Middle Grade Reviews

Review – Letters to the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll



Emerging from an alley-way was a man I did not recognise. He was tall, with slicked-back hair, wearing a mackintosh belted tightly around his middle. He looked wet through, like he’d waded through a river to get here. Sukie went right up to him and shook his hand. I stopped in the middle of the street, confused. 

What was she doing

They were talking now. It didn’t look like a normal chat about the weather either, because their heads were close together and the man kept glancing behind him. He gave Sukie a piece of paper, before taking her hand and squeezing it in both of his. 

Was she out here searching for us then? It didn’t look that way. 

All I knew was she’d left us in a hurry, and this was where she’d gone – not to the toilet or the tube station, but to meet a young. It was probably why she’d got glammed up in the first place. I didn’t know whether to laugh or burst into tears.

‘Sukie!’ I yelled.

She spun around. A strange shadow flitted over her face. As the young man shrank back into the shadows, Sukie hobbled towards me, shaking her head. 


Olive cannot accept her father might have died in the war. ‘Missing in action’ means ‘missing’. With the Second World War rife in Europe, plenty of people have become separated from their families. With her mother stressed, and a little brother to look after, Olive does not know where she would be without her big sister Sukie. Sukie is the pretty one, the life and soul of the party, and she always knows what to do.     

Except Sukie is up to something. On the night of the air raid, Olive sees Sukie take a piece of paper from a stranger. Then the bomb explodes.

Olive wakes up in hospital. Sukie disappeared in the blast. Mum doesn’t seem to think Sukie is dead, but she won’t explain why. Olive and Cliff are evacuated to Devon, alongside irascible Esther Jenkins. Something is afoot in Budmouth Point, and the coded message Sukie took the night of the blast appears to link her to this sleepy village in Devon.

Olive wants the truth. She wants to find her sister. She wants to know why Esther Jenkins hasn’t got a nice word to say.



Budmouth is a place of small-town politics. You can live there nearly all your life and still be an incomer. It is a place where people can’t mind their own business – usually a minor annoyance, but as Olive is constantly warned, in times of War, careless talk costs lives. It makes an excellent setting for a story which deals with prejudice, and for secretive missions. Whatever is going on, the stakes are always there. The likelihood is, your business will be found out.

I love the characters. Carroll uses description sparingly. Each character represents a trait – Cliff, the playful child.  Queenie, in her oversized jumpers and spectacles, is industrious, and refuses to be feminine. The buildings in Budmouth are described the same way. By the end of the novel, they feel as much like characters as Budmouth’s human population. My favourite is the lighthouse, which works as a metaphor for lost people searching for light and shelter.

The main theme is prejudice and displacement. The discussion about people forced from their homes is as relevant today as it was during WW2, when the story is set. The themes come out of the story in manageable chunks. For the most part, the story is a young girl’s search for the truth. The situation is always there under the surface.

Carroll captures beautifully a child’s perspective of the war. There is never a time she is not aware something terribly wrong is going on, but she unravels it at her own pace. This reminded me of something Morpurgo said in April, when he spoke in conjunction with Seven Stories. He talked about how children now are exposed to vastly more information than children during the Second World War. Truth, lies and opinion are a click away. Olive’s information about the Holocaust comes in drips, starting with a newsreel at the cinema. It is easy for adults to gloss over what is happening, especially with soundbites about ‘careless talk’ at their disposal.

Olive’s relationship with Esther is both a subplot and key to the Olive’s character development. Throughout the novel, from Esther to Queenie to Ephraim the lighthouse keeper, Olive learns that you may not know the secrets a person is carrying.

This may be my favourite of Carroll’s novels. Given how much I love In Darkling Wood, with its enchanted wood, that takes saying. She is the Penelope Lively of our time. Her work is rooted in history. As with Lively’s work, Carroll’s interest in the past comes out differently in each of her works. Her work is versatile, but always well-constructed. By the end of each novel, I feel a part of its world … or perhaps those worlds feel like a little part of me? Roll on The Lost Boy.





Chat – how’s that book ban going?

How is that book ban going? After two false starts, I put my debit card into my mum’s care.

