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Annie wasn’t a hero. She was ten years old and had long blonde hair and blue eyes, and her father said she’d make an excellent damsel one day. He had her practicing her screams every morning for an hour and said they were the best he had ever heard. But now her father was missing and there were no heroes available, and her mother wouldn’t stop crying.

For my final review of Children’s Literature Week I have chosen S.E. Connolly’s debut, Damsel published by Mercier Press. It is a short and sweet fantasy tale about a girl setting out to rescue her father from an evil wizard. If ever you found yourself reading Harry Potter and wondering why Hermione Granger wasn’t the main character instead the bumbling eponymous wizard messiah, I reckon this is a neat corrective. More than that though, it’s an excellent first novel from a young Irish writer, whom I hope to see more from some day.

Angelina Cerestina Tiffenemina Brave (aka Annie) is a young damsel-in-training who’s famous father was once a mighty hero. Having promised his wife that his adventuring days were behind him, he focused on raising a family and writing his guide to becoming a hero, so that other young men could learn from his experiences. Then one day he heard the wizard Greenlott was loose on a rampage and set off to defeat the evil mage. When he did not return, a messenger arrives at the Brave household with the news that Tristan Brave had been captured.

As Greenlott has already defeated most of the heroes in the land, Annie takes it upon herself to vanquish him. She sets off accompanied only by her ‘fiery’ pony Chestnut and her dog, Squire, as well as an incomplete copy of her father’s guide to being a hero. Following the advice in the book she manages to evade threats including under-bridge trolls, giant spiders and dragons. She also learns the dangers of kissing a frog. Along her travels she befriends Roger, who claims to be a prince and while he does carry a sword, is not altogether reliable. Can a girl be a hero? Or has Annie nothing better to look forward to than screaming for rescue and looking pretty?

In the interest of full disclosure, the author’s sister is a friend of mine. She was pleasantly surprised when I reported back to her how much I enjoyed reading Damsel, assuming that I was just being kind. If anything, I found it to be a fun and inventive tale that pokes fun at the standards of romantic fantasy. Annie does not mind being a damsel as such, but she would prefer to have a choice as to whether she could be a hero. Throughout the book she is frustrated with how the folk they encounter assume Roger is the real hero, despite his occasional cowardice and bookish manner. The author cannily does not allow the dynamic between them to be too one-sided. Sometimes Roger helps Annie escape from danger, but when you need someone to risk life and giant spider-goo, she’s your girl.

I will happily continue to sing this book’s praises and have already foisted copy onto my in-laws. It is a sweet and rewarding tale, with a neat wry tone and some beautiful illustrations from Axel Rator.

This being the last entry in Children’s Literature Week, I would just like to say I’ve had a great time reviewing these books and I hope you enjoyed reading ‘em. Just because a writer writes for children, it doesn’t mean the books should be silly and unimportant. Often the most important things we learn during our lives we first discover as children. The books we read should be equally as enriching and inspiring. Cheers folks.

That night, back in my office. I say office – it’s actually my bedroom, but I think of it as an office. It sounds better if you say to a client, ‘I’ll need to run a few tests back in the office,’ rather than, ‘I’ll have a look at this with a magnifying glass after I put my PJs on.’

From Australian children’s authors let’s skip across the planet to Ireland. If that makes you feel slightly dizzy, try to imagine how I feel! Wexford-born native Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series was a breath of fresh air when it first arrived. A modern, witty take on Irish mythology and contemporary society….with farting leprechauns, just to make sure kids paid attention. Half-Moon Investigations is a new series from Colfer and I am happy to report, is also a very successful humour book for children.

Fletcher Moon is the town joke in the small community of Lock. A twelve year old boy who likes to ‘play at detective’. He even insists on showing off a detective’s badge, which he insists is genuine. His kind parents indulge the fantasy, but hope he’ll grow up and notice girls some day. The other children are not so understanding and have branded Fletcher with the nickname ‘Half-Moon’. He’s a weirdo, a nerdy kid with delusions of grandeur.

What most people don’t know is that Fletcher is an accredited private investigator. Sure he used his dad’s birth date and credit card to apply for the two year course. Nevertheless he has a real detective’s badge and know’s the course books off by heart. He dreams of one day working for the FBI as a forensic investigator, like the kind on CSI. In the meantime he’s hoping to score a real case and maybe even a real fee. Mostly the school kids he has helped pay him in chocolate.

