Middle Grade Reviews

Review – The Boy Who Went Magic by A.P. Winter

wentmagic

Extracts:

A hand shook Bert’s shoulder. He gasped and looked around, to find that he was back in the real world again , lying in front of the mirror with the Professor beside him. He wasn’t sure how long he had been oblivious, but he could tell something bad had happened. The other children were shouting in alarm, and Mr Fitzroy was trying to gather them together. 

‘Are you alright?’ said the Professor. 

‘I saw something,’ said Bert. He blinked dizzily. ‘I was in another place.’ 

‘Right, well … that’s interesting,’ said the Professor. He seemed distracted. ‘I’m afraid this really isn’t going to plan. I didn’t imagine they’d have such unstable artifacts.’ 

(The Boy Who Went Magic, AP Winter. P27.) 

 

Synopsis:

Bert’s school insists there is no such thing as magic. The government and Royals of Penvellyn say the same thing. They sanction a museum exhibition to teach the public about all the crazy things people used to believe about magic, and the land of Ferenor. Bert’s class aren’t quite sure what to make of the exhibition. It doesn’t help that a pirate leads their group to a room full of secret objects. Objects Bert has a special connection with.

Bert activates a magic mirror, and attracts the attention of Prince Voss. Voss has his own interest in magic, and in the spirit Bert unwittingly called from the mirror. The Government have been in charge of the country for too long. Once upon a time, Royalty meant something. Voss is keen to bring the old days back. He’ll execute anybody who disagrees.

Bert is swept away from school by the pirate, who goes by the name of the Professor, and his plucky daughter Finch. Their destination is Ferenor – but there are people who would rather they didn’t get there…

 

Review:

I wanted to know more about Bert from the outset. He is rescued from a family who are branded as traitors to the throne. The man who rescues him doesn’t leave an identity, but pays for his education in full, and keeps quiet tabs on Bert. Likewise, Bert’s friend Norton is entirely miserable in Penvellyn. He’d much rather tag along with Bert.

Norton’s relationship with Bert was a highlight of the story. At the start, Bert leaves Norton in school. Bert is desperate for a ‘proper adventure’, and will leave his friend behind if need-be. Bert’s biggest development as a character is in the respect he finds for his friend, and I liked him better for it.

There were so many great locations, at times I wished we had a book for each one. The school, the airship and the strange land of Ferenor – it was like the ultimate Lego game, spread out over an afternoon, in which the adventurer’s legs are pulled off and swapped with the mech’s, while the other adventurer gets the pirate hat. That kind of adventure. A.P. Winter deserves credit. It is difficult to make a world like that believable, but he does so with aplomb. I think this is due to the everyday touches – the school, the museum and the bank, and how totally recognisable they were even with the strange objects inside.

The middle of the story was strong. Wherever there was a goal within the story, there were obstacles. This was interesting from my perspective as an aspiring writer, to see how Winter kept the action going.

The history between Penvellyn and Ferenor acted as a story-within-a-story. The ending implies a sequel. I hope we will find out more about the relationship between the two worlds, and what happened to the mages of Ferenor. Bert learns something pretty huge about himself in the last pages, which hints at the direction the story might take.

There are things we could have learned about Norton. Things we could have learned about the Professor and his airship, and about the land of Ferenor. That can’t be a complaint. It’s more of an impatience. It seems there is more to come, and the first book has whetted my appetite.

Middle Grade Reviews

Heaven Eyes by David Almond

HeavenEyes

Extract:

‘I remember many things,’ he whispered. ‘I remember I was all alone. I remember I did dig Heaven Eyes out one starry night from the mud of the Black Middens. Long long time ago. Long ago as she has been alive. I remember I am caretaker and always been the caretaker. But I do not remember many other things.’

He rubbed his eyes, focused on me, wrote again. 

‘You dug her out?’ I said. ‘What do you mean, you dug her out?’

‘Grampa is the caretaker,’ her said. ‘Grampa dug Heaven from the Middens one starry night. This is long long time back and much in memory does fade away. Heaven Eyes is called Heaven Eyes cos she does see through all the grief and trouble in the world to the Heaven that does lie beneath.’ 

