Memories of my school library

For many years I had the joy of purchasing books for school libraries, mainly for the 7 to 13 age group.  I read most of the books aimed at the 10+ group and delighted in many of them.  Today I am looking back to a few gems.


Philip Reeve in his book Mortal Engines has created a glorious steampunk world which is utterly believable.  Set in a future after the 60 Minute War, cities like London are on wheels acting as predators, feeding on smaller towns.  Young engineering apprentice Tom and his unlikely companion Hester, an assassin, survive and mature as they travel from one dilemma to another.  I was captivated by their world and rewarded by the follow up books.


The Wind Singer by Hollywood playwright William Nicholson is a dystopian novel inevitably compared with The Hunger Games although The Wind Singer was written several years earlier.  Twins Kestrel and Bowman live in the well-ordered city of Aramanth which has lost its soul.  They and their parents are all examined regularly on their studies and ability and this decides their rank in society.  This is identified by the colour of their clothing and dictates their house and possessions. After Kestrel rebels, supported by her family, she and Bowman set out on a dangerous journey in search of the voice of the Wind Singer.  Eminently suitable for children who enjoy fat books it is equally enjoyable for an adult reader.


Celia Rees writes books which make you think.  Witch Child is a popular book told in the words of a young girl who emigrates to America in the 18th century after seeing her grandmother hanged for witchcraft but for me Celia’s best book is Truth or Dare.  Told alternately in the words of 13 year old Josh and his mother Joanna it concerns the mysterious death of Joanna’s brother Patrick when he was a boy.  Josh discovers that his uncle, Patrick, was considered strange by others, that he was obsessed by UFOs and that his mother feels tremendous guilt about his death.  There is a developing friendship between Josh and the older girl next door, sadness while his grandmother lies dying and an exciting twist in the tail.


Lian Hearn has written several books in her Tales of the Otori set in a fantasy, magical Japan. Across the Nightingale Floor introduces us to 16 year old Takeo, heir to the Otori Clan who learns the skills of martial arts in order to stay alive.  He meets Kaede, with whom he falls in love, but there can be no future for them together.  The book is full of adventure, thrill and emotion.


Jamila Gavin is most famous for her epic Coram Boy which tells the tale of one of the orphans in Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital in 18th century London.  It is a dark, sad story involving, murder of children, slavery and exploitation but there is also hope and happiness.  She has also written a trilogy of books about a brother and sister who left India in 1947.  The Wheel of Surya tells the story of Jaspal and his sister Marvinder who are caught up in the riots of Partition between India and Pakistan.    Homeless and penniless (rupeeless?), they set out to find their father who had gone as a student to England at the end of the Second World War.


Children of the Plantation by Faith Mortimer


I appear to be reading the Diana Rivers Mysteries in the wrong order since I started with number two and have just read number six but that doesn’t matter at all as each book is complete in itself with the mystery solved by novelist “Diana Rivers”.

However in “Children of the Plantation” Diana takes a back seat for most of the storyline, reading about a murder, which took place many years before, through the diaries of two members of a family.  This novel is set in a hotel near Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia where Diana and her husband have gone for a relaxing holiday.  Originally the hotel was a house belonging to Sir Winston Chalcot who ran a rubber plantation and his daughter still lives there.  Miss Chalcot gives Diana the diary of Sir Winston’s wife Eleanor and that of their child Alex, asking her to put them together into an accurate family history which would, “put things straight.”

Lady Eleanor’s diary introduce her as a dreamy, unhappy woman in the early 1950s travelling back to England on her own, leaving her two daughters, without telling her husband that she is pregnant.  During the voyage she meets forthright, independent Hermione, who is to become a major part of Eleanor’s life.

Diana moves on to the diary of Alex in the 1960s when he, his mother and Aunt Hermione are back in Malaya with Sir Winston and his two daughters Emma and Felicity.  Alex has an awkward relationship with siblings Emma and Felicity but regularly goes out riding with them.  Sir Winston trusts the running of the rubber estate to a young local man, Paul Tan, whom Emma and Felicity find attractive despite his being outside their social circle.  Alex spies on everyone including Paul and his sisters but as Paul trains him to run the estate they become close.