Let’s clarify. Mum won’t stop me buying books. She won’t give or deny permission. I’m too old. The point of giving Mum my card is to put a step between myself and the ridiculous ease with which I can buy books. (NB. Quite often, details are registered online. My solution is still effective. The card is shining-new. I don’t know the security details.)  ‘Fessing up to the fact I’m buying another books puts me off big-time. For the next four weeks, book buying will not be my guilty secret.  

Ten days on, (‘I am a bookworm. It has been ten days since my last purchase’) I’m thriving. I’m thinking of extending the ban. I’m actually enjoying it.

There are books I want to buy, oh yes. There will always be books. Instead of buying on impulse, I have time to filter those books through my mind and learn which I want most. Currently, I’m craving are Quest and Odyssey. Companion books, Quest is aimed at the Middle Grade audience, Odyssey at YA. They contain short stories from the ‘Arhus 39’- 39 of the best emerging writers for young people from across Europe. These are the books I will buy at midnight, the day the ban breaks. What’s not to love?

You know what? Half those books I can’t live without … I still can’t live without. I’m a bookworm, for heaven’s sake. Books are my sustenance. However, I can wait for them. Buy them in smaller quantities. If one book makes a feast, it may be I don’t need to buy them by the armful.  

libraryLive in Cumbria? Did you know you have access to books from across the county? I’ve still got a bee in my bonnet about the proportion of YA to adult fiction at my local library. Instead of running to Waterstones, I took time to explore the library’s online catalogue.  I took out Dancing the Bear by Mini Thebo and Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean, (yep, the new one. Published this month.)

I realised how many amazing books I have on my shelves, (see ten books I must read, the Top Ten Tuesday post which triggered the book-buying ban.) I’m reading an e-book ahead of my first blog tour, and working through the Carnegie list. Here’s to the forthcoming reviews. Now I’ve stopped chasing book after book, I have so much to say about books I already own.


Have you ever instated a book ban? Did you take drastic measures to stick to it, or do you have self-restraint? (Teach me!) Were there any positive outcomes, or did your bookshop loyalty card burn a hole in your pocket? Chat below – I would love to hear your experiences!






waiting on wednesday

Waiting on Wednesday – 14.06.2017

Synopsis (from Goodreads) – 

Nine students. Three bloodsports. One deadly weekend.

A twisting thriller for fans of Looking for Alaska and The Hunger Games

35154365It is the autumn term and Greer MacDonald is struggling to settle into the sixth form at the exclusive St. Aidan the Great boarding school, known to its privileged pupils as S.T.A.G.S. Just when she despairs of making friends Greer receives a mysterious invitation with three words embossed upon on it: huntin’ shootin’ fishin’. When Greer learns that the invitation is to spend the half term weekend at the country manor of Henry de Warlencourt, the most popular and wealthy boy at S.T.A.G.S., she is as surprised as she is flattered.

But when Greer joins the other chosen few at the ancient and sprawling Longcross Hall, she realises that Henry’s parents are not at home; the only adults present are a cohort of eerily compliant servants. The students are at the mercy of their capricious host, and, over the next three days, as the three bloodsports – hunting, shooting and fishing – become increasingly dark and twisted, Greer comes to the horrifying realisation that those being hunted are not wild game, but the very misfits Henry has brought with him from school…

Why I can’t wait: 

  • The Hunger Games is quoted as a precursor – I expect exploration of social inequality, a theme which has been popular in recent YA.
  • The hunted will fight back. How? Will they play the game? Subvert it? Introduce rules of their own? I want also to know why, or more specifically ‘at what point’? What provokes the ‘misfits’ into fighting back?
  • Take a theme and ramp it up. Them’s the rules. Misfits? Popularity structures? Imagine if the misfits were hunted … I love exploration of theme through OTT circumstances. 


August 2017

Hot Key Books

Carnegie Medal 2017

Review – Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce



– Wow, you really did make it work!

‘I am the Sputnik.’ 

Annabel’s friend swiped at her with her plastic lightsaber. Annabel parried. The friend’s lightsaber exploded in a thick black cloud of stinking smoke. Melted plastic dripped down the handle. The friend squealed with delight. Annabel squealed with even more delight. 

– Oh! Hang on, this could be really dangerous.