Fletcher soon learns to regret his ambitions when popular ten-year old April Devereux hires him to investigate a series of mysterious robberies. The prime suspect is one Red Sharkey, the heir apparent of Lock’s local criminal gang lord Papa Sharkey. He doesn’t appreciate the attention Fletcher is drawing to him and does not hesitate in letting his feelings on the matter be known. What’s more, the boy detective soon discovers the danger in becoming too involved in a case, after he finds himself first assaulted and then framed for a serious crime. Is April Devereux ten Euro retainer enough to cover his growing legal fees and bail?

This is winning, fast-paced stuff, a kiddy version of a Sam Spade mystery. There is even, in the classic detective format, two mysteries that overlap for Fletcher to resolve. In many ways this resembles an Irish take on Rian Johnson’s Brick, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, with all the tropes of detective fiction entertainingly inserted into this schoolyard adventure. There’s even a tween stool pigeon and a pink loving femme fatale.

On the weekend I happened to catch five minutes of a television series based on Colfer’s novels. Not only was the action relocated to England, but I felt the spirit of the novel was lost, with the usual generic and insipid child actors standing in for the preternaturally worldly-wise heroes and villains of this yarn. A real shame and a missed opportunity I feel for the Irish film and television industry not to have kicked Colfer’s door down for the rights (but then, that is not an unusual error on their part).

I would strongly recommend these books for children between the ages of 10 – 15 and adults who enjoy a wry chuckle. I am looking forward to gobbling down the rest of these books like I did the Artemis Fowl series.

I think my mother’s talents deserve a little acknowledgement. I said so to her, as a matter of fact, and she replied in these memorable words: ‘My dear child, you can give it a long name if you like, but I’m an old fashioned woman and I call it mother-wit, and it’s so rare for a man to have it that if he does you write a book about him and call him Sherlock Holmes.’

What a delightful surprise this book was. I first heard of Dorothy Sayers some seven years ago while I was living in Edinburgh. A friend mentioned her to me, as he was reading her translation of Dante’s Inferno. A singular woman, one of the earliest female graduates of Oxford, she was a scholar who wrote murder mysteries. To give you an idea of what to expect, the main character of this book is called Lord Peter Wimsey and whimsical this tale most certainly is. His second named is ‘Death’. He solves murder mysteries as a ‘hobby’.

While enjoying a welcome rest on the island of Corsica, he receives the unwelcome news that his brother, the Duke of Denver, has been accused of murder. The victim was a man named Denis Cathcart, whose body was found with the Duke standing over it by Mary Wimsey, who was also engaged to the dead man. Her testimony at the Coroner’s Court lands the Duke in jail awaiting his hearing. By the time Lord Peter has returned with his trusty man-servant Bunter in tow his sister has taken to her bed in hysterics, his brother the Duke is refusing to speak with his defense counsel and the whole thing has become one dreadful black mark on the Wimsey family name.

Joining forces with police detective Mr Charles Parker, whose feelings for Mary go beyond professional courtesy, Lord Peter strives to uncover evidence that proves his brother’s innocence. No matter what the cost. Perhaps the Duke’s silence is due to the Court having accused the wrong Wimsey and as a man of honour he is defending his sister’s reputation? The victim Denis Cathcart’s past is a murky one, with secrets that may have exposed the family to blackmail. Lord Peter’s powers of observation also identify the presence of a third man in the conservatory gardens on the night of the murder, whom he comes to refer to as Number 10 due to his shoe size. Of course there is always ample opportunity for a fine cigar and a glass of brandy, even when there is a murder mystery to solve.

There is a Wodeshousian tone to the proceedings that lift it up from the more dour detective novels. A wicked sense of humour is present throughout, as well as a rich intelligence and breadth of reference. Wimsey enjoys humming Bach to himself, or quoting Wordsworth randomly while searching for clues. He is a dilettante detective, whose genius was buffeted by his experiences during the Great War and a doomed love affair, leading to him exploiting his flair for investigation while he spends his fortune hosting parties in London.

