Carnegie Medal 2017 · Middle Grade Reviews

Review – Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk


CILIP Carnegie 2017 – 2/9


When I was smaller, I asked my grandfather how Wolf Hollow got its name.

‘They used to dig deep pits there, for catching wolves,’ he said. 

He was one of eight of us who lived together in the farmhouse that had been in our family for a hundred years, three generations tucked together under one roof after the Depression had tightened the whole country’s belt and made out farm the best of all places to live. Now, with a second world war raging, lots of people grew victory gardens to help feed themselves, but our whole farm was a giant victory garden that my grandfather had spent his whole life tending. 

He was a serious man who always told me the truth, which I didn’t want but sometimes asked for anyway. When I asked him how Wolf Hollow got its name, for instance, he told me, even though I was only eight at the time. 



Wolf Hollow – named for the pit where wolves were trapped and shot for fear they would pick off the chickens. The place where Annabelle’s family farm the land, where Toby has roamed the hills since the last war. Toby, who carries three guns on his back but only shoots with his camera.

In the autumn of 1943, Betty Glengarry arrives and Annabelle learns how to lie. Betty is a bully, and Annabelle does not know who to tell. What she does know is Toby is watching the situation from the hills.

Then something serious happens, and fingers point at Toby. Like Scout Finch before her, Annabelle is determined to see justice …



I read this over 24 hours, cover to cover. The character, pace and descriptive writing kept me hooked. In terms of plot, it is like To Kill a Mockingbird, but the metaphor of the wolf pit brings the main character to a different conclusion.

Annabelle is a captivating character. Perceptive about the effect her actions might have on other people, there are also times when she fails to understand why somebody might be different from herself. The novel is narrated by a much older Annabelle. I like how this enables her to reflect on her younger self. She realises, for example, that as a child she did not have a word to describe the difference between her young self and Betty Glengarry. I would like to see a bit more to Betty – I don’t believe all characters need to be ‘rounded’, but we only saw young Annabelle’s perception of Betty as a bully, with some brief discussion of how her Grandparents have blinkers about their grandchild. I would love young Annabelle to learn *something* which makes her think about Betty from a different angle.

The judgement of Betty Glengarry as something dangerous – something which belongs in the wolf pit – seems at odds with the overriding message against prejudice, when we know so little about her background. This may be part of the book’s complexity. Annabelle is faced with contradictory revelations about life: for example, she learns to tell the truth, but finds that lies are sometimes necessary.

Annabelle’s extended family have different views on the situation, which allows her to see the problem from different perspectives. Aunt Lilly also becomes a figurehead for the prejudice exhibited by a large number of characters. This works nicely – it allows us to see how somebody’s view might be formed, what might influence it, and the ways it might change.

The writing is beautiful. Five very shiny stars for pace and suspense – the sentences flow into each other, with regular snippets of information to grab your attention and keep your mind firmly on the story. The descriptive writing is both beautiful and telling – from the girl who is not as beautiful as her name sounds, to the snake which retains the tread of the person who squashed it. Read the description carefully – it tells you where the story is heading.

Corgi (Penguin Random House)

Page Count: 291

Nb. My proof copy came to me second-hand. Many thanks to the person who put it into my hands.


Carnegie Medal 2017 · Young Adult Reviews

Review – The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie Sue Hitchcock


CILIP Carnegie 2017 Shortlist – 1/8


I’ve realised over time that houses with moms in them do tend to smell better. If I close my eyes, I can just barely remember my mother’s wildflowers in their whiskey bottles. The very distant scent of my parents lingers in my brain, as they laugh and twirl around the kitchen. Deer blood on my father’s hands tinges all my memories of them – their skin, their hair, their clothes. They smell too much of love.

I don’t say any of this to Ray, who still has two parents and a house that smells like store-brought everything. I don’t want to scare him away.



Fairbanks, Alaska, 1970.

Ruth and her sister have lived with their abrasive Grandmother since the death of their parents. Now Ruth wants to escape, and she’s found a boy whose house smells of cedar to distract herself from her life of poverty and Catholicism.

Forced to face the consequences of their relationship, Ruth is sent away from Fairbanks to a place connected with her family’s past.

Ruth’s story is given prominence, but three other stories are interwoven with hers. There is Dora, who would rather disappear than return to her family in Fairbanks. Alyce, who has the chance to leave but won’t take it. Then there is Hank, running away from a life elsewhere.

The four stories offer multiple perspectives on teenage life in this wild and far-flung place.



Ever visited another person’s house and noticed instantly how different it seems to yours? That is what the title relates to – that and, as far I could tell, not judging people by the first impressions. A house which smells of fresh cedar may not contain cedar within.

