Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: You’re Snug With Me by Chitra Soundar and Poonam Mistry

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Review: You’re Snug With Me by Chitra Soundar and Poonam Mistry

Mother polar bear leads her cubs out into the world for the first time. As she teaches them about the landscape and their responsibilities to the natural world, she reassures them over and over – you’re snug with me.

img_7109The rhythmic text and kaleidoscopic patterns together produce a mesmerising effect. The reader is caught up in the words so that a story which is very simple becomes something powerful. It would be possible to spend hours lost in the illustrations – the eye follows the shapes until it seems almost as if they are moving. It brings the landscape and animals to life in a way which is very real.

Mother Bear addresses the big questions in life in a very reassuring way. The world has never fallen apart yet and she will remain with her cubs until they are ready to leave. These are the big worries of childhood and the story offers children a safe space to ask those questions of their own loved ones. In the meantime, the refrain comes back as a constant reassurance of an adult’s presence.

I loved the environmental narrative – instead of being hard-hitting, it is simply a mother explaining to her child as a fact that when we are born, we have a responsibility not to take more from the planet than we need. This is a simple fact which often turns into a complex debate. Hopefully, the book will encourage young readers to accept their responsibility to the environment.

As beautiful and special as it’s companion, You’re Snug With Me is a bedtime must-have and it would make a lovely gift for young readers. 

 

Thanks to Lantana Publishing for my copy of You’re Snug With Me. Opinions my own.

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craft · Uncategorized

Annual reading challenges – why I won’t be setting targets for 2019.

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A reflection on annual reading challenges

Last December, book-bloggers everywhere set their annual challenges. The GoodReads counter felt obligatory. Beyond that, there were challenges based on Diversity, challenges for fantasy book lovers and challenges for people who wanted to broaden their literary horizons., challenges everywhere. Like every other book blogger, I set my targets and made a page, copying out my bingo-list of books to read in 2018.

Six weeks into the New Year and that page was forgotten.

If you like and enjoy challenges, please understand I think there is space for them. This is not a page to knock book challenges. It is a personal reflection and a post to explore the reason I won’t be signing up for reading challenges in 2019.

What are reading challenges anyway? 

 

I set three challenges last year – to read 100 books, to read eight or more books by an Australian YA author and the Modern Mrs Darcy Challenge. I gave some more consideration than others – the Australian YA came from my enjoyment of Begin, End, Begin, an anthology which showcased the brilliant work of Australian YA authors. One hundred books, now that was arbitrary. It was the figure-I-would-reach-but-not-too-quickly. The Modern Mrs Darcy just ticked a broad range of literary styles. I certainly wanted to include poetry, essays, work in translation etc in my reading diet, although on reflection they were also targets I was going to hit without serious consideration.

This isn’t a space to reflect on my success or failure – this is a space to question whether we should hold ourselves accountable to goals we set at the start of the year.

Every bookworm knows that feeling. The one we get when we walk into a bookshop or a library. I know it – I see a room full of bookshelves and change from woman to book-sniffer. My hunting instincts kick in. With no conscious decision, my walk slows, my eyes become alert and I prowl the shelves. Titles are sized-up and discarded. Covers are scanned, pages read until … something clicks. Certainly, there are times when I go in search of a specific book but on those occasions when I am browsing, I know the right book by instinct.

Subconscious plays an important role in reading. When I say I’ve found the right book, when I say it feels right, I mean I subconsciously know the sort of book I’m looking to read next. This is one of the most magical parts of being a bookworm and I don’t want to ignore it for the sake of a list.

Notice how many ghost stories are published in the autumn? How many light YA romances in the summer? Our reading tastes are shaped by our day-to-day experience and publishers know it. Come the autumn, come the need to cuddle up under a blanket and read by torchlight into the small hours. That’s not to say everyone reads seasonally or we only read ghost stories in the autumn, but seasonal conditions are one of the things which affect our choices without us giving the matter any thought. Likewise a popular documentary or film could put us in the mood for a certain type of story. Hands-up who read lots of fairytale spin-offs when Beauty and The Beast was released?