 

Synopsis:

Erin plans to run away with her best friend, January Carr. Away from Whitegates. Away from Maureen, who looks at the children in her care and sees broken, damaged people. Away from circle-time, and talking-about-it, and Maureen’s obsession with writing life-stories. Maureen seems to think she could have done a better job of being a Mum to Erin. Like Erin’s Mum was a failure for dying.

Erin, Mouse and January sail down the river on a homemade raft. They are met by Grampa, who can’t decide whether they are ghosts or devils, but wants to dig them back into the Black Middens before they can lead little Heaven Eyes astray. Heaven Eyes wants them to stay and be her brothers and sisters. Heaven Eyes sees beautiful things inside other people. 

There are secrets buried in the Black Middens, and secrets buried deep inside Heaven’s Eyes.

 

Review:

I had never read Heaven Eyes. I don’t know why – in all the years of knowing Almond’s work was amazing, I hadn’t read Heaven Eyes. I finished rereading Skellig on Saturday night. On Sunday morning, I read Heaven Eyes. I read both books in a sitting. Both earned the highest accolade I ever award books – they are so perfect, I cried not for the plot, but for the sheer experience. For the words on the page. Heaven Eyes is called Heaven Eyes cos she does see through all the grief and trouble in the world to the Heaven that does lie beneath. If you didn’t understand what I meant before, that quote should clarify.

Reading Almond has changed my approach to writing. So often when we ask what a story is about, we want to know about genre or setting, or some interesting action. Almond’s stories are about people. Erin Law became real to me through her life experience, and the thoughts and feelings she had as a result of her experience in the world so far. Grampa became real by the choices he made with regards to Heaven Eyes.

In April, I heard Almond speak alongside Morpurgo, at an event organised by Seven Stories. If you have not visited this haven of children’s literature, amend this. It is the best museum, and one of the most special places, I have ever visited. The talk taught me that Heaven Eyes, like parts of A Song for Ella Grey, is set in a fictional version of* the area Seven Stories is situated in. Being able to visualise the place enriched my reading experience. Few books are set in such specific locations. This is a huge shame. Local history and geography bring a setting to life.

Heaven Eyes and Grampa speak in ‘broken’ English, yet their language is beautiful. Whether coincidentally or otherwise, this mirrors Erin’s conflict. Maureen treats Erin as something ‘broken’, yet Erin feels her life is as perfect and wonderful as anyone else’s. Grampa’s English is ‘broken’, yet it is Grampa who speaks those beautiful words: Heaven Eyes is called Heaven Eyes cos she does see through all the grief and trouble in the world to the Heaven that does lie beneath.

Those words. They are up there with the scene in Tom’s Midnight Garden where Peter Long cries ‘that’s not Hatty: that’s a grown-up Woman’, a second before the tower warden cries ‘Time’. Among the finest words in British children’s literature, they encapsulate the novel.

 

 

  • Almond made this distinction – when he uses real-life places, he has freedom to add fictional elements.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

waiting on wednesday

Waiting on Wednesday: We See Everything by William Sutcliffe

Synopsis (from Goodreads): 

A gripping and powerfully relevant thriller set in a future London where constant 35192876survelliance is the norm, We See Everything simmers with tension and emotion. From internationally bestselling author William Sutcliffe, this is perfect for fans of Patrick Ness and Malorie Blackman.

Lex lives on The Strip – the overcrowded, closed-off, bombed-out shell of London. He’s used to the watchful enemy drones that buzz in the air above him. 

Alan’s talent as a gamer has landed him the job of his dreams. At a military base in a secret location, he is about to start work as a drone pilot. 

These two young men will never meet, but their lives are destined to collide. Because Alan has just been assigned a high-profile target. Alan knows him only as #K622. But Lex calls him Dad.

 

Why I can’t wait to read We See Everything:

  • I love political dystopia. This sounds part 1984, (surveillance) and part Mortal Engines, (the ruins of London.) It also sounds as if Alan will meet Lex, and come into a version of the story different from that sold to him by the government/organisation who set him to assassinate Lex’s Dad.