Bonnie Sue Hitchcock’s sentences are beautiful. The sort of beautiful you want to write in fancy ink and stick on your wall. The sort of beautiful you experience with multiple senses.  She sets her story in time and place by use of descriptive writing and regular references to contemporary detail. At times I wished I knew more about the North American references, but realised they anchored the story in time the same way Joanna Cannon used Garibaldis and Are You Being Served to bring 1970s Suburban Britain to life in The Trouble With Goats and Sheep.

The narrative reads like four interwoven short stories. They are set in the same place, over the same time period, but I was waiting for a moment of shared action and epiphany which did not come. The four narrators come together over the last pages, but any development has happened before this moment. Although the four narrators do not come together until the end, one meets another at various points. Instead of sharing one story, they work their way into each-other’s. This offers the reader multiple perspectives on the four main characters, and on some of the secondary characters.

My favourite character is Dora – she comes across as level-headed, yet she has a hang-up about one of the other characters. Her situation is serious – her parents are alcoholics, and her father has a track record for violence. Dora has been taken in by another family in Fairbanks, but is afraid she will have to go back to her father. I would root for Alyce if I read her story separately, but interwoven with Dora’s, Alyce and her ballet try-outs seem trivial, especially because Alyce is less likeable.

There is an interview with Bonnie Sue Hitchcock after the narrative – please, publishers, can we see this more often? The narrative did begin life as a series of short stories, with a larger number of character. This did not surprise me. It reminds me of Alice Munro and Sara Taylor – it certainly deserves an award for literary merit, but in terms of the Carnegie? If you’re looking for action, you might find the novel slow-going, which brings back the age-old discussion of what makes a ‘good’ children’s book – action VS literary merit. As this is the first of the short-listed books I have read, it would be unfair to say whether I think it should win, but my advice if you find it slow-going? Stick with it. It’s beautiful, and defies the conventional structure we see so often in YA.  I suggest reading in one or two sittings, so you can hold the narrator’s voices and stories in your head.


What do you think? To what extent is ‘literary merit’ about a novel’s form? 


Page Count: 254 

Faber and Faber





waiting on wednesday

Waiting on Wednesday – 17.05.2017


Seek the scattered Storm-Opals of Sea, Sky and Land, before an enemy finds them and uses them to wield dark power . . .

The trail of the Storm-Opals takes Mouse further than she has ever been before. With her little brother Sparrow and friend Crow alongside her, she stumbles into the world of Sky, where fortresses are hidden amongst the clouds, secret libraries (skybraries) nestle atop gigantic icebergs and the sky swirls with warring tribes and their ferocious flying beasts. Can they solve Da’s message before it’s too late for their ship, their tribe and the whole of Trianukka?

Sky-soaring, beast-chattering, dream-dancing, draggle-riding, terrodyl-flying, world-saving adventure. 


Why I can’t wait:


  • Haven’t you read The Huntress: Sea??! I loved the world. It mixed whales and merwraiths, mad monks and tribal magic, and made a believeable, readable world. Driver seems to ENJOY the words she works with. I loved all the sea-related metaphors and idioms, to the point where I started making up my own for the joy of it. I’ve got my fingers crossed for some sky-related language.


  • Mouse developed so much across the course of Sea. Without spoiling the ending, she starts off desperate to be a leader like her grandmother, but not mad-keen on responsibility. I want to find out how further adventure changes and develops her character.


  • Everything Mouse’s tribe has worked for is still in peril … and I care. I care about this world, divided so rigidly into tribes. I care about the ship, which I totally want to build from Lego, and the relationship between Mouse and her little brother. I want to know how different the world will look at the end of the trilogy …


The Huntress: Sky by Sarah Driver

September 2017





Waiting on Wednesday is a meme hosted by Breaking the Spine. Thank you for hosting.

Young Adult Reviews

Review – Like Other Girls by Claire Hennessy




At lunch time I take out my phone to message Justin, but the words won’t come. I don’t want him to know that I have to play a boy. It feels weird. Like it will make him interrogate his relationship with me, and wonder if it because my legs are too hairy, or my jaw is too square.  

This is what happens when you don’t spend all your time researching how to do your make-up in such a way that makes you look beautiful but also makes you look sufficiently ‘natural’ that you won’t be marched to down to the nearest sink to wash it all off. If you want to be believed as a girl on stage, that’s what you need to do. 


Lauren’s not like other girls. She notices gender division, which the other girls at St Agnes’s seem oblivious to. She also fancies people she’s ‘not supposed to’ … like some of the girls in her school … Lauren loves musicals, but this year is different – not only has she been given a chorus part, she is supposed to be one of the ‘boyfriends’. She can’t even laugh about it with her best friend Steph … or is it Evan? Since the incident during the summer holidays, they have not been speaking. Evan isn’t having an easy time of it either. Not only do his teachers refuse to acknowledge his chosen gender until his mother gives consent, he has been cast as a ‘perfect young lady’.