We absorb the world around us and go in search of more. This is magical and special, like a current flowing through our minds, and I want to ride it.

That’s not to say I won’t be reflective or go in search of particular things. I would certainly like to read more books which represent minorities – books which represent BAME characters, LGBTQA characters, characters from different socio-economic backgrounds and characters with a long-term health condition or disability. Less than one percent of all books published in 2017 featured a BAME main-character, but those which are out there? They are windows into life-experiences and I will pick those books up. I will pick them up because I want every story told and every life represented on the bookshelves, not to tick off a box on an annual challenge.  

What about the social side of challenges? There’s nothing better than talking to other bookish people about specific bookish topics. Maybe I picked the wrong selection of challenges, or maybe I should have kept track of my challenges on social media. Certainly, I didn’t have any additional interaction beyond the comments when I initially wrote the page. I would love more interaction in 2019 and want to talk to all kinds of people – book bloggers, lifestyle bloggers, people who have never written in their lives. I want to take part in chats and receive recommendations. I’m just not certain annual challenges bring that.

With events, readathons and tags throughout the year, there will be opportunities to engage with the blogging community and try out something new. As the New Year approaches I may write a post looking to the year ahead and my commitment to read a wide range of voices. After that I’ll see where 2019 takes me and I will be here to blog about it. 

 

Are you setting challenges this year? How did you find the experience in 2018? Let me know in the comments below. 

 

 

Young Adult Reviews

Review: Soulbinder by Sebastien De Castell

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Extract:

Reichis was a mean little cuss, but he was my buisness partner. He’d saved my life a dozen times because that’s how it worked between us: we’d fight, and argue and insult each other, but when the chips went down, he was there for me. Always. Now I had to find a way to be there for him. 

(Soulbinder by Sebastien De Castell. P47.)

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Synopsis:

Kellen is searching for the mysterious Ebony Abbey. Legend says it shelters people with the shadowblack, people who would otherwise by killed by a world which fears them. During the search, Kellen is split from his loyal sidekick Reichis.

Meeting a community of shadowblacks brings Kellen closer to the shadow-magic than he has ever come before and# being apart from the world gives Kellen a space to think about the betrayal he has suffered at the hands of his family.

Kellen searches for his identity in this fourth installment of the Spellslinger series. 

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Review:

Regular readers know I am a big fan of the Spellslinger series. The first book was published shortly after I started my blog and it was a firm favourite. The non-conformity and magical kingdoms were always going to be a hit, but added to that was an epic cast of characters. Four books in and I am still caught up in Kellan’s adventures.

This review assumes you are familiar with the series. Although I will do my best not to include spoilers – if you haven’t read book one I recommend this is where you start.

Soulbinder is where Kellan confronts his own experiences and decides how to go forward. It is also the first book where he has been apart from his friends – mentor Ferius and familiar Reichis. This separation forces Kellan to choose what is most important to him. Unfortunately, once he’s made that choice, he is up against two groups of people with their own agendas.

This is a world where many people define themselves by their society, by their race. As someone who has abandoned his hometown, Kellan is an outlaw but he has never fully embraced a new label. Is he an Argosi? A Shadowblack? Has he always been a Jan’Tep, no matter how hard he runs from it?

The Ebony Abbey is one of those settings you will remember for a lifetime. It should be a sanctuary and a place of scholarship – a place where the shadow magic is not only accepted but studied. Unfortunately, as Kellan knows from experience, where there is magic there is someone willing to use it to their own end. 

As in the previous books, old faces mixed with new and we were introduced to another great cast of characters. This time we meet a community of people who, like Kellan, have the shadowblack. It was interesting to see the different ways people responded to the same thing. Until now, we have been familiar with Kellan’s reaction, but after reading Soulbinder I felt as if I had a broader perspective.