The foppish Columbo acts the fool in order to provoke suspects into revealing something, with his status as an aristocrat allowing him to bounce from Paris to New York chasing down leads the police cannot afford to follow. When the Duke’s trial is held in the presence of Parliament, Sayers depicts the noble gentry as being to a man much like Wimsey, treating a murder inquiry as an opportunity for a bit of entertainment, chortling away at the witticisms of the defending counsel. With the world-weary Bunter as an alternative take on Jeeves assisting the amateur detective, Sayers enjoys poking fun at the conventions and morals of the British upper class.

She even introduces the occasional element of bawdy humour into the proceedings. Submitted without comment:

‘That thing’, was a tall erection in pink granite, neatly tooled to represent a craggy rock, and guarded by two petrified infantry-men in trench helmets. A thin stream of water gushed from a bronze knob half way up….

Ok stop right there!

So if you are looking for a ‘spiffing good time’, with bounders, poachers, blackguards and socialists, I would recommend checking out the adventures of one Lord Peter Wimsey, dandy detective.

Now we, having had the advantage of that bird’s-eye view to which allusion was made earlier, know all about this gendarme. We are aware that he was not a remorseless bloodhound on the trail, but merely a likeable young man of the name of Octave who was waiting for pie. We, therefore, are able to behold him calmly. Our eyes, like stars, do not start from their spheres, nor do our knotty and combined locks part and each particular hair stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine.

Mr Gedge’s did. He was a mere jelly of palpitating ganglions.

Before reading the biographical note on this book’s dust-jacket, I had no idea Wodehouse spent the majority of his life in the United States. His writing seems so quintessentially English, that the idea of him typing away somewhere in Long Island just seems odd. This book adjusts the balance in my mind, as most of the characters are American, chasing up opportunities for advancement, or even a criminal scheme or two, in Old World Europe.

The book opens with the henpecked Mr Gedge, who lost his riches in the Crash of 1929 and is dependent on his upwardly mobile wife for funds. She intends for him to be made Ambassador to France, a fate he is desperate to avoid. Particularly having to wear a silly hat on ceremonial occasions. He is dreading the hat. His wife has invited a Senator Opal and his daughter to visit them in their leased chateau in Saint Roque, Brittany. She seems very confident that the Senator will agree to sponsor her husband for the role, despite the two men loathing one another. While the Senator and Jane Opal are staying in London en route to France, they encounter Packy Franklyn, a Yaleman and the fortunate beneficiary of a generous inheritance. He has promised his principled fiancé the Lady Beatrice that he will remain in London and avoid all possible shenanigans, capers, fooling around and other activities common to the flibbertigibbet. He of course falls at the first hurdle, deciding to follow the Opals to Saint Roque. Jane intends to marry an intense young novelist named Blair Eggleston, who unfortunately is penniless. To aid the course of true love, Packy sets about trying to help the young couple convince the quick to anger American Senator. His powers of invention soon land everyone staying at the chateau in a confusion of plots, blackmail, theft and confidence tricks that quickly go awry.

This is a delightful book with many surprises. I am trying to be careful to not give too much away, as there are more twists in this Gallic farce than your average There’s a hilarious scene with two characters impersonating French men trying to communicate under the watchful eye of a third party in pidgin French. As with many Wodehouse novels, this is a story about class and class consciousness. Mrs Gedge wants to advance up the rungs of the social ladder. Packy intends to marry a British aristocrat. Jane’s father values nothing more in life than wealth, which is why Blair makes for such an unlikely match. The servants at the chateau are also more than extras in the background, each with their own intrigues and secrets. Packy finds himself musing as to why he is going out of his way to help Blair and Jane. Is it due to the essential nobility that belongs to a gentleman? Or is he simply bored with his life and up for some fun.

Fun is what this book is, a brightly packaged little bundle of joy.

Shortly Tom came upon the juvenile pariah of the village, Huckleberry Finn, son of the town drunkard. Huckleberry was cordially hated and dreaded by all the mothers of the town because he was idle, and lawless, and vulgar, and bad – and because all their children admired him so, and delighted in his forbidden society and wished they dared to be like him. Tom was like the rest of the respectable boys in that he envied Huckleberry his gaudy outcast condition, and was under strict orders not to play with him. So he played with him every time he got a chance.

I find it amazing how often a story heralded as a classic soon becomes divorced from any sense of what made it special in the first place. I am sure everyone is familiar with the story of Tom Sawyer and can conjure up in an instant the appearance of Tom’s friend Huckleberry Finn. The story has been filmed countless times, there was even a Soviet version in 1947, but to people of a certain age who grew up in the 80’s, I imagine this is the version you are most familiar with. What I find surprising is that my would-be ‘knowledge’, of the book is a pale and diluted imitation of Twain’s work, still full of wit and vigour.

