Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

Shortlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal 2016

In 1936 the Carnegie award was established in memory of the great Scottish philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, who founded over 2800 libraries in the English speaking world.  It celebrates, each year, a writer who has produced an “outstanding book written in English for children and young people”.  Eighty years on it is in as rude health as one could hope for in this age of electronic and digital temptations.

To celebrate the announcement on June 20th of the 2016 winner, I have chosen my “winner” from amongst the shortlist: Kate Saunders’ Five Children on the Western Front.  It is far more than just a sequel to E Nesbit’s Five Children and It and packs an anti-war punch most effectively because one cares about the fate of the characters as they are caught up in the conflict.  Its author’s deep knowledge of the First World War melds perfectly with the story of the sand fairy’s return and reminds the older reader, whilst informing the younger, of the terrible sacrifice made by that doomed generation of ordinary men and women.  (Suitable for ages 10+)


Kate Saunders Five Children on the Western Front
Hardback  £10.99/Paperback  £6.99 (336pp)

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All the Way to the Bank by J.R. Hartley

Remember those good old days when you couldn’t lose a telephone handset because it was made of Bakelite and was attached to the telephone?  When gentlemen wore Covert coats and ties even when they weren’t going to work and there was a Charing Cross Road full of second hand book shops?  Well you probably also remember that Yellow Pages advertisement featuring one J.R. Hartley and his quest to find a particular fly fishing book – by, oh yes, J.R. Hartley.

Nostalgia is a comforting thing and often the best time to enjoy it is when one has the time and relaxation to do so – as on holiday.  So it is good news indeed to discover that Hartley’s memoirs (as dictated to Mr Russell), Fly Fishing by J.R. Hartley and J.R. Hartley Casts Again, are back in print in one volume.  Even for those whose idea of hell is a bank, a rod and a packet of soggy sandwiches wrapped in greaseproof paper, these fictional memoirs are much more than a discussion of the relative merits of the Damsel fly and the Cats Whisker.  They are a collection of evocative stories of school, university and beyond with a distinctly clubbable feel.  So settle back in your armchair (with antimacassar firmly in place) and enjoy their gentle humour and the illustrations by the incomparable Patrick Benson.

J. R. Hartley All the Way to the Bank
Hardback  £15.95 (239pp)

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A Natural History of the Hedgerow: and ditches, dykes and dry stone walls by John Wright

John Wright is a naturalist and self-confessed forager.  He has written books in the River Cottage Handbook series on fungi and mushrooms, hedgerows and seashores – and booze.  He has now written a personal history of hedgerows, ditches, dykes and dry stone walls for Profile Books.  It is, quite simply, the most beautiful book I have seen in years.  From its dustjacket by Clare Curtis (redolent of Bawden and Ravilious) to the use of green for the title and chapter headings and the colour illustrations on nearly every page it engages and charms in equal measure.  The publishers claim that it is a “book to stuff into your pocket for country walks  in every season, or to savour in winter before a roaring fire”.  Indeed it is.  But it is also required reading before we lose the countryside it seeks to illuminate and celebrate.

John Wright  A Natural History of the Hedgerow: and ditches, dykes and dry stone walls
Hardback  £16.99  (384pp)

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Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

It is Mothering Sunday 1924 and a maid, orphan Jane Fairweather, has a day to herself whilst the rest of the household are away visiting their families.  She plans to immerse herself in a book from her employer’s library but instead spends the day with her lover: the only surviving son of a well to do family who have lost their other boys in the Great War.  In a nod to Classical tradition, the action takes place during one twenty four hour period with flashbacks to the beginning of the affair and the mature Jane looking at the episode as a turning point in her life.  It is both sensual and shocking – to tell more would spoil it – and leaves many threads tantalizingly unresolved at the end.  It packs a punch far greater than its length (a mere 136 pages) and makes you want to return to the novels of Forster and Conrad and reassess the years between the two World Wars.  The reclining nude by Modigliani, which graces the dustjacket, was chosen specifically by the author and compliments the writing within perfectly.