I’m looking forward to Queenslayer in 2019 and to the conclusion of the series next autumn. It will be a pleasure to read the series from start to finish and to remind myself how Kellan had developed and grown. These books just get better and better.

 

Thanks to Readers First and Hot Key Books for my copy of Soulbinder. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Girl, The Cat And The Navigator by Matilda Woods

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Extract:

It was a big decision: four whole months at sea. It would be dangerous and wet. It would be cold and windy. And maybe she would fall overboard and drown. But it would, without a doubt, be an adventure, and she had always wanted to go on one of those. 

(The Girl, The Cat And The Navigator by Matilda Woods. P72.) 

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Oona Britt dreams of a life at sea. She has always wanted to join a ship’s crew and go in search of a mysterious and mythical creature called the Nardoo. Only one thing stops Oona from joining her father’s ship.

Girls don’t go to sea.

It was a major disappointment that Oona was a girl – her father had hoped for a strong and adventurous boy. Oona is desperate to prove herself to her father. She stows away on a ship and sets sail for an adventure, where she proves time and again that she can handle anything the world throws at her.

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Meet Oona – she’s bright, she’s bold and she can do anything she sets her mind to. Oona’s whole future is altered in one instant, the moment when she is born and turns out to be a girl. Her father ends the celebrations and mourns for the child who would have sailed beside him.

This may be a fairytale world of Nardoos and cats with nine lives, but it tells a story which is very real. Studies have shown that even those of us who think we are liberal differentiate by gender. We speak to babies in different tones, offer them different toys and talk about different subjects with them. By the time they are old enough to think for themselves, their idea of gender-roles is entrenched.

Yet girls can have adventures too.

I loved the tone of the story – it reads like a fairytale or a bedtime story, yet the adventure is solid and it leads to a satisfying conclusion. The prose is so beautiful it demands to be read out loud and the world is so magical and so unique that it is conjured in our minds. Welcome to a place where wrecked ships are turned into buildings and sea-shells are used to tell fortunes. Where mythical sea-creatures have been known to fly. Where cats hold memories of the ships they sailed in their previous nine lives.

Oona is a brilliant heroine who sees through the nonsense she is told. She’s a great role model and will hopefully give readers the courage to question the messages they receive – conscious and subconscious messages.

The adventure already feels like an old-favourite. There is something timeless about the story, except it says something which relates to the present and the future. Set sail and see how wide the world can be.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Picture book review: Not Yet A Yeti by Lou Treleaven and Tony Neal

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Review: Not Yet A Yeti by Lou Treleaven and Tony Neal

Everyone in George’s family is a yeti. Everyone except George. George explores what it means to be a yeti, and what he will need to do to become one … and that’s when he realises he isn’t a yeti at all. George is a unicorn. A gentle story about self-discovery. 

I loved this book. George *knows* he is a unicorn, knows with conviction, and his family love and support him. It is a book about discovering who we are and learning that people will love and support us no matter how we identify. It is clearly a book which would be useful in early discussions about gender and sexuality. Without being about those things, it helps children to understand that knowing deep down who we are is OK, even if it comes as a surprise to our family. 

I liked the idea of being a yeti as a choice – while some act ‘yeti’ without considering it, George knows that just isn’t him. This would be a lovely introduction to discussions about gender. How much of being a boy or a girl is fixed, and how much is about choice? About what we have picked up and learned along the way? 

There isn’t a negative moment in the story. It is an accepting, inclusive book which encourages young children to accept people for who they are. 

I also adore the illustrations – think snow, think rainbows and think yetis teasing the people who venture up the mountains. 

If you are looking for a narrative of acceptance and self-discovery, this one is perfect. 

 

Thanks to Maverick Arts Press for my copy of Not Yet A Yeti. Opinions my own. 