The diaries are written as narrative which seems strange but allows the reader to become fully involved.  As Diana Rivers is pregnant she does not take an active part in investigating the disaster which occurred in the Chalcot household but realising that she is, “waking a sleeping dragon,” she figures out something of what has happened.  I was just beginning to guess the twist at the end as I reached it, but it was a successful surprise, as all the clues were subtle.

I very much enjoyed this step back into mid-20th century history and the atmosphere Faith has created is reminiscent of L.P. Hartley’s “The Go-Between”.  Her description of the tropical environment reminded me of travelling through Malaya to visit Fraser’s Hill when I was a child in the 1960s.  This peaceful setting contrasts well with the undercurrent of fear and danger both in local politics and the story’s plot.

A Deadly Learning by Faith Mortimer


A Diana Rivers Mystery

This is the sixth book in the series of mysteries solved by “author” Diana Rivers, but as the real author, Faith Mortimer says, each one can be read in isolation.

Diana Rivers and her husband Steve have decided to take a break from their home in Cyprus by going to stay with their old friend, Wendy, who is assistant head at Lagos International School and College in Portugal.  She has asked them to come to help celebrate the twenty first birthday of her god-daughter, Louise.

But their relaxing holiday is soon interrupted by a gruesome discovery, buried behind a wall in the cellar of the science block which is being renovated.  The remains of the body have been there for three years and while Steve has to travel to Lisbon and London, Diana applies her detecting abilities to solving this murder.  She questions students and staff, putting herself in severe danger.  Many of them are involved in illegal and unpleasant activities which they wish to remain secret, whether or not there is a connection to the body.

Louise is a worry to both Diana and Wendy as she has become involved with a fellow student, who is a particularly unpleasant young man, affecting both her studies and her behaviour.  The staff are a disparate group of men and women, young and mature, who also have their own problems and no-one can be excluded from the investigation, especially after another death occurs.

There are a large cast of characters in this story but they are clearly described with well-defined characteristics and the reader feels that Diana is a safe pair of hands even if she is rather fool-hardy.  The mystery is maintained almost to the last page, in a very complex plot.

I read this while staying in the Algarve, which I know well, and although I could imagine the rather different environment of a college, I didn’t feel a strong sense of place beyond the scenes on the beach.

I will certainly read another “Diana Rivers” mystery even though she is so annoyingly perfect, as Faith Mortimer writes fluent enjoyable prose keeping me guessing up to the last minute.

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The Hour Before Dawn By Sara MacDonald


The Hour Before Dawn is the story of two generations which is told in the details of traumatic events in 1976 and the present day.  Unusually there are two heroines in this novel, Fleur Montrose and her estranged daughter Nikki.  The two women have been torn apart by a mysterious tragedy in Malaysia when Nikki was 5, as well as the early loss of Fleur’s husband, Nikki’s father David.

The story also goes back to 1966 when 15 year old, Fleur met army officer, David in Singapore.  For me, having lived in Singapore at this time, this part of the tale didn’t ring true, but later scenes, particularly of Malaysia, reminded me of the sights and smells and the contrast between busy towns and the peace of the beach houses at Port Dickson.

Fleur’s flawed relationship, both with her mother and her daughter seem to stem from her selfish, single-minded behaviour but later it becomes evident that she has concealed a troubling secret to protect her family.  In addition they have to cope with the mysterious disappearance of Nikki’s twin sister Saffie in 1976 and Fleur’s remarriage after her first husband’s death.

Now a widow once more and writing a dissertation as a mature student, Fleur sets out for New Zealand on a trail of Friedensreich Hundertwasser’s architecture.  She intends to stay with her daughter Nikki, who is expecting a baby with partner Jack.  But Fleur does not turn up.  She has disappeared while stopping over at Singapore.  Reluctantly Nikki and Jack set out to look for Fleur.  In Singapore they meet Inspector Mockter who discovers that Fleur has taken a train and bus to Port Dickson in Malaysia, the place where Saffie was last seen.