 

  • The Wall used a fictional setting to explore political unrest which is all too real, (and might become realer if Trump builds his famous wall…) Many people are unaware of the surveillance and data gathering which already occurs in the modern world. This will provoke interesting discussion about modern issues.

 

  • I am interested in Alan’s gaming. I want to know the extent to which it comes into the novel, and how it shapes his character. Is there something he needs to learn about the real world which gaming hasn’t taught him? These questions make me think about ways to shape characters in my own writing. What sort of questions might make an interesting character conflict?

 

  • The Wall was shortlisted for the 2014 Carneige, and longlisted for the guardian prize. Sutcliffe is a strong writer. Experience will have made him stronger. I look forward to seeing how his work has developed.

 

We See Everything

Bloomsbury Books

September  2017

 

 

Chat

Chat: Favourite Audiobooks

audiobooks‘Mr and Mrs Dursley of Number Four Privet Drive…’ The immortal words are etched into my mind. Not because they begin Harry’s adventure, although that has to help. I can recite half of Philosopher’s Stone by heart because I have listened to the Potter audio books on loop since the year 2000. My aunt and uncle sent me CoS on cassette, and begun a lifelong habit.

The cassettes half wore-out. I graduated to CDs. They still line my CD rack, in numerical order. When I read Harry Potter, it is Stephen Fry’s voice I hear inside my head. (Except for Snape. Nobody does Snape like Rickman.)

I listened to audio books before Potter. Me and my sister got one in our Christmas stockings every year. Aside from that, our library had a great selection of children’s audiobooks, which (read and learn, libraries,) were free to borrow. Sister played Shelia Lavelle’s Fiend stories when she thought I was asleep. It was her special Big Sister time. I snuggled under the covers and enjoyed special Little One time of listening-in-secret.

My golden rule of audio books is they can’t be abridged. There is nothing more disappointing to a bookworm than hearing half the words missing. Even if you have never heard the story before, you can hear the missing beats. (My Year 5 teacher gave up reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone because I called her out every time she skipped a couple of sentences. She thought it was ‘bad writing’.)

Dramatisation must enhance the story. I like the BBC Tom’s Midnight Garden and The Box of Delights. The Unabridged His Dark Materials dramatisation is a treat, and I have been caught humming the strange songs from BBC’s The Hobbit. 

I have yet to try Audible, although I drool over subscription plans on a regular basis. Does anyone have experience of Audible? Do the audio books live up to the clutter-up-your-home alternative? 

Young Adult Reviews

Review: Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean

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Extract: 

Quill said: ‘Hello. I’m King Gannet. Remember me?’ 

The soft mutterings went on, the bird rocking to and fro, balancing her great wings on one foot at a time. 

‘Has the world ended, d’you know?’ 

The garefowl opened wide her stubby, flightless wings and rattled them. Lit by the setting sun, the spray fanned out like golden seed. Her flat feet made patterns on the landing place, which the next wave wiped out. She mumbled to herself, hoarse and crabby. But after a time, the noise came to sound more Gaelic with a thick, mainland accent. And, inside his head, Quill could see Murdina Galloway printing the sand with her bare, white feet. He could even hear her singing:

The Water is wide, I cannot cross o’er

And neither have I wings to fly. 

Something has happened on Hirta. End or the world or not, their people were not coming to fetch them off the Stac. 

(Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean. P73.)

 

Synopsis:

Once a year, boys from St Kilda go out to a remote sea stac to harvest birds. The trip is a rite of passage, which a boy must prove himself worthy of joining. In the Summer of 1727, three men lead a group of boys out to the stac. No boat returns. Fear and religious superstition lead the boys to wonder whether the world has ended. These stories are encouraged by self-appointed minister Col Cane. 

Quill is one of the eldest boys. He looks out for the younger boys, who are battered by storms and afraid God’s angels have left them behind on an empty planet. Quill tells the boys stories, offering them alternative narratives.

The boys survive day by day, waiting for a boat from St Kilda or an angelic host. Nobody on Heaven or Earth seems to remember they boys are out there.  