Graham Swift  Mothering Sunday
Hardback  £12.99  (136pp)

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The Hollow Men by Rob McCarthy

It is always satisfying to read the first book in a proposed series and be left with a desire to learn more about the characters and how their lives change and develop. Hollow Men is such a book.  It centres around the life and experiences of an (ex-army) police doctor, Dr Harry Kent.  Set in South London, it cleverly mixes police procedural, everyday life at a busy A&E department and the local underworld of disaffected youth, criminal activity and slightly naïve do-gooders.  It also harks back to Harry’s time in the army serving during the conflict in Afghanistan – the pressures felt by serving soldiers at the time and their often shattered lives afterwards.  It is at heart a gripping tale with enough food for thought (about our Health Service, the plight of the forgotten in society as well as the ‘protected’ elites) to make it more than a just a romp.

Rob McCarthy The Hollow Men
Hardback  £14.99  (368pp)

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The Wild Swans by Jackie Morris

Inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, this is a retelling of the classic story of a princess who knits shirts out of stinging nettles to undo a wicked curse that has turned her brothers into swans.  The radiant colour illustrations make it perfect for seven to nine year old readers but it can equally be read as a bedtime story for slightly younger children.  It is not a picture book but a small elegant hardback. It adds to the original story by emphasising how the “curse” of silence might enhance one’s understanding of the world by making one more alive to the richness of nature.  

Jackie Morris     The Wild Swans
Hardback  £10.99  (176pp)

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The Barchester Chronicles, 6 Volumes by Anthony Trollope

“What on earth could be more luxurious than a sofa, a book, and a cup of coffee?   …. Was ever anything so civil?” (Anthony Trollope, ‘The Warden’).  To which one might add that the pleasure of seeing a well turned out book is pretty hard to beat.  Penguin Clothbound Classics have produced elegant editions since the first volumes were published in 2008.  Now we have a set of The Barchester Chronicles to add to the mix, again designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith.  They can be bought either separately or as a set.

ANTHONY TROLLOPE    The Barchester Chronicles    6 volumes
Hardback  £12.99 each

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The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velázquez by Laura Cumming

This biography is as much about a bookseller, John Snare, who in the 19th century discovered what he believed to be a lost portrait by the artist as it is about the painter Velázquez and his circle.  His efforts to get it authenticated and the battle he went through to keep it make it read almost like a novel.  It also has interesting things to say about the nature of portraiture and the artist, Spanish court life and the vanity of the young Charles I as Prince of Wales.  The publisher has taken great care with its production and there are no fewer than three sections of colour plates as well as black and white reproductions throughout the book.  The moving introduction, where the author describes her initiation to the painter’s work, is worth the price alone.

 Laura Cumming The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velázquez
Hardback £18.99 (304pp)

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The Penguin Lessons by Tom Mitchell

No doubt about it, this is a love story of the best kind.  It is the true tale of one young man’s impulsive act – to save an oil damaged penguin he discovers whilst travelling in South America – who then refuses to leave him.  So our hero smuggles the bird back to the boarding school in Argentina where he is teaching and Juan Salvado becomes mascot, confidant and friend to all.  With an immediacy rare in travel writing, the book also gives a particularly vivid picture of Argentina post Perón.  I loved it.

Tom Mitchell       The Penguin Lessons
 Paperback  £7.99  (240pp)

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The Yellow Diamond by Andrew Martin

If you know and love the Mayfair area – or just have a shopper’s pleasure in the place – then this literary thriller is for you.  Set against the backdrop of Savile Row and St James’s it delves deeper into the world of the Russian oligarch and the rivalries and tensions that make up their world.  When Detective Superintendent George Quinn is shot and a diamond ring stolen it is up to Quinn’s successor DI Blake Reynolds to unravel the mystery, helped and hindered by Quinn’s strangely protective p.a.  As the mystery shifts north to the wilds of Yorkshire and to the exotic world of the South of France this is very much a cosmopolitan cautionary tale of lust and greed where no one is safe from temptation.

Andrew Martin      The Yellow Diamond
Hardback  £14.99  (320pp)

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