Q Club used to be the place where Lauren and Evan could express their feelings. Now Evan whispers in the corner with Marc, Lauren finds other ways to escape her feelings. When life spirals out of control, Lauren is forced to decide …  should she keep quiet ‘like other girls’?



This book was all about voice. No – there was more to it than that, but I must start with the character’s voice. Lauren is hilarious, and vulnerable and opinionated. She’s perceptive about the wider world, and issues of gender division, yet totally blinkered when it comes to other people’s feelings. If other people don’t react the way she wants them to, she can’t cope. She makes me laugh and cry at the same time. When I read her narration, she’s ALIVE in my head, and she is a real teenager.

Claire Hennessy reminds me how painful it was to be fifteen years old – so far from adulthood, yet experiencing very adult emotions and situations. Both the friendships and the school … politics … felt real, as if the book had been written from transcripts of teenagers. The novel also brought to life the effect social media has on teenagers. Lauren alternately has a second life and personality on social media, and an extension of her real life, which makes it difficult at times to switch off from her problems.

Feminism is a big topic in current YA, and frankly it is long overdue. What I love about Hennessy’s take is how rooted it is in a contemporary teenager’s perceptions. There are times when Lauren feels she is the only person who notices how unequal the world is for women. I also like how openly the book speaks about periods – it challenges the idea that women should keep quiet about the issues which affect their bodies. Sexuality, too, is a big theme. Many of the characters feel pressured because of the assumption that heterosexual is the ‘default’ sexuality. What I find realistic is the different identities the characters take in front of different people. It felt less simplistic than a story of sudden transformation. 

Don’t this this is all agenda – I was in hysterics from the first chapter, where Lauren sends up the ridiculousness of her conservative all-girls school, and teenagehood in general. I cared about the friendships, and the family relationships. I cared about Lauren so much I had tears in my eyes. What the novel shows is these ‘issues’ are not subjects we should hide away, and examine in ‘appropriate places’. For many women, this is life.

Hot Key Books

Page Count: 280


I received my copy from a Readers First prize draw. This does not affect the honesty of my review. Many thanks to Readers First and Hot Key Books for my copy.






First Line Fridays – 12.05.2017



First lines Friday is a meme hosted by Wandering Words. It is approach a book with preconceptions – never mind the cover, we all form opinions about genres and age-ranges, authors’ previous works and publishing formats.

First line Friday takes all that away, and start with what matters: the words. 


“Alice Silver had never met anyone who had killed before, but that all changed the day Dorothy Grimes walked past the window of Alice’s favourite coffee shop. “

Scroll down to see which book this is from. 




The Other Alice by Michelle Harrison


What happens when a tale with real magic, that was supposed to be finished, never was? This is a story about one of those stories . . .

Midge loves riddles, his cat, Twitch, and – most of all – stories. Especially because he’s grown up being read to by his sister Alice, a brilliant writer.

When Alice goes missing and a talking cat turns up in her bedroom, Midge searches Alice’s stories for a clue. Soon he discovers that her secret book, The Museum of Unfinished Stories, is much more than just a story. In fact, he finds two of its characters wandering around town.

But every tale has its villains – and with them leaping off the page, Midge, Gypsy and Piper must use all their wits and cunning to work out how the story ends and find Alice. If they fail, a more sinister finale threatens them all . . .


I read The Other Alice over Christmas, and think I may reread at some point this year to write a review. Think Inkheart –  a writer goes missing, and her brother finds her characters have taken on a life of their own. I loved Midge’s perspective, and I loved the fact Alice’s characters were not 2D tropes – their quests were as important as Alice and Midge’s.


Thanks to Wandering Words for hosting, and for the banner and arrow image.


Waiting on Wednesday – Witch Born by Nicholas Bowling


witchborn-667x1024Synopsis (from Chicken House website)

It’s 1577. Queen Elizabeth I has imprisoned scheming Mary Queen of Scots, and Alyce’s mother is burned at the stake for witchcraft. Alyce kills the witchfinder and flees to London – but the chase isn’t over yet. As she discovers her own dark magic, powerful political forces are on her trail. She can’t help but wonder: why is she so important? Soon she finds herself deep in a secret battle between rival queens, the fate of England resting on her shoulders …

A dark, twisty and thrillingly original Elizabethan fantasy, exploring true history through a fantasy lens. 


