Review: Emma Shevah’s MG comedy Dara Palmer’s Major Drama

dara palmer major drama

I’m a sucker for theatrical kids, and it was obvious from the start that Dara Palmer, star of Emma Shevah’s DARA PALMER’S MAJOR DRAMA, wouldn’t disappoint. Eleven-year-old Dara is a born star; it’s just that no one around her has recognised this yet. Passed over repeatedly for starring roles in the school play, Dara ever-so-reluctantly joins the director’s after-school acting class at the local theatre and ever-so-gradually learns that she has a lot to learn about this acting thing…which is not, evidently, based around how many faces she can pull.

If you loved Tim Federle’s BETTER NATE THAN EVER books, you’ll love the Dara story, not least because there’s a heavy dose of heart-warming self-discovery as Dara’s eyes open to other things beyond what makes a good actor. Dara’s one of two adopted daughters in the Palmer family but she’s never wondered (until an acting exercise by her teacher spurs her to do so) what it feels like to be her shyer, younger sister Georgia, who’s habitually outshone by Dara and her megawatt personality.

Dara is one of the most deliciously comic characters I’ve read in a long time, with a non-stop voice that explodes with personality. Her wonderful character is what lets her ruminate genuinely but never in a heavy-handed way about the Cambodian parents she never knew, about what it must have been like for her baby self to be whisked away to live in England, and about the everyday racism of a few boorish classmates. Dara’s dawning awareness that there are no faces like hers on the Hollywood posters that line her walls also feels real, as does her all-guns-blazing determination to be one of those faces, one day.

As a transplanted American living in the UK, I especially adored the view on America; I’ve seen in my own kids and others in our Scottish village the way that the US (in entertainment terms, at least) is like a giant pop-culture monolith to the west, obsessing British kids in a way that’s not altogether a good thing. Dara is irritated that she finds herself misusing US terms like “prom” and “vanity cases” — this is deftly, brilliantly done and is some of the funniest writing I’ve seen in ages.

As a NetGalley reader I didn’t get to see most of Helen Crawford-White’s illustrations, but the sparkling cover has the right glam to draw star-loving readers.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

Dara Palmer’s Major Drama by Emma Shevah, illus. by Helen Crawford-White.

Published 2015 UK: coming July 2016 in US.

More info at Chicken House

Review: Martin Stewart’s YA fantasy Riverkeep


I recently joined NetGalley and was thrilled for the chance to read an advance copy of Martin Stewart’s YA fantasy Riverkeep, a river “road trip” tale that put me in mind of so many English literature classics I lost count, but that still managed to steer its own course and be thoroughly itself, and thoroughly unforgettable.

Wulliam is set to take on the role of riverkeep when he hits his 16th birthday in a few days, but he dreams of escaping the responsibility of the frankly abominable family calling: fishing corpses from the river, honouring these dead, and keeping lit the heat lamps that stave off freezing of the waterway.

He’s forced to assume the mantle of riverkeep early, however, when his father becomes possessed by a water spirit; poor Wulliam instantly and energetically messes up everything, but manages to keep his sights on one goal – and it’s not keeping the river, but keeping his father from slipping fully under the spell of the spirit that possesses him.

This book had me at “father” – I’m a sucker for any tale of child and dad, and that’s the heart of Riverkeep. But Stewart has also done such a phenomenal job at sketching character, and evoking the timeless but subtly changing riverside landscape. He also fearlessly weaves in Chaucer-esque bawdiness that passes the time delightfully as Wulliam goes on his nigh-impossible quest to cure his father, an odyssey downriver during which he not only grows up fast, but also attracts a gaggle of hangers-on with their own agendas.

It’s impossible not to think of Chaucer reading this, but there are also shades of Dickens (the crushing misery of poverty, against the backdrop of the distant industrial city) as well as Neil Gaiman in the way Stewart details the horror of Wulliam’s situation, including the spirit consuming his father and the murderous vigilantes pursuing their (potentially sentient) riverboat.

Did I mention that Stewart makes up his own words? I’m officially adopting “sleepmutter” into my vocabulary, and I loved the description of a sea captain’s scarred skin as “onceinjured.” One of my favorite American writers in university was Dos Passos, who shunned hyphens and coined his own compound words left and right – another sure way to my heart. The sea captain’s monologue about life on the water versus life on land, by the way, is one of the best things I’ve read in years.

Published 28 April in UK and 26 July 2016 in US by Penguin Random House. More info here.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

Great middle grade reads: review of PAX by Sara Pennypacker

Although I write for middle grade I’m largely catching up on young adult reading at the moment, and amazing YA it is. That’s why I was extra thrilled to come across a middle grade book that really packed an emotional punch: PAX by Sara Pennypacker.