Q & A · Q and A/Author Interview

Q&A: Author Matilda Woods

Q&A with author Matilda Woods.

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Set sail on an adventure to the sea and the stars. 

For years, Oona Bright has dreamed of her own adventures. While her father is away at sea, Oona reads stories about the fabled beast, the Nardoo. She stows away on a whaling boat and sets off in search of the truth. Is the Nardoo real? Will she ever find out?

I am delighted to welcome author Matilda Woods to my blog to talk about magic, the sea and how girls can have adventures too. 

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  • Tell us a little about The Girl, the Cat and the Navigator

The Girl, the Cat and the Navigator is about a girl called Oona who has always dreamed of going on a great adventure with her father who owns a whaling ship. Unfortunately, Oona’s father doesn’t think girls belong on ships: its too dangerous and wild and wet. To prove him wrong, Oona stows away when he sets out on the annual whaling hunt. Oona encounters all sorts of magical creatures on the hunt – some kind and some cruel. She also discovers a truth about her father which she never would have known if she had stayed on land. The story is set in an unnamed Nordic country in the 1900s and has elements of magical realism. It’s very much about taking chances, going after your dreams and being open to changing your mind about things as you grow older and see more of the world and the people (and creatures) in it.

  • Why does the sea play a huge part in your stories? Also, the setting is cold (and wet!), why did you choose that setting rather than a similar climate to Australia? 

I’ve always loved the sea and the connotations it has. For me, the sea makes me think of adventures, escape and going to new places. These have all been central elements of my first two books. I’m lucky (or, maybe, unlucky) to live in a part of Australia where we experience the extremes of all four seasons. We have really cold, wet and windy winters and summers so hot that even the blowflies slow down from the heat. I like to match each story with the season I think will be the best fit. So far, this has always been winter.

  • Oona is a girl trying to prove herself so she can take part in activities that are normally prescribed for boys/men – do you think you ever came up against these challenges as a young girl?

I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy. I can think of a few times when I didn’t do things because they were seen as too much of a “boy/man” type of activity. In school I wanted to study engineering but I would have been the only girl in the class so I studied textiles instead. I also wanted to play cricket but there weren’t enough girls to start a girls team and the boys team (and their coach) didn’t want a mixed gender team.  I think in both of those cases if I’d really wanted to pursue those options I could have done it, but I’m not sure if I was brave enough or passionate enough (about cricket and engineering) to fight for them.

  • Who are your favourite writers? What are your favourite books?

The first book I fell in love with was The Twits by Roald Dahl. I thought it was disgusting and funny and brilliant. Our librarian read it to the whole class. We had library lessons once a week so I always wanted the weekends to end faster so I could hear what happened next. When I started reading books myself I really enjoyed anything by Tamora Pierce and I also loved the Harry Potter books. I also went through a phase where I loved reading biographies and non-fiction books, especially ones about ancient history, anthropology and animals. I also love mysteries – especially those written by Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle.

  • How do you develop your characters? Are they based on real people/yourself?

Whenever I have an idea about a character – a name, trait, scene, physical description – I write it down in a notebook. When I’m developing a new story I flick through the notebook and pick all the ideas that I like. I group them together to form different characters. This is how I create the main characters in the story. Then, the secondary characters usually develop out of necessity e.g. in The Boy, the Bird and the Coffin Maker I needed a character who would notice that Alberto was hiding a boy in his home. So, I created Rosa and Clara Finestra: two old ladies who are always spying on their neighbours over the back fence.

  • There is a sense of magic that underlies the seemingly real world that you have created. Did you choose to write a magical realism story or was this something that happened organically?

When I wrote my first book – The Boy, the Bird and the Coffin Maker – I had never read anything in the genre of magical realism. In fact, I’d never even heard of that genre until someone said I wrote that type of story (and then I had to google the meaning to find out what it was). So in my first book that did happen organically. When I started writing my second book I was more aware of purposely making it fit into that genre. I really do love the genre – I love that it isn’t so far removed from reality that it’s all fantasy, and I love that it allows you to make impossible things happen within a world that feels real. 