‘Yes, it ccould!’ Sputnik said with a smile, as thought really dangerous was the best thing a birthday party could ever be. ‘They’ll remember this for a long time.’ 

(Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce. P37.) 



Prez is spending his summer with the Blythes – a rambunctious family who allow children in Temporary Accommodation to spend summer on their farm. Prez misses his Grandad, who started forgetting things, like whether it might be a good time to show somebody a kitchen knife. Prez is afraid he will remain a ‘temporary’ child. He finds it difficult to use his voice.

One night, Prez opens the door to Sputnik. Prez thinks Sputnik is a boisterous young boy from another planet. Everybody else thinks Sputnik is a dog.

Chaos ensues. Sputnik’s mission is to write a guidebook selling the attractions of earth to beings from outer space. Otherwise Earth might just be destroyed. Nothing personal – there’s just no space for a boring planet.  Chaotic adventure follows chaotic adventure. Hadrian’s wall is rebuilt, the remote control starts working on things other than the telly and a toy light-saber becomes deadly in the hands of a small child.  Every adventure leads Prez closer to the future, and his unknown fate …



Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth is the book on the Carnegie list which kids – masses of kids – will love. Cottrell Boyce, like Walliams or Jacquline Wilson, is a brand. Like Walliams and Wilson, Cotttrell Boyce writes well, and writes for his audience. While Sputnik deals with some deep issues, it has a lightness of touch which is absent across the shortlist. Only Reeve comes close.

Prez’s emotions come through before we are told of his circumstances. He refers to members of the Blythe family in a detached way, (‘the mum’ ‘the dad’.) It is clear he is afraid to get too close, afraid they will be gone before he knows them better.

Cottrell Boyce knows his audience. There is plenty of toilet humour, but underpinning this is a solid understanding of the concerns of childhood. Why are the wonders of the world all ruins? What would happen if you rewound a chicken – would you end up with a chicken or an egg? When we talk about ‘the concerns of childhood’, we so often mean the things adults fear children will be anxious about. Sputnik is attuned to the tone of playground chatter.  

The theme of dementia is not hammered into the audience. Over the course of the novel, a picture is built of the circumstances which lead to Prez being taken into care. When Prez returns to the flat in which he and Grandad lived, we learn about the routines he built up in an attempt to keep both their heads above water.  

 Did I enjoy the story? I’m intrigued to see how it fares. The list seems skewed towards books beloved of adult readers of Kid-Lit. (CILIP have given Beck a content warning, with an advisory age of 16+. Is that children’s fiction?) If the prize considers the intended audience, Sputnik is up there with the best.


waiting on wednesday

Waiting on Wednesday – 07.06.2017

Synopsis (from Goodreads): 

Victoria-Margaret is the crown princess of the empire, a direct descendant of Victoria I, the queen wh25528808o changed the course of history. The imperial tradition of genetically arranged matchmaking will soon guide Margaret into a politically advantageous marriage. But before she does her duty, she’ll have one summer of freedom and privacy in a far corner of empire. Posing as a commoner in Toronto, she meets Helena Marcus, daughter of one of the empire’s greatest placement geneticists, and August Callaghan, the heir to a powerful shipping firm currently besieged by American pirates. In a summer of high-society debutante balls, politically charged tea parties, and romantic country dances, Margaret, Helena, and August discover they share an extraordinary bond and maybe a one-in-a-million chance to have what they want and to change the world in the process.

Set in a near-future world where the British Empire never fell and the United States never rose, That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a surprising, romantic, and thought-provoking story of love, duty, and the small moments that can change people and the world.


  • Speculative sci-fi? I’m in. I love time-slip. Although this isn’t pure time-slip, it addresses the same concerns. The history of the world could have gone infinite numbers of ways, and there are thousands of key moments which could have resulted in a catastrophically different world. If that doesn’t grip you, what will? If Johnston has done a good job, the novel will make us think differently about an aspect of modern life.
  • Debutante balls and tea parties make great settings to explore tensions and differences – from social inequality to gender relations. To clarify, August is male. That’s two female leads and one male. I’m hoping for some strong female characters in a society I imagine is less tolerant of women than the present Western world. (In this scenario, does suffrage ever occur?)
  • In the current political climate, where certain politicians sell empire and British ‘supremacy’ as the halcyon dream, the novel’s concept should be interesting. Does the world look as rosy as some would have us believe?