I haven’t read a dual voice narrative that works in quite a while, and Sara manages it elegantly, alternating between the fox’s world and “his boy,” Peter, whose father has pretty callously obliged Peter to abandon tpax_coverhe fox at the side of the road before the boy goes to live with his grandfather.

The fox’s outsider view of the human world is well done. As a writer it’s hard to choose which details of the “normal world” the outsider should fail to comprehend: I loved that the foxes don’t have a word for lying, or for tears. Sara has also laced in lovely realistic details of red fox behavior from her research into the animals, including details of how they show affection, and it all works beautifully.

PAX has picked up a reputation as a tearjerker — if you’re concerned that the story might be too much of a heartbreaker for a middle grade audience…well, there’s plenty of sadness in here, but nothing the 9 to 12 reader can’t cope with.

Artist Jon Klassen (I WANT MY HAT BACK) has done a superb emotional cover that captures the isolation of the book, and the book features an occasional black and white double page spread with his evocative, spare style, but I would’ve loved to see more of his work in this piece, the way Ongbico’s work was woven into THE WOLF WILDER, for example.

If you’d like to see more, there’s a video of my review above.

A gorgeous read and a brilliant animal story.

My top 2015 contemporary middle grade books

I’ve found that word of mouth is the most reliable way to find books for my kids and myself to read. This is my video roundup of the best contemporary, realistic middle-grade books (for reading age 9 to 12) that I read during 2015. Not all of them were published during this year, but they were new to me.

I’d love to know if I’ve missed any stars here. What were your top 2015 contemporary middle grade reads from this year? Let me know in the comments below, or if you like, you can follow me on Goodreads.



Review: Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce 2008

Cosmic from Walden Pond Press/Harper Collins Children's
I’m doing a grand tour of all the best writing in my own novel’s age range, and Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Walden Pond Press/Harper Collins Children’s) is my favourite so far.

The story opens with 12-year-old Liam trapped in a rocket that’s spun out-of-control beyond earth orbit. It uses the well-established diary device to allow Liam to tell his tale of how he got stuck in space, taking us back a few months to when it all began – around the time when he first realised he had grown facial hair.

Liam describes himself as “above average in height and maths,” and his unlikely presence on the rocket is down to a number of factors, some to do with him (wanderlust, stubble) and others to do with the adults around him (pettiness, an inability to listen).

Early in the book, Liam and his friend from drama class, a girl called Florida, are mistaken for father and daughter because of Liam’s unusual height. Being mistaken for a grown-up gives Liam a holiday from the misery of premature puberty, and he encourages Florida to take their playacting as far as they can push it. Things go awry when Liam gives his worried parents the slip and gets Florida to compete with him (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-style) in a ‘Best Dad Ever’ contest: the grand prize is a rocket trip.

The book has plenty of space gaga for fans like me, from zero g training in the vomit comet to a terrifying EVA in space (NASA even co-sponsored a competition for readers to win a trip to NASA, yay!) but the exploration of fatherhood is the best part of this story. Boyce comes at it from every angle: Liam and his dad, Liam and Florida, Florida and her absentee father, the other dads in the contest…it goes on.

Writer’s lessons from Cosmic

Deadpan has a peculiar power: having read A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime just before this, Liam’s deadpan delivery was especially noticeable for me. Liam’s way of describing events, with real economy and restraint in the writing, has a great power.

Brilliant in-character reactions: you can almost feel Boyce sinking into the persona of Liam when he writes his reactions to events; Liam reaches to his best frame of reference, his World of Warcraft gaming experience, when trying to describe how things feel for him. Scottish author and speaker Nicola Morgan says voice is the quality that allows the writing to disappear, so readers suspend their disbelief and become lost in the story…the difference between an amateur theatrical production and a professional. Boyce does voice flawlessly.

Secondary character’s emotional arc: Florida’s journey is as satisfying as Liam’s own, intertwined but discrete. Florida’s metamorphosis is just about credible, and like Liam, she is not overdrawn, but sketched with delightfully restrained strokes.

Boyce wrote a hasty, flawed draft first: that’s what he reveals in the interview at the book’s end (I read the US version). He was excited about the story and tore through draft one rapidly. Boyce’s daughter pointed out the problems with it, which he addressed carefully, seeking also the input of NASA veterans. This should give all writers heart: you might have your story, but your book takes a bit more chiseling before it comes forth from the stone.

I need to read more brilliant adventures for age 9-11…please help me by leaving a comment below with your suggestion