 

Many thanks to Laura Smythe PR, Scholastic UK and Matilda Woods for making this Q&A possible.

 

Chat

Chat: Hibernation urge – how to go forward when all you want to do is crawl under a blanket.

Hibernation urge – five simple ways to feel better. 

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Adapt your routine as the days get colder.

September: Even those of us past our uni days invest in planners and highlighters.

January: Reading trackers, fitness monitors and every other type of goal setting under the sun.

What falls between is November. If you are currently huddled under a fleece-blanket and wishing you could lock yourself away from the rest of the world, know you are not alone. Welcome to the November-slump.

It hit me as Halloween approached.

Regular readers know I am editing a middle-grade manuscript. Since I returned from my trip South, I have been thinking about my writing beyond this project. The average number of manuscripts written ahead of publication is four. There won’t be any need for me to set resolutions in 2019 – the year will be about working through as many novel-sized stories as possible.

In the week of Halloween, I sat down to develop some ideas. Ten minutes later I was hit by the strangest feeling – I wanted a plot then and there or I was crawling under the covers with a family-sized box of Quality Streets and staying there until mid-April.

This attitude does not a story write.

 It was only when I returned to my social media that I figured it out. There was a prevalent mood across my Twitter feed. The wording of each tweet was slightly different – some said demotivated, others tired or in a slump but they were saying very nearly the same thing. The sky is darker, the nights colder and it is too early to put up the fairy-lights.

When I realised I was not alone, I changed my approach. November-slump would be better known as the hibernation-urge. It comes as surely as the desire to buy a box-file comes in September. Instead of working against hibernation-urge, I chose to embrace it.

That’s not to say I put on a onesie and locked the door. The Quality-Street-and-a-blanket plan could only be healthy as a short-term solution. What this mood tells us is it is time to pull out the fleece-lined boots, cook porridge for breakfast and take care of ourselves. It sounds indulgent but putting these changes in place now might mean a more productive and happier winter.

Here are five ways to embrace hibernation urge and take care of yourself this winter.

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Eat a warm breakfast:

Start the day as you mean to go on. My hot breakfast of choice is porridge – cook a batch at the weekend and you can microwave it each morning. Porridge can be dressed up with cinnamon, honey and raisins. Those flavours combined give me an instant boost and I am warmed to the tip.

 

Dress for the weather:

Fleece-lined boots, thermal leggings and winter-tights are my go-to clothes for keeping wrapped up outside the house. Evenings are about winter pyjamas and warm socks. Sort your wardrobe so you are wearing the right gear.

 

Keep hydrated:

As we crave sugary chocolate-drinks it can be easy to forget the most important thing – water. To keep motivated we need to drink enough water. Carry a bottle and aim to refill it several times a day.

 

Light the room:

String-lights. Candles. Sparkly lamps. Our spirits lift at Christmas and it is not all to do with the joy and goodwill. We add light to our homes and hang decorations like tinsel which sparkle as they reflect the light.

It may be too early for the tree but now is a good time to put out extra light. My friend bought me some kitty-shaped string lights for my birthday. I’m going to put them in a jar for some instant sparkle. 

Use scented products:

Scent is the sense we neglect most often despite the fact that smells we associate with particular things have the power to affect our mood. Smelling basil reminds me of holidays in the sun, while ginger and cinnamon remind me of making gingerbread ahead of Christmas.

Using ginger bath products or lighting a scented candle is an easy way to lift my mood.

Make a list of scents which remind you of a time when you felt comfortable then make a shopping list. Whether it is bath bombs, essential oils or scented candles, this could be a simple way to make yourself feel cosy and warm.

 

Have you experienced hibernation urge? What little things help you to keep on track in the winter? Let me know in the comments below.