 

Review:

In the ice-lolly tag, I referenced Geraldine McCaughrean as the most versatile author. Her settings vary from a dilapidated music hall, the Australian outback, Noah’s Ark and the Arctic, (is there a propensity towards the edge of civilisation? The wastelands?) Her stories begin with her characters. McCaughrean is great at drawing conflict from the opposing wills of her characters.

I loved the setting. When people say outcast story, I think of Pacific islands, and the Amazon jungle. The bleakness of a far-flung Scottish island works equally well. It is easy to image how the boys might believe they were the only people left in the world.

Quill creates narratives which counter those of Col Cane, the self-appointed ‘minister’. Col Cane uses religious scare-mongering to control the group. A distinction is made between Euan, who truly believes God is watching over him, and Col Cane who uses religious narrative to his advantage. The novel’s main theme is how we create stories when we need to believe something. Quill doesn’t believe the world has ended, but he imagines the voice of pretty Murdina Galloway when he needs to believe his own advice.

Where the World Ends is an interesting historical narrative. McCaughrean details the importance of hunting birds to the island’s residents, and brings St Kilda of the 1700s to life by forming a set of stoical ideals. There is also some exploration of gender inequality, and how men react differently to women than to fellow men. Quill is advised by his friend Murdo that if he loves a woman, he should ‘put a fence around her’, to make her his own. It doesn’t occur to Murdo that the decision might be made between two people.

McCaughrean’s writing is sublime. I love her character descriptions. She writes beautiful descriptions of people’s habits, which summarize their characters. Col Cane, for example ‘thought God was on the other end of the bell rope, and he pulled it to get the Almighty’s attention’. We know from this description Cane seeks God’s favour, but refuses to listen to the people around him. I imagine that bell, drowning out the (real) voices which speak to Cane. Cane is certain he will get acknowledgement from someone almightier, if only he makes enough noise.

Where the World Ends went beyond my (very high) expectations. It is the work of someone who has written well for decades. It is a triumph.

Chat

Chat: The Ideal Book Bag

Put me into a car, and I turn into a window-watcher. It’s a product of a childhood spent 350 miles from my extended family, with a father who liked ‘the scenic route’. Drive up and down the UK, and you will realise some things look identical from South to North, East to West and slant-wise over.

One of those things is the primary school book bag. These things came into being 20 years ago. I know, because I was 7 or 8, and everybody in the school was given one. Mine is somewhere in the loft, (those flog-stuff-from-the-attic programmes? You would believe everyone in the UK had valuable treasures hidden between the rafters. My house is filled with priceless stuff, like primary school book bags and gnawed-on recorders. We couldn’t face a wade through before we moved across the country, so we boxed it all up and made sure to buy a house with a decent loft.)  

It’s strange that canvas tote bags are sold in their masses. You can fit a couple of books in, which is all well and good until it rains. Then the books need wrapping in a plastic bag to prevent them from turning to mush. It is easy to spot people with paper wonders in their reusable bags. They’re the ones clutching the tops closed, with a hand under the bottom to keep the books straight.

Those primary book bags did their job. They sealed at the top, kept the contents dry and, so long as you didn’t over stuff them, kept the books straight. Add a shoulder strap and they might have been the perfect bag. Stamp one with the Hogwarts crest and I’d be sold. 

A satchel is another option. Predecessor to the velco-stripped book bag, and definitely higher in the fashion stakes. I’m not convinced about ruck-sacks – overload them with books and you get back ache, and you have to buy a special cover to keep them waterproof.

Here are a some bags I’ve found online. What do you reckon? Have you found the ideal book bag? What makes it perfect? 

 

Announcements · News

Change Blog Tour Dates

 

changebanner

It’s the event of the YA year. Change Book is a highly anticipated release which celebrates voices from the BAME community.  I’m DELIGHTED to announce I am scheduled to write about the opening poem from Musa Okwonga. Aside from that, the blog tour includes reviews, interviews and live tweets from YALC. I know I will be following! 

