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Cold comforts: the best children’s books of 2015

Get hold of these, and your holidays will be peaceful and merry.

Christmas is crucial to the book trade but, in the case of children’s books, it has every­thing to do with a sense of wonder at the heart of winter. Some of the best classics ever written, from Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman to Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child, stem from this.

Matt Haig’s A Boy Called Christmas (Canongate, £12.99) is such a book for readers over nine. It is about the boyhood of Father Christmas – and what a miserable, lonely, hungry, chilly childhood it is. Haig’s black humour and insights into depression have made him a national treasure for both children and adults; this story, however, is about how the 11-year-old Nikolas travels north in search of his woodcutter father, accompanied by a mouse and a reindeer called Blitzen. It explains along the way how reindeer fly, why we put presents in stockings and how crackers can save lives. Brilliantly told and imagined, it is about the importance of hope and kindness and it should be in every stocking.

Younger children (seven-plus) will lap up Pugs of the Frozen North, another comic caper from the dream team of Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre (Oxford University Press, £8.99). In a race to the frozen north, Sika and Shen compete on a sled drawn by 66 pop-eyed pugs, evading snow trolls, yetis, krakens and rivals who include Sir Basil Sprout-Dumpling. The lively text and bonkers illustrations will enchant and amuse – but for a more poetic and profound story, Horatio Clare’s Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot (Firefly, £7.99) is the one. Again, it is about rescuing parents – in this case, the madcap Aubrey’s dad, Jim, who has fallen under the spell of despair. With captivating drawings by Jane Matthews, it is a magical wintery adventure told with a unique mix of robust humour and imaginative insight. Highly recommended for children aged eight-plus.

Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder (Bloomsbury, £12.99, ten-plus) is set in pre-revolutionary Russia and is about “a dark and stormy girl” who re-wilds pet wolves denatured by aristocrats. When her beloved mother is captured, Feodora and her wolves must journey to St Petersburg’s prisons to save her. Crackling with ice and intelligence, the story moves from warm fires to freezing steppes with fierce conviction and a voice that promises tremendous things.

Virago has reprinted P L Travers’s little tale The Fox at the Manger (£9.99, seven-plus), an uncomfortable yet touching tale about the nativity and generosity that is appropriate for politicians’ stockings. Another fox is at the heart of my picture book of the year, in Coralie Bickford-Smith’s The Fox and the Star (Particular Books, £14.99). The lonely Fox searches for his only friend, the Star, through intricate, exquisite, William Morris-inspired woods. An outstanding gift for five-plus readers.

Emma Chichester Clark’s Love Is My Favourite Thing (Jonathan Cape, £11.99) is about an irresistible dog that can’t help being naughty. If you do have a dog (or don’t yet but plan to), it will reinforce the appeal. Meanwhile, the equally irresistible Day-Glo graphics of Christopher Corr’s Deep in the Woods (Frances Lincoln, £11.99) light up a lively folk tale. A lonely bear tries to make friends with a houseful of smaller animals and generosity saves them from homelessness. Both are for three-plus. Charming and simple, Robin's Winter Song by Suzanne Barton (Bloomsbury, £10.99, two-plus) is about a young robin fearing his first winter.

Animal-lovers aged nine and above also have a treat: Lauren St John’s lion-hearted heroine Martine is back in Operation Rhino (Orion, £10.99), in which poachers leave an orphaned baby rhino that must be brought to safety through natural magic, friendship and courage. I love this South Africa-based series and its warm, direct style.

Older children can take a much more jaundiced view of Christmas. For these, Andy Mulligan’s Liquidator (David Fickling, £12.99, 11-plus) is simply brilliant. Narrated by a group of kids sent on work experience, it is a thrilling, funny, wholly original adventure about a popular fizzy drink being deadly. Mulligan is a radical, readable, risk-taking writer with a message we need to hear, especially after Jamie Oliver’s campaign against sugar.

Hell and High Water (Walker Books, £12.99) by the Carnegie Medal winner Tanya Landman is a historical adventure about trust. Set in north Devon in the 18th century, its mixed-race hero must somehow prevent his adored puppeteer father from being transported for a crime he didn’t commit. He encounters not only racism but strange coldness from his white aunt. Heart-stoppingly good, romantic, passionate storytelling for a 12-plus audience.

Emerald Fennell’s Monsters (Hot Key, £7.99) will delight 12-plus fans of Edward Gorey, Lemony Snicket and Bret Easton Ellis: it is a hideously funny account by a cynical 13-year-old girl of a series of murders in the Cornish town of Fowey. Sophisticated and suspenseful, it has a view of adults that parents would be wise to avoid reading.

Much more wholesome for those over 11 is Sally Nicholls’s An Island of Our Own (Scholastic, £6.99), about children engaged on a treasure hunt. Its Blyton-esque quality is underscored by bereavement, issues around social services and a narrative voice to fall in love with. In contrast to all the dystopian young-adult fiction, it is a memorable and refreshing read.

Philip Reeve’s Railhead (Oxford University Press, £9.99) is a fabulously inventive sci-fi adventure about Zen, a petty thief on Ambersai, a big moon connected to the interstellar “Great Network”. Zen’s dangerous mission is driven by characters as much as by concepts such as insects that coalesce into monks, androids and intelligent trains. Reeve’s Mortal Engines series has a great following but this is a must-have for 11-plus.

My children’s book of the year is Cressida Cowell’s How to Fight a Dragon’s Fury (Hodder, £12.99), the 12th and last of her How to Train Your Dragon books. Most series run out of steam but this has kept a consistent flow of brilliant characters, jokes, stylish writing, illustrations and ideas – and the finale is tremendous. Her geeky, once-despised Viking hero, Hiccup, saves humanity (and dragons) from certain doom in an unpredictable, satisfying way. This series, far better than the films, is one of the greatest ever written for those between eight and 12. Buy them all and your holidays will be blessed with perfect peace.

Amanda Craig’s most recent novel is Hearts And Minds (Abacus)

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria and the impossible war

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Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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