There’s a line in The West Wing that I’ve always been fond of – Ich hub uuz deh gebracht which apparently is Yiddish for ‘I’m having the strongest memory’. When I started reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer I suddenly found myself remembering an afternoon sitting in class in a Christian Brothers school in Ballyfermot, Dublin. The teacher would sometimes read books to us, including J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe inspiring in me a life-long love of reading, particularly fantasy novels. On this day she read to us from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and chose the scene where Tom meets Becky Thatcher. My teacher enjoyed putting on the accents and started to imitate that high-pitched drawl common to Southern belles. Suddenly I felt my cheeks burning, my shoulders tensed and I found myself trying to squeeze beneath my desk. Strange new feelings of excitement, embarrassment and shame came over me. It was very unsettling, the sensation alien and perplexing.

It strikes to the heart of Twain’s writing, however, which is to depict the adventures of his child heroes in the American South with all the nostalgic innocence that is demanded, but also allowing for the adult intrigues and mysteries that children witness without fully understanding.

Tom Sawyer is an impulsive, yet fiercely intelligent young boy, living with his Aunt Polly, half-brother (and snitch) Sid and cousin Mary. He is forever getting into scrapes of one kind of another, fighting in the streets, or exploiting the gullibility of the other children. He runs a rapid trade in bartering marbles and curiosities. The incident with the white picket fence that occurs at the beginning of the novel is two-fold scheme of Tom’s that allows him to pocket the many odds and ends offered to him by the other boys in tribute, and fool his Aunt into thinking he has completed his punishment. He enjoys playing Robin Hood with Joe Harper. They both know the book by heart and recite each line as they trade blows. The arrival of Becky Thatcher sets Tom to wooing her, with his own particular take on ‘engagement’.

Of course Huckleberry Finn is the most well-known of Tom’s companions, who lives the kind of life that Sawyer desperately wants to lead. While he goes to school and attempts to learn Bible verses for prizes, Huck Finn wanders the town at his leisure, sleeps wherever he chooses and does not care to dress in his Sunday best. One night the boys stumble upon a sight that terrifies them, something far more horrible than anything they could have dreamt of in all their imaginary adventures as pirates on the high seas, or thieving in Sherwood Forest. The murderous Injun Joe stalks Tom’s dreams as he tries to decide what to do in this all-too-real adventure.

Twain writes in a manner that is familiar and warm, yet also cutting. Real romance and real adventure occur in childhood, everything afterwards is just an echo. His descriptions are dense, yet essential to the breezy mood. A beautiful read.

Rumpole is determined to win the appeal of that ghastly terrorist who is now safely in Belmarsh Prison. This is absolutely the right place for Dr Mahmood Khan, if you want my opinion, or that of most sensible people, but when I tell Rumpole this he starts talking about Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights. And he hardly listens when I tell him that there were no suicide bombers and no al Qaeda when King John signed up to the charter on the island of Runnymede.

John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey has become an enduring fictional creation. Leo McKern’s performance as the character on television immortalised him and the phrase ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ is possibly more famous than the Rumpole himself. I remember watching the show when I was a kid and being fascinated not by the witty badinage, or plot twists, but by the wigs! Oh those wigs, I always wanted one.

Rumpole’s own wig has lost its lustre and has developed an unsightly yellowish tincture, to match his raggedy robes. He’s a man out of time it seems, coasting on successes that no one remembers, refusing to use a computer in court (pen and paper are faster he maintains) and reduced to relying on the dreadful Timson family for cases, as getting caught committing petty crimes is something of a tradition for them.

Things take a turn for the decidedly worse, however, when Rumpole agrees to defend a doctor from Pakistan who has been accused of crimes under the new anti-terrorism laws drawn up by the New Labour government. Under the terms of the legislation the defendant and their counsel are forbidden from learning what the particulars of the arrest are, such as what the crime in question was, when it occurred, what evidence has been presented. The days of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, have come and gone it seems, with pressure mounting on Rumpole to drop the case from above and below. A New Labour stooge attempts bribery and the Timsons withdraw their business. Rumpole himself begins to doubt his client’s innocence. Dr Khan’s seems almost too good to be true, waxing lyrical about cricket and the Queen, all the while wearing a patient, bemused expression on his face while sitting in Belmarsh prison. Is it all an act? What’s more She Who Must Be Obeyed, Hilda, receives an unusual proposition from Rumpole’s enemy Justice Leonard Bullingham, whom he nicknames Mad Bull, all of which she details exhaustively in her own memoirs! Could Rumpole’s lady wife be looking to sweep the carpet from under him?