That Inevitable Victorian Thing by EK Johnston

October 2017

Dutton Books for Young Readers

Middle Grade Reviews

The Rose Muddle Mysteries – The Amber Pendant by Imogen White



Her heart pounded as both women started at her, their eyes full of wonder. Rose placed her hand to her throat, and tried to concentrate.

‘I saw saw stuff what I don’t understand. When I held that,’ she pointed to the pendant. ‘I were inside someone’s head. An old man … it were horrible – he were horrible. He were in a carriage. He had another pendant, like yours but different. It had faces inside of it. Tghe two of them talked about a cup in a museum and a book. I dunno.’

‘You saw the other pendant?’ cried Miss Lee. ‘What did the man look like?’

‘I couldn’t see him. I saw things like what he saw. I were inside his mind. I felt his hunger … it were awful. And he had a tattoo on his wrist of a black sun with a face in its middle and -‘ She stroked her apron.

(The Rose Muddle Mysteries – The Amber Pendant. Imogen White.)  



A mysterious pendant, an ancient curse and some seriously scary creatures called Creeplings. Rose Muddle is plucked from the warehouse. Wealthy Miss Templeforth has been searching for the next guardian to a magical pendant, and she has found Rose just in time. The darkness in the pendant is killing Miss Templeforth.

An ancient enemy is intent on stealing the pendant. There is an amber cup in Hove museum. Verrulf has been trapped inside the cup since way back when. His helpers on earth are searching for Rose’s pendant. If they get hold of it, they will release Verrulf from the cup. The world will be consumed in darkness.

Helped by budding detective Rui, a monkey called Bahula, and the ageless Gypsy Lee,  Rose sets out to overturn Verrulf’s plans. There’s only one problem – any of the people around her could be helping Verrulf …



I love Rose. Feisty, gobby and forgiving, she’s got a big mouth and an even bigger heart. Having spent the first twelve years of her life in the workhouse, Rose wants more than anything somewhere to belong. It is this which drives her to protect the pendant. She sees it as more than a magical object. It is a symbol of her heritage. The other character I loved was Enna Lee. A Puck-like figure, an ageless spirit who protects the city of Hove, she represents the stories which lie in any landscape. I hope to see more of Enna in future stories.

There are three stories at play – Rose’s own story, the story of the pendant’s origin, and the events of 40 years ago. Rose’s story is not overwhelmed by prior events. They add layers to the mystery, and give Rose more to discover. I love the folksy element of Verrulf’s story. It reminds me a little of The Box of Delights, with characters and objects in the present day dating back to the dawn of time. The Amber Cup is inspired by a real object in Hove. White weaves in some local history and geography in a way which would inspire any young reader to go on a trail through the story’s streets.

The deliciously creepy Brotherhood of the Black Sun are up there with VFD and the Baron’s gang in the Sinclar’s Mysteries. A cult-like organisation, with an evil objective, a secret meeting place and a dark insignia? Bring it on! The secretive nature of the Brotherhood brings the magical story to life. I love the idea that magic had gone from being commonly recognised, to acknowledged only by a small number of people.

1907 is brought to life with language of the time. The link between Hove and Jaipur brings to life the time of empire. Although this is not explored in any political detail, it is shown how people over a hundred years ago might have links to more than one country. With the next story set in Jaipur, I hope we learn more about Rui’s background.

The story is pacy – I was hooked and rehooked. There is a new discovery in every chapter, and always something to read on for. With a sequel due in 2018, this looks to be the start to a promising mystery series.

Disclaimer – I won my copy in a GoodReads giveaway. This does not affect the honesty of my review.

Big thanks to GoodReads and Usborne Publishing for my copy.

top ten tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday – 06.06.2017

Detective fiction has gone beyond cream buns and jolly jinxes … although they are a good place to start. The theme of this week’s Top Ten Tuesday is ten books on my TBR from one genre. I have chosen ten middle-grade detective books I would give my ginger beer to read.