In the course of the story we eventually come to understand what happened to Saffie and why Fleur behaved oddly.  Inspector Mockter has a special rapport with Nikki which helps her to cope with an impossible situation, while heavily pregnant.

Sara MacDonald is a talented writer.  She deals with complex family relationships and their breakdown very effectively.  There is a strong sense of place in Port Dickson and the Bay of Islands in New Zealand.  There are a few editing issues, especially with the spelling of places in Singapore but I am just being picky since they don’t affect the content of a tremendous story of loss and hope.

Monday Musing

I am excited to tell you about an artist and architect I had never discovered until I started reading “The Hour Before Dawn” by Sara MacDonald.  A review of her book will follow later but the artist she incorporates into her novel is Friedensreich Hundertwasser.  In fact in 1949 he adopted the full name Tausendsassa Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser which means Multi-talented Peace-filled Rainy Day Dark Coloured Hundred Waters.


Born in Vienna in December 1928, this eccentric artist loved to paint using natural organic forms such as spirals, circles, meanders and labyrinths.  He was inspired by visits to Morocco, Tunisia, Nepal, Tokyo and Siberia and his architecture was based on his belief of living close to nature.  He had strong political views and in 1968 he gave a speech in Vienna in the nude.


In later years Hundertwasser moved to New Zealand and he died while off its coast on a cruise ship in 2000.  His legacy of buildings and paintings can easily be searched on the web.

Hundertwasser house in Vienna

Last Child by Terry Tyler


After the tremendous success of Terry Tyler’s, “Kings and Queens,” set in recent times but based on the Tudor court of Henry VIII, its follow up, “Last Child,” was a treat I was looking forward to. And it doesn’t disappoint.

At the beginning of the novel we find orphaned Isabella, Erin and Jasper, the modern representations of Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and Edward VI living in Lanchester Hall with their stepmother Kate and her new young husband Aiden Seymour. Soon 16 year old Erin’s flirtatious relationship with 32 year old Aiden gets out of hand and Kate leaves. Luckily ex- nanny Hannah Cleveley is on hand to provide some security and stability for the mixed-up half-brother and sisters.

The story is told in the words of several key characters giving the reader a variety of perspectives and making you care about their lives. Hannah is a loving observer of the family who steps in whenever there is a crisis, “mentally loosening” her stays!

Jaz is a typical teenage boy who despite losing his parents so young has the potential to lead the family company successfully once he has grown up. In the meantime he’s rather naughty and delightfully describes his family in terms of Harry Potter characters. He is so vibrant that when disaster strikes it is still a shock.

Isabella is, as expected, a crazy mixed up young lady, full of resentment and jealousy. As she aptly comments, “My life is more Greek tragedy than Hugh Grant film.” Her relationship with Philip Castillo is doomed from the start and it is hardly surprising that employees in the company call her “the Mad Axe woman.”

Erin can charm the birds from the trees. People warm to her and men find her very attractive. Her on/off relationship with Robert Dudley is a major part of the plot and he is also a charismatic and likeable character. They are good friends but there is also, “an explosive chemistry,” between them. She is astute in business and determined not to give up the reins by burying herself in marriage.

Alongside these events there are many other sub plots. We see the self-destruction of psychosis and schizophrenia and the slow deterioration of the mind caused by Alzheimer’s. But the overall theme of the book is love, much of it unrequited, and its consequences. Perhaps the most touching story is that of Raine Grey and Jim Dudley which departs from the Tudor events into a warm but sad relationship.

The final part of the book is doom-laden. You feel as if everything is going to go wrong but will it? But there is a wonderful epilogue promising exciting events in the future. Terry’s excellent plotting and witty turn of phrase make Lost Child a delight to read and I feel as if I know all the characters almost as well as my own family.

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