Rumpole and the Reign of Terror is a quick read, with amusing asides from our hero to the reader. As far as I know She Who Must Be Obeyed was previously an invisible presence in the books, at least that was my impression from the television show as a kid. Mortimer introduces extracts from her own memoirs as a counterpoint to Rumpole’s struggles with the Dr Khan case. Much of the humour derives from witty quips traded between the long suffering couple and the courting of Hilda by Mr Justice Mad Bull makes for a diverting secondary plot.

However, at its heart this book is an angry broadside against the policies of New Labour, its shirking of the letter of the law and dismantling of civil liberties. Rumpole finds himself stuck in a situation Kafkaesque in its absurdity, attempting to defend a man stripped of any right to a fair trial. Any appeal on our hero’s part to the rights of a citizen of Britain is dismissed as unfashionable and behind the times. Rumpole himself is treated as a relic of a by-gone age.

That Mortimer ties this all together in a gripping, yet also witty package is a testament to his skills as a writer. This is my first taste of the Rumpole series and I’ll be happy to investigate further.

‘Gentlemen,’ he said gravely. ‘We must partake of the game of the people – from whom, I might add, we derive. Has any of us, in the last few decades, even seen the game being played? I thought not. We should get outside more.

Football. Football, football, football! Right, that’s that over with. The game of two halves, jumpers for goal posts, all that, has landed in the city of Ankh-Morpork. Of course this means disaster is just around the corner.

The wizards of the Unseen University have discovered that essential funding for the faculty (mostly spent on their multiple breakfasts, lunches and dinners) is tied up with an arcane law that requires them to play a single game of foot-the-ball. Unfortunately the game has been made illegal and is played on the back streets of the city. Well not so much played, as fought. Often to the death. Of course Lord Vetinari the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork has a plan.

There’s also the matter of the mysterious Mister Nutt, a goblin with a dark secret. Hidden beneath the University, employed as a dribbler (which is somebody who dribbles candle wax on the wick to give that perfect eldritch look that wizards require in their light sources). Seen as a posh sort, for having a vocabulary of more than seven hundred words, Mister Nutt is an unlikely candidate for such a dreary job. Yet he seems harmless enough and is taken in by Trev Likely and the kindly Glenda Sugarbean. Unbeknownst to them, their new friend’s past is about to catch up with them all. He is not just any ordinary goblin. The city has become a home for dozens of races, trolls, dwarves, even vampires. Mister Nutt is different, a pawn in a dangerous game of Vetinari’s to resolve centuries old racial conflict. It just so happens he’s chosen the game of foot-the-ball to resolve these issues.

The danger in reviewing Pratchett books is the temptation to try and be as funny. Of course, this is impossible. Also Unseen Academicals contains his usual mixture of satire and commentary. The Discworld novels may be set in a world of mythical creatures, but Pratchett introduces more and more contemporary issues into the mix. Of late the multicural mix of Ankh-Morpork has been given a great deal of attention.

Glenda Sugarbean is yet another strong Pratchett heroine, the only one who sees Mister Nutt for who he really is. As a cook working in the Unseen University, she is privy to the discussions on gentrifying football and resents the manipulation of the working class by ‘the nobs’. Vetinari’s plan is to make the city more progressive, no matter what anyone thinks. The men who play foot-the-ball in the backstreets are being chewed up by mob violence and their wives and daughters are trapped at home hoping for opportunity to snatch them away from their dreary lives.

Pratchett throws in references to Romeo and Juliet, women’s magazines and useless football commentators to keep the joke quotient high, but at the same time what’s most striking is his interest in people, how they think, how they act. Yes this is satire, but more a gentle ribbing of our weaknesses and failings. If ever you’ve read Pratchett before, you already know he’s a master of this kind of thing. If you haven’t, Unseen Academicals is a perfect introduction.

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