Away from the blog tour, loads of people are excited to get their paws on the book and post reviews. I will review some short stories closer to the blog tour. I can already tell you it is a great anthology. Catherine Johnston’s story has particularly stuck with me. I am a sucker for circus settings, and I love her exploration of what Victorian Entertainment communities might have meant to people who found it difficult to fit into conventional Victorian society. 

 

Flashback Friday

Flashback Friday – Skellig by David Almond

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Synopsis:

The baby is here. Dr Death visits the new house every day. Mum and Dad say the baby will be fine, but they don’t seem certain themselves. Michael won’t talk to anybody about his concern for the baby. Instead, he stays home from school, and explores the new house.

It’s a strange place, full of dust and decay. Old Mr Myers seems to shadow every corner. There’s the toilet put in downstairs while Mr Myers was dying, and his takeaway menus.

Then there’s the shed, and Skellig. Is he a man? Is he real? Whatever he is, he refuses to move, even though the shed might fall on top of him. It’s like Skellig has given up on the world. It is like he has given in to decay. 

Michael isn’t certain he can help Skellig. Then he meets Mina, a girl nothing like her peers, a girl who knows about blackbirds and owl pellets and William Blake. Strange but assertive, Mina insists on meeting Skellig.

Together the children learn about angels, and evolution, and lifting each other up. Together they learn about Persephone, who came back after months in the underworld.

 

Discussion: 

I thought I knew Skellig. How wrong I was. Almond’s work is like fine wine – it is perfection first time around, and it improves with every reread.

Skellig came into my life shortly before my eleventh birthday. The book had been out for two years, and my primary school raved about it. We worked with it in literacy. I won a Year 6 Certificate for my poem about Skellig – a certificate I treasure equally with my degree. Our teacher read to us every evening, but she was too slow. When I opened my birthday presents, I found a copy of Skellig in my hands. I had talked about it so often, my Mum found me my own copy.

As my early reading of Northern Lights was about a girl running around with Arctic Bears, my first reading of Skellig was about a boy who finds a strange being in his shed. About 27 and 53.

My Name is Mina arrived, a prequel which added a new layer to the original text. It also turned Mina into a character I strongly related to. From the age of 13 I became largely self-taught. Intensely interested in the world, but different from my peers. At the same time, I reread Skellig, and told the then-owner of my favourite bookshop that Skellig was the most perfect text I had ever come across. She told me many school customers said the same. At this time I reread Skellig. Planning my Flashback Friday, I thought this would be sufficient. I chose to reread, but I thought I knew the text.

How.

         Wrong.

                           I.

                                 Was.

Somewhere along the way, the original text had muddled with the television interpretation, which I bought on DVD at the same time as my last reread. This brings out the baby’s story. Makes more of life and death, of the tension between father and son.

Five years is a long time. In those five years I have learned to read critically. Suddenly I can see why Mina’s mother is cutting a pomegranate, shortly before the baby comes home. Suddenly I understand this is Michael’s journey and Michael’s fear and anger.

Something else has happened.

In the past year, I have heard David Almond speak about his work. Twice. That has given me an insight no amount of textual analysis could uncover. I’m due to see him in concert with Katherine Tickell this Autumn. BOOK. BOOK. Almond is building on his interest in different art forms doing the same job. In children’s natural understanding that song and story and drama and visual art are one and the same thing. Read the scene in Ella Grey, where Ella gets out her old art box. That’s what this concert is about.)  

I finished Skellig last night. This morning, I am reading Heaven’s Eyes. Next I will reread The Fire Eaters, or Kit’s Wilderness. Did I say read? I meant savour. Indulge in.

 

Have you read Skellig? Has hearing an author talk enriched your perception of their work?

Young Adult Reviews

Review – Piglettes by Clementine Beauvais

piglettes

Extract:

Hakima sighs. ‘I wish … I wish there was a way to go to that garden party, to tell the truth about Sassin, to scream it to all the journalists, to make them see…’

‘Hakima,’ growls the Sun.

At the same time, Astrid murmurs, ‘I wish … I wish I could see that Indochine gig …’ 

And I’m also whispering, ‘And I … I also have a reason, of sorts, to wish I could be there …’ 

Funny reason. Diverse, but … related reasons to be their, on the 14th of July, to interrupt their annual fiesta and yes, why not, to remind them we exist.