Why I can’t Wait:


  • This is a fascinating era of history. I’ve read a lot of non-fiction about this time period, but it all began with my Phillipa Gregory filled teens.
  • Persecution is a big theme at the moment, and witch hunts are an example of history we do not want to repeat. This looks like it might use the past to explore themes which are particularly relevant to the present.
  • Fantasy is such a great way to explore big themes. This looks like it might be similar to the work of Marcus Sedgwick and Frances Hardinge, and frankly I can’t get enough of either author’s work.
  • The cover??! Just look at it. The problem will be how I stop looking, when I finally get my paws on it.


Witchborn by Nicholas Bowling

September 2017

Chicken House Books



Waiting on Wednesday is a meme hosted by Breaking the Spine. Thank you for hosting.

Uncategorized · Young Adult Reviews

Review – Spellslinger by Sebastian de Castell



‘The second trial comes to an end and you have failed it,’ she said, without a trace of sympathy in her voice. ‘Now you fear you will fail the third as well.’

‘How can I create a spell using two disciplines when I can’t break even one of my bands.’

‘I told you once before; do not ask questions to which you already know the answer.’

‘Then … it’s over. My sixteenth birthday is in a few days. I’m never going to be a mage. I’m going to be a Sha’Tep.’

I felt myself becoming dizzy, as if just saying the words had drained the strength from my limbs. Mer’esan held my arms. ‘You will never be a Jan’Tep mage like your father and mother. Whether you become a Sha’Tep servant like your Uncle is up to you.’

(Spellslinger – Sebastian de Castell. P163.)



Kellan is at the start of his mage trials. Pass, and he will become a Jan’Tep mage, and help rule society. Fail, and he will become a Sha’Tep servant. Kellan’s magic has faded, and he has four weeks to get it back. Otherwise, he is destined to a life of servitude.

Enter Ferius Parfax, and the most interesting deck of cards since Wonderland. Ferius says she is an Argosi traveller. Everybody else reckons she is a Daroman spy, sent to influence the forthcoming election of the new Clan Prince.

In Jan’Tep society, family strength is more important than individual strength. With the election fought between Kellan’s father, and scheming Ra’meth, Kellan is the card everybody is trying to play right. There is only one problem – Kellan may have no magic, but he has a great talent in thinking for himself.

Challenged by Ferius Parfax to look for his own answers, and the three-hundred year-old Dowager Magus to ask the right questions, Kellan uncovers some uncomfortable truths about his society, and decides who he wants to be.



To decide who he wants to be, Kellan must learn about the people around him. Does he get any say? At the start, he believes his future as a Sha’Tep servant is inevitable. The book explores the degree to which individual decisions can be made when society seems to prescribe our roles. Ferius Parfax enters Kellan’s life as the ultimate outsider, and shows him the wider picture.

I loved Ferius Parfax. She’s a non-stereotypical female, (straight-talking, smoke-blowing, free-thinking,) but she also has a story. We only start to understand this at the end of the story. With five more novels due in the series, I hope we will learn more about Ferius’s history. Ferius was not the only interesting female character. There’s Nephenia, who puts up with male prejudice to earn her name as a mage, and Kellan’s sister Shalla, the most powerful of all the initiates. Shalla is treated as a kind of substitute-son by her parents. With Kellan’s magic weakened, their hope is placed in Shalla’s strength. Will Shalla reject Kellan, as their father rejected his Sha’Tep brother? Shalla is a character to watch.

The other fascinating character is the Dowager Magus, wife of the late Clan Prince. If Ferius teaches Kellan to look for the answers, the Dowager Magus challenges him to ask the relevant questions. Her character forms a sub-plot, the final scene of which is beautiful.

The world is fascinating. We learn about the different societies mainly in relation to the Jan’Tep, and the Oases which is the source of Jan’Tep magic, but there is enough detail to give us a clear picture of the difference between the societies, and to whet our appetite for the coming novels. I love the fact the history of relations between the different societies was used to inform us about each society’s present condition. De Castell has a clear sense of how a society is not ‘static’ – there is so much more beneath the surface of the present day.

If I used a star rating system, I would give Spellslinger five of the shiniest stars. Fantasy is my comfort zone, as is YA fiction with themes of political injustice, but Spellslinger said something about that theme which I have not heard before, and the story is a real page turner. Each character is on their own journey, and the relations between the characters change with new revelations. It is also beautifully written – De Castell writes the kind of sentence you say out loud to savour, and makes great use of telling description.

Don’t be put off by the fact this is the first in a large series. The adventure may start here, but as a stand-alone, the novel has a satisfying resolution. True magic.


I won my copy in a  Readers First draw. This does not affect the honesty of my review. Many thanks to Readers First and Hot Key Books for my copy.


Hot Key Books

Page Count: 396