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Book Reviews

Smart, by Kim Slater (Macmillan Children’s Books, £6.99)

Kieran lives in the Meadows in Nottingham with his mother, who he loves, a bully of a step-father and his waster son. Life’s not easy like that – his step-father orders him about, barely allows him to be fed and calls him a retard. The waster son watches violent stuff on Xbox all day and joins in with a bit of bullying on the side too.

It’s even harder if you are a bit different. When you’re a child whose favourite artist is LS Lowry, when you know the rules of grammar and your specialist teaching assistant helps you get by at school, but wants to know what is going on in your homelife. In the playground you learn to stay on the outside, to keep away but the bullies still find you. Your mum tries to protect you but even she loses patience sometimes, telling you she doesn’t have time for that when you have to make your special moves when you get near home. Kim never uses words like autistic, but Kieran’s problems are clear enough. The problems are other people.

The book opens with Kieran finding a body in the Trent, a tramp who the police, when they arrive, think simply fell in and drowned. The tramp’s friend, Jean, knows otherwise but nobody listens to her apart from Kieran. One of his obsessions is CSI so he sets out to solve the crime, which he does with the aid of his own drawing skills and the help of Karwana, a Ugandan boy who turns up at his school.

Kieran – the book is in the first person – feels the need to explain everything to you, and tell you the ways you can win, even when you are losing. Along the way he sets out to visit his grandma in Mansfield. She’s banned from the house because she took on Tony, the step-father so he gets a bus to visit her.

I sat near the back. It was 4.45 p.m.
I tucked the ticket inside my notebook and refastened my satchel.
At 4.45 p.m., I walked down the aisle to the driver.
It was difficult walking when the bus was moving but not as hard as you think it would be, because there are silver rails to hold on to, all the way down.
‘Are we nearly there?’ I asked…. ‘I’m worried the bus will go past my stop.’

There’s a lot going on. Kieran drops by the homeless shelter to seek clues and finds the security man acting suspiciously. Wasn’t he the one he saw speaking to his mum? Tony – the step-father is dealing rocks from home, and there’s Tony’s vicious dog, confined to a shed since he bit the wrong person. There’s hints that Ryan, the waster son, is perhaps not as bad as he seems. But if you are Kieran you also need to find the special pencil sharpener that vanished from the kit you won for your art. No other pencil sharpener will do. Finding a murderer might just be easier.

Smart is Kim Slater’s first book for older children. There’s two more I’ll be reading soon. Impressed.

Ross Bradshaw

Copies of Smart are available from £6.99 post free from Five Leaves Bookshop, 0115 8373097

The Red Tree and The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan (Hodder, £7.99 each)

Red TreeThese books are labelled as children’s books but, without dissing children, they would be wasted on them. They are both beautiful pieces of art for adults, with lovely messages. The Red Tree is the first of Tan’s books I came across. It’s perfect to give to someone who has been a bit low (OK, even a child). The illustrations describe the days when you wake up and everything is just awful and then it gets worse. Nobody understand, nothing ever happens. You are on the inside looking out at the nice things out there but you know that the mechanical monster is your fate. This goes on all day… but, however awful it gets you do know, don’t you?, that The Red Tree will be there at the end. Aaah.

Even better is Tan’s The Lost Thing, which is a bit steampunk. You know how it is, you are on the beach and there is this lost thing there, which you need to take home. Except what do you do with this thing? It’s too big, your parents (nope – forgot – this is for adults, let’s say partner) don’t really understand and you would be stuck with it, but you are not the right person. You really need to take it to the land of lost things to be among friends. And you do. Because every lost thing has a home somewhere, with friends just as oddly shaped as them.

You are reading this on your computer so make a cup of tea and click to this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1YG7ZXfC6g. The Lost Thing lasts about fifteen minutes. Then this, for another five: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrmMFFpKxgw. If you are in the bookshop, The Red Tree lives in self-help and The Lost Thing lives in our little steampunk section.

Neither of these books is new, though Shaun Tan was new to me. His illustrations are simple, but often in tremendous detail. I find myself going back to the videos and the books again and again.

Ross Bradshaw

War and Peace by Jack & Holman Wang (Simply Read Books)

War and Peace by Jack and Holman WangThis is not the overlong, padded out, translated version by that Tolstoy bloke, but the twelve word board book by Jack and Holman Wang. Suitable for small children and those who always wanted to read War and Peace but never got round to it.

Andrei and Pierre love their country and the same woman. Which knitted-felt man will knitted-felt Natasha choose? I’d pick the knitted-felt horse myself. Utterly charming.

Copies of what must now be the canonical version of War and Peace are available in the bookshop at £6.99.

Ross Bradshaw