauty of discovering a book by accident – a process which has been at the heart of the campaign against online booksellers – cannot and should not be replaced.

It has frequently been called the ‘golden age’ of children’s literature, especially after Hardinge’s fantastic win, and online, this is being reflected in full force. There are independent bloggers out there doing what I’m doing but better, and there are official websites – like the Guardian’s brilliant children’s book section – which are committed to making sure children’s books are seen and valued. However, in this online world we live in, print reviews for adults have not lapsed; there is no reason we be content with only online coverage for children, no matter how great.

Newspapers are universal symbols of ‘all that is worth knowing’, if children’s books aren’t represented in them, what does that say about our society’s attitude towards the desires and interests of children?

For more information about the campaign, check out S F Said’s original blog post and follow the #CoverKidsBooks hashtag on Twitter.