Cat among the pigeons: from A First Book of Nature by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Mark Hearld
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Robots and runaways: the best children’s books this season

Amanda Craig rounds up the best new offerings for young people.

A number of startlingly good new novels for teenagers and young adults share the theme of imprisonment. Of these, Sally Green’s debut, Half Bad (Penguin, £7.99,  13-plus), is the most remarkable. Like J K Rowling, Green has taken the idea of a secret society of magical families living among us and done something new.

The narrator is a teenage boy who is kept outside in a cage; in effect, he is what Harry Potter would have been if Voldemort had been his father. Constantly assessed and tormented, Nathan longs to become a “white witch” like his dead mother but hopes that his evil “black witch” father, Marcus, will rescue him. If he does not escape before he is 17 and receive the three gifts that will make him into an adult witch, he will die. Written in a spare, vivid style that depicts a world likely to appeal to boys as much as girls, Half Bad is a thrilling story of injustice, love and heredity, partly inspired by Solzhenitsyn’s 1962 novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. If this isn’t the bestselling young adult novel of the year, I’d be surprised.

Matt Haig’s Echo Boy (Bodley Head, £12.99, 13-plus) is set in a dystopian future in which humanoid robots (“echoes”) have no feelings, apart from Daniel, who, as a result of his 0.01 per cent human DNA, is almost like us, only without rights or freedoms. When Audrey’s parents are killed by an echo servant, she goes to live with her apparently benign uncle in London and soon has a complicated relationship with Daniel. As with Haig’s other crossover novels The Radleys and The Humans, this combines a cracking plot with profound philosophical questions about what it is to be human. Fearless and beautifully written, it confirms Haig as one of our best new writers of speculative fiction.

Tanya Landman’s Buffalo Soldier (Walker, £7.99, 13-plus) is about a female slave who runs away dressed as a boy. By turns funny, laconic and harrowing, Charley is a narrator you fall for instantly as she outwits the plantation owner, sees her friends murdered and embarks on a quest for freedom and justice in the American civil war.

Ellen Renner’s wild imagination and tender prose resemble Joan Aiken’s and Tribute (Hot Key, £7.99, 11-plus) is a tour de force. Zara lives in a world where magic is power and mages enter the minds of animals, turn air solid and treat non-magical people as slaves. Her bullying father has murdered both her gentle mother and her best friend, so Zara has been helping the rebel Knowledge Seekers. Then a young man from the enemy tribe of Makers is taken as “Tribute”, supposedly as a hostage for peace, and she falls deeply in love. Almost all great fantasy sounds as silly as opera when the plot is outlined; what matters is that the characters live, think and feel with as much conviction as they might in a realist story.

Keren David’s Salvage (Atom, £11.99, 13-plus) is about two half-siblings who were separated ten years earlier by social services and reunited in their teens. Cass has been adopted into the elite but Aidan has made a new life even without any GCSEs. Once political scandal erupts in Cass’s life, the story asks questions about privilege, family and how we treat the poor. Skilfully written, Salvage marks David as an author of empathy and truthfulness.

Few modern children’s writers dare to tackle the story of Jesus Christ but Jamie Buxton’s Temple Boys (Egmont, £6.99, nine-plus) sidesteps the God trap with wit and heart. Flea is the smallest, cheekiest member of a street gang in Jerusalem. When a magician comes to town, the Temple Boys reckon they’ll steal a bit more from under the Romans’ noses – only this magician, Yesh, isn’t quite what they suppose. Whatever your beliefs, this is an outstanding book, both funny and serious.

Budding feminists will enjoy Daughters of Time (Templar, £7.99), an admirable collection of very short stories for those over the age of nine. Inspirational women from Boudicca to Mary Seacole get their biographies burnished by Mary Hoffman, Katherine Langrish, Adèle Geras and many other of our best children’s writers of historical fantasy, who join forces to imagine individual stories.

Picture books are often about escape. Oscar Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant” is retold with charm and sensitivity in a book of the same name by Alexis Deacon (Hutchinson, £11.99) as a tale of redemption inside a walled garden where winter lingers. Gorgeous illustrations by Jane Ray enhance a topical tale by Dianne Hofmeyr, Zeraffa Giraffa (Frances Lincoln, £11.99), about a giraffe sent as a gift from Egypt to France. Rich in detail, these would both make beautiful presents for over-fives.

Younger children will find irresistible Curtis Jobling’s and Tom McLaughlin’s Old MacDonald Had a Zoo (Egmont, £6.99, four-plus), in which a grumpy Pools winner fails to keep his menagerie under control. More rebellious animals cavort through Those Magnificent Sheep in Their Flying Machine by Peter Bently (Andersen, £11.99, four-plus), as a flock zooms around the world in rhyming couplets and a stolen aeroplane. David Roberts’s illustrations are sublime.

My favourite, however, is A First Book of Nature (Walker, £12.99, four-plus) by Nicola Davies. It’s a unique mix of poetry, facts, recipes and more, and its eclecticism and exquisite illustrations by Mark Hearld make it a book that children and parents will return to over the holidays, the better to enjoy freedom or to endure it.

Amanda Craig is a novelist and critic of children’s books

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis