Master of the currents: pint-sized Bobby is the shy hero of My Teacher Is a Monster!
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Pranksters and ponies: the best new children’s books for summer

What should you pack for the summer holiday?

For children as for adults, the best time to read is during the summer holidays. But what to pack?

Peter Brown’s My Teacher Is a Monster! (Macmillan, £11.99) may bring back fearful memories of school for five-plus, but is an otherwise witty, elegantly expressive picture book from the author of Mr Tiger Goes Wild. There’s a touch of Maurice Sendak in his hero’s discovery that monsters are not always what they seem. We have all been the terrified, pop-eyed Bobby at some point, but beleaguered teachers trying to control a class will welcome his discovery that the fearsomely tusked, green-faced monster who shouts at him for misbehaving morphs into a kind young woman after he rescues her favourite hat.

A perfectly horrid picture book, In One End and Out the Other by Dr Mike Goldsmith (Red Shed, £8.99), will cause howls of rude delight as it goes into the fundamentals of excrement. The flaps conceal useful information (“A plastic carrier bag can take 1,000 years to decompose”) for future citizens, but there’s enough toilet humour to make it irresistible for four-plus.

Philip Reeve’s Goblins, Philip Ardagh’s The Grunts and Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon books all have delightful new instalments out this summer, but for the nine-plus football-mad reader, Morris Gleitzman’s Extra Time (Puffin, £6.99) is a comedy with brains and heart. Matt is a teenage football genius, and his struggles are narrated by his younger sister – and manager. Will he rediscover “the joyful spirit of the beautiful game”, or will his academy training destroy it?

David Almond’s Klaus Vogel and the Bad Lads (Barrington Stoke, £6.99, nine-plus) is about a gang whose pranks are fairly innocent until a scrawny, musical kid from East Germany turns up and becomes the focus for the gang leader Joe’s persecutions. Almond has a huge talent for describing the eternal battle between what is vile in human nature and the still, small voice of moral courage.

It is this voice that also comes through in Esme Kerr’s The Glass Bird Girl (Chicken House, £6.99). Edie is an orphan, sent to boarding school to keep an eye on Anasta­sia, the dreamy, vulnerable daughter of a wealthy Russian prince. Naturally, the old-fashioned Malory Towers setting (“You will find, in the end, that it’s a relief not to be in touch with the outside world,” the head teacher tells Edie) brings with it bullying, but what emerges is a web of deception with its roots in Edie’s mother’s past. Sensitively written, this is a cut above most fiction for girls of nine-plus.

An enchanting historical novel for 11-plus is Runaway by Marie-Louise Jensen (Oxford University Press, £6.99). Back from America in Georgian England, Charlotte dresses up as a boy after her father is murdered. She’s friendless and penniless but her love and knowledge of horses win her a job as a stable-boy at a grand house. Jensen’s storytelling verve and eye for period detail make her read like a cross between Black Beauty and Georgette Heyer. Our spirited heroine overcomes a prized horse’s colic, her own tendency to attract trouble (“You fight like a girl,” she keeps being told) and a growing attachment to the young steward who offers her fair employment but fails to penetrate her disguise. With a dash of class war in the brew, it’s an addictive read.

Joanna Nadin’s Eden (Walker, £6.99) is set in Cornwall and has undertones of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. We know from the start that a beautiful house is burnt, and that Evie’s cousin Bea has died. Her grief, guilt and gorgeous narrative voice make this a memorable psychological suspense novel about first love – and first hate – for 12-plus, particularly girls.

Even more gripping is Helen Grant’s Demons of Ghent (Corgi, £7.99, 13-plus). It carries on characters from Silent Saturday, but also stands alone as a modern Gothic thriller that is never predictable. Grant is uniquely comfortable among YA authors with Continental characters and settings, and this story about a Flemish serial killer blends superstition and psychosis with visceral terror as its spiky heroine, Veerle, is pursued by a zealot who believes he is inspired by a 600-year-old painting.

Few teenagers face the problems of Sophia Bennett’s narrator in The Castle (Chicken House, £6.99). Peta doesn’t believe her soldier father is dead, and when a boy rings her to pass on a private mathematical joke, she embarks on a nail-biting quest to find and rescue her dad. Though it’s not published until August, this is one of the best thrillers for 12-plus I’ve read since Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series. Peta is both a  believable modern teenager and an action heroine of jaw-dropping courage. So, too, is her mysterious friend Jamal, a slave on the Mediterranean island hideaway of a billionaire. This half-starved, intellectually brilliant boy is a Muslim hero who is trying to save not only his own life but his timid sister’s, in an adventure that deserves a sequel or two. Happily there is no tiresome love interest, though there are mild irritants: why make up a pseudonym for Facebook?

Ever since her 2009 prize-winning debut, Threads, Bennett has combined social conscience and emotional intelligence with hilariously accurate depictions of the fashion and pop music scenes. This one is outstanding, and will fill a holiday with zest.

Amanda Craig is a novelist and children’s books critic

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

The Isle of Man, from where author Zoe Gilbert hails. CREDIT: GETTY
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Zoe Gilbert’s original debut novel Folk feeds our new appetite for myth

Is Folk a novel? Its publisher says so, but I’m not sure.

I’ll put up my hands and make an admission: I don’t read many contemporary novels. Most of them seem, well, too contemporary. For a long time, much “literary” fiction has skated along the surface of modern urban life, engaging with the “interiority” of the middle-class mind and whatever cultural brouhaha is currently in fashion among the progressive literati.

The result is a kind of placid, smug dullness about which it’s mostly impossible to care: an Ian McEwan-isation of the soul. For years, writers shunned or simply ignored the old storytellers’ realms of mythology, image and the collective unconscious; the strange, magical depths which underlie all things, but which our society prefers to pretend is not really there.

But something is stirring. In recent years, novelists have begun to venture out beyond the shores of reason, beyond the city and sometimes beyond the human, too. The result is a small blooming of books, and of films and music, which are exploring this strange otherness again. Writers such as Daisy Johnson, Andrew Michael Hurley, Sylvia Linsteadt and Ben Myers are pushing the boundaries of what has been called “folk horror”. They, in turn, are drawing from a thriving underworld of eeriness, folk culture and myth that is perhaps unparalleled in Britain since the 1970s.

What is going on here? Well, people are hungry. Hungry for real meat, and missing what they don’t know they have lost. What we might call the “folk soul” still undergirds our vision of the world, however many gadgets we use to navigate it. Why else would the likes of Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings continue to grip the popular imagination?

The surface is not enough. Our culture is starving people of spiritual and mythic nourishment. We barely even know what these words mean any more, so how would our writers know how to engage with them? Yet when our stories remain stuck in a permanent present, something is missing – something old, strange and sacred. “Fantasy” novelists such as Alan Garner, M John Harrison and the late Ursula K Le Guin, have long known this better than their “literary” counterparts.

In this vein comes Folk, the debut novel by Zoe Gilbert, a past winner of the Costa Short Story Award. It draws deeply from the old tales of the Isle of Man, from where the author hails, to give us a book which is genuinely original, disturbing, beautiful and gripping. It is both a joy to read, and –always a bonus – a tricky book to pin down

Is Folk a novel? Its publisher says it is, but I’m not sure. It has recurring characters, but no single storyline; each chapter could stand alone. So is it a collection of short stories? Yes, but no: the same characters recur throughout, popping in and out of each others’ tales and adding to the weight of the whole. That whole makes up a convincing world peopled with distinctive characters, a verdant, living landscape and a liminality of strange beings who regularly intrude upon the everyday lives of the humans.

Perhaps Folk is neither a novel nor a collection of stories; perhaps it is a map. Indeed, one of its attractions for me is that a map of Neverness, the fictional village in which the stories are set, is the first thing you see when you open the book. (I am a sucker for books with maps in the front: I grew up on fantasy novels, and the cartography was always part of the attraction.) Folk can be read as a map of the British mythic imagination: of the river under the river. Starkly original and expertly written, it draws you, like a faerie song, into a kingdom from which you may never escape, and may not want to.

Gilbert’s writing has shades of Le Guin and Angela Carter, and like both of those authors she knows that real mythology, real folk culture, has a core of darkness to it; a core that both repels and entices. True fairytales are not fluffy, and they often do not have happy endings. There is an undercurrent of earthy danger here; a raw sexuality too, unashamed of itself.

A young boy is burned alive in a gorse bush, seeing visions of angels; a girl’s father kills and skins her pet hares; a woman is kidnapped by a water bull and ravished beneath the waves; a girl drowns her father by mistake; a woman murders her sister to steal her lover. But the darkness is not revelled in or overdone; it is intrinsic to the book’s realism. “Realism” might seem a bizarre word to use about tales set in a mythic land in which men are born with wings for arms and women become hares. But in a book like this, it is imperative that the newly-minted world has an internal logic and consistency.

Folk succeeds triumphantly in this regard. Reading its chapters – which have titles like “The Neverness Ox-men”, “Fishskin, Hareskin”, and “A Winter Guest” – is like sitting by a fire with some old storyteller, listening to the strange tales of his people. The work that has gone into creating the world of Neverness has paid off. These seem like stories from a real place.

This is the marker of the novel’s success: that immersion in its world makes that world seem, for a while, more real than the one you are living in. More appealing, too. When you turn the last page, you may find yourself looking out of the window, or at the screen of your phone or laptop, with a pang of regret and a sense of loss. Then you might find yourself returning to Neverness, like the children return to Narnia. It beats what passes at the moment for “reality”, and it is more human, too. 

“Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” by Paul Kingsnorth is published in paperback by Faber & Faber

Zoe Gilbert
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game