Historical and fantasy settings abound. The reason for this is simple. Most crimes can be solved with modern technology. Never mind forensics. The average 12 year-old  has a wealth of information at their finger tips which would destroy the pace of a good plot. You’ll notice how many terrible storms cut off all power in modern day detective fiction. Ridiculously remote locations can also be a gem, for their backward connectivity. Some authors blend modern day worlds with fantasy sub-plots for the same reason.

What I love about this list is the range of characters. Gone are the days when all child detectives had wealthy parents. Rose Muddle was plucked from the warehouse. Mold was abandoned as a baby, and raised by a healer. Poppy Pym started life in the circus. There is also a huge range of ‘maguffins’ – that is, the shiny, elusive thing our protagonists are searching for – from videos of Bigfoot, to missing friends, something tangible usually sets the protagonists on their trail towards the truth.



  • Bigfoot, Tobin and Me – Melissa Savage
  • Mold and the Poison Plot – Lorraine Gregory
  • Black Cats and Butlers (Rosie Raventhorp Investigates )- Janine Beacham
  • Serafina and the Black Cloak – Robert Beatty
  • If you Find This – Matt Baker
  • Beetle Boy – MG Leonard
  • Rose Campion and the Stolen Secret – Lyn Gardner
  • The Guggenheim Mystery – Robin Stevens/Siobhan Dowd
  • Poppy Pym and the Pharoah’s Curse – Laura Wood
  • The Amber Pendant (The Rose Muddle Mysteries) – Imogen White



Six for Sunday

Six for Sunday – Six things I Love in a Book.

Started by Steph at alittlebutalot, Six for Sunday asks us to give six answers to one question. This week’s theme is ‘six things I love in a book’.

  • Headstrong protagonists. Every character has a flaw, something which makes the reader empathise with them. When the action comes, we want them to come out on top. This is one I relate to, characters on the side of right, always, but ready to hurtle into battle regardless of the likely consequences. Think Moll or Lyra.


  • Fairytales whose origin informs the plot. I’m a folkie, and love it when attention is given to the how and why of storytelling. This is about the why – why do we tell stories? What can we learn about a society, hundreds of years later, by reading their stories? Examples this year include Ink by Alice Broadway, A Girl Called Owl by Amy Wilson and The Sin Eater’s Daughter trilogy by Melinda Salisbury.


  • Circus settings. Circus Mirandus to Secret Heart, The Night Circus to Wild Boy. I’ve never been to a circus in real life, but you could sell me a novel in a second by saying it is set in a circus. I think this may relate to point 2. The circus is a place where we allow our subconscious free reign to imagine. Many of the books above touch on this.


  • Time-slip anything.


  • Reference to real places. Done badly, it can read like those dodgy stories kids are lumbered with when they visit heritage sites, but I love visiting places I’ve read about in fiction.


  • Animal companions. It has become a cliché, especially in middle grade fiction, but unless the animal is clearly a token, I’m sold. The flip-side is, I’ve always got my breath held. Mortality among fictional animal friends is high.


Thanks to Steph for hosting.

Young Adult Reviews

Review – The Sleeping Prince by Melinda Salisbury



 … at the bottom, buried as it always is now, is the thing I am looking for: Mama’s huge leather-bound book of tales. The edges of the spine are frayed and worn, the binding peeling away where the spine is separating from the pages. Dark prints stain the leather where our fingers have grabbed for it, the prints of adults and children marking a tapestry of us across the once-pristine cover. 

I learned the old stories before I learned to milk a cow, and I take it back to my pallet nest, opening it by instinct the the tale of the Scarlet Vurulv. It’s become a ritual, digging the book out from the bottom of the chest when the moon is full and reading the story version as the real-life beast plots in the next room. The reality of a curse is different from the storybook version, something the whole world is learning now.



Almwyck is a place people go to disappear. After their father died, Lief lead his sister and mother away from their hometown to hide the shame of their new-found poverty. Now Lief is missing, presumed dead in the war on Lormere. Her mother sick with grief, Errin uses her apothecary training to sedate her mother and sell potions to pay the rent. There’s one problem – as she did not finish her training, the potions she sells are not legal. Her landlord will turn a blind eye … for a price Errin is not willing to pay.

The Sleeping Prince is on the rise. Awoken from a 500-year sleep, he has overthrown the royal family in Lormere. He and his army are on a killing-spree, and they are getting closer to Errin’s home. The boundaries between life and fairy tale are becoming ever-thinner.

Alone and afraid, Errin turns to Silas Corby, the hooded man who needs Errin’s potions. Silas procures a potion, an elixir, the like of which Errin has never seen before. It calms her mother’s monthly attacks of rage, when nothing else has done so. Errin knows this is no ordinary potion. It turns out Silas Corby has some secrets of his own, secrets which lead Errin to the heart of the battle against The Sleeping Prince.



It is difficult to discuss the middle book in a trilogy without referencing it to the first. The geography and time-span of the story have expanded. The Sin Eater’s Daughter took place in the castle of Lormere, over a short period of time. Reference was made to events in the past, but we followed the events of a small number of weeks in which the Queen’s reign was challenged.

The start of The Sleeping Prince went slowly. Although Errin faced difficulties in her village, they were not part of the main plot, and months passed in a small number of pages. At that point, it felt very much like a ‘middle’ book. I was concerned its only purpose was to take us from the end of The Sin Eater’s Daughter into a final battle. Then we learnt more about Silas. From that point, I galloped to the ending, and what an ending it was. Not only action, but revelations which grabbed the inside of my stomach and twisted it. An epic conclusion redeemed a slower start.

The origins of alchemy in Tremaye are explored. Building on the revelation at the end of book 1, The Sleeping Prince explores the relationship between true events and fairy-tales. We were also offered a new perspective on ‘civilised’ Tremaye, as the citizens fight off crowds of refugees for fear of being ‘overrun’. This feels like a pertinent comment on the Western world, and I like the way the second book challenges and expands what we learned in book one.

Several motifs from book one recur, including a mysterious potion. As in book one, what the protagonist learns about the potion changes their perceptions of their world, and propels them into adventure. I hope the final book follows the same pattern, as much because I love the potion bottles on the covers.

At the end of book one, I disliked Twylla. Not as a character – she was an interesting character, who developed over the course of the narrative. I found her self-centred, and thought there were times when she failed to act on what she learned. The ending of The Sleeping Prince made me revise that judgement. Twylla has been caught up in something massive from an early age, and left to figure it out for herself. As for Errin … her role in the plot is interesting, but it is Twylla and Marek I want to follow to through the final narrative.



NetGalley Reviews · Picture Books

Max and Bird – Ed Vere



Max is a kitten. Kittens chase birds. Like Bird. Max wants to chase bird, but he also wants to be his friend. The pair learn the true meaning of friendship as they help each other, and come to a mutually agreeable deal about the whole chasing thing …


Is it possible to be minimalist and use a riot of colour? Ask Ed Vere. In Max and Bird, he brings the two things together with aplomb. The pages feature two or three colours each, sometimes in a range of shades. The two characters, Max and Bird, and mainly made up of black. This makes it easy to focus on them in their colourful world. Simple lines are used to depict movement. This reminded me of lines children themselves draw, a fact communicated without the need for words.

I love the central message of the story: never mind the rules of the game, or what you thought you were going to do. What matters most is being a good friend. Good friends think before they act. Max the kitten claims he is supposed to eat bird, but all the way along he behaves like a friend. He listens to bird’s feelings, and the pair agree a deal. If Max will help bird fly, they will discuss the chasing. When bird takes flight for the first time and leaves Max on the ground, Max is as excited as bird. They celebrate a shared victory in a riot of colour.

The language is simple. One basic statement leads to another. What prevents this from being boring for adults is how the statements build into one another. ‘Max is a kitten’ and ‘kittens eat birds’. The humour comes in the fact that, in stating the obvious, Ed Vere shows us which direction the story is going, and tells us what we ought to have known all along. Kittens eat birds. Fact. There is also detail in the illustration to keep adults interested. The books on flying, for instance, have titles from ‘basic flying’ to ‘Amelia Earhart’. The detail opens discussion possibilities beyond the core theme of friendship … and the brutal fact that, as any young cat lover will find out, it is in a cat’s nature to kill birds.  

UK: Puffin Books

USA: Due from Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, September 2017

Note: I read this courtesy of Netgalley and Sourcebooks Jabberwocky. This does not affect the honesty of my review.