And while we’re at it, we may as well do it with a bit of … panache, right? 

(Piglettes by Clementine Beauvais. P44.) 

 

Synopsis:

Mireille wants to shame the father who has never acknowledged her existence. The father who happens to be married to the president of France. Hakima wants to expose the General who has accepted a prestigious award, when he could have prevented the attack which left her brother disabled and traumatised.   Astrid wants to declare her love for Indochine – the best band in the world.

So what if the girls have won the Trotters – the award for the ugliest girls in school, organised online by Mireille’s ex-friend Malo. Mireille isn’t going to cry about it. Not when the Bastille celebrations in Paris provide an opportunity for all three girls to achieve their real ambitions.

With the help of three bikes, a trailer full of sausages and Hakima’s 26 year-old brother Kader, the girls set off for Paris. Social Media interest builds up, and soon the girls are a press sensation.

Will the girls fulfil their ambitions in Paris? Will their ambitions even be the same by the time they reach the Bastille? A feel-good, feminist read.

 

Review:

I loved this book. Mireille, Astrid and Hakima are super-realistic teenagers, with big hearts and individual flaws. Think Annabel Pitcher. Mireille’s voice is witty, observant and unerringly honest. Mireille uses humour to hide her feelings. People will think she is fine if she makes them laugh.

The main theme is a feminist narrative. Marlo believes his Pig Pageant is an opportunity for girls to realise they have let themselves go. Like many males before him, he believes girls have a duty to look good for the boys around them. Marlo’s story is interesting. He was friends with Mireille until the end of primary school, where people started to tease him for hanging around with an ugly girl. I’m sure more than one reader will relate to this story, and question whether boys have the right to judge girls on their appearance the second they hit adolescence.

There is also some interesting exploration of race and disability discrimination. Hakima and Kader face casual racism daily. Fewer people buy sausages when Hakima and Kader serve, and an elderly lady assures them it isn’t their fault they aren’t white. After all, she says, people come in all colours these days. Likewise, where a newspaper article introduces the girls by name, Kader is written off as a disabled man. Beauvais is excellent at exploring a theme without throwing it in the reader’s face. Many of these comments are incidental – the reader is left to challenge them. Kader is an excellent character. He is not defined by his disability, but his situation means he hasn’t yet adapted to the implications of his condition. This allows the reader to see the challenges Kader faces without turning his disability into a trope.

Pushkin publishes international fiction. One of the great things about their books is reading about other cultures. Piglettes is set in France, and there is a particular focus on the pressure for perfection piled on Middle Class women. There are also descriptions of French cuisine which will make your mouth water. This is a wonderful contrast. Mireille firmly believes there is no point trying to stay slim when you live alongside such wonderful cuisine.  

How can a book which encompasses sexism, racism and disability discrimination be uplifting? The focus of the story is about overcoming other people’s opinions. The fictional press take to the Piglettes for this exact reason – everybody relates to the ‘revenge’ narrative. Three girls are told they are ugly, so they set out on a phenomenal journey, and promise to achieve great things. If that isn’t uplifting, I’ve got two pink ears and a curly tail.

 

waiting on wednesday

Waiting on Wednesday – The Rise of Wolves by Kerr Thomson

rise-of-wolves-669x1024Synopsis:

Innis Munro is walking home across the bleak wilderness of Nin Island when he hears the chilling howl of a wolf. But there are no wolves on the island – not since they were hunted to extinction, centuries ago. He decides to investigate his island home and accepts an ancient challenge: he who jumps the Bonnie Laddie’s Leap wins a fortune. As the wolves rise from the darkness of history, and long-buried secrets resurface, Innis’s adventure truly begins …

 

Why I can’t Wait to read The Rise of Wolves:

  • I love the concrete challenge – to jump Bonnie Laddie’s Leap. My theory is Innis will jump the gap in the form of a wolf. How cool would that story be? If this isn’t the story, I’m writing it. My imagination is going wild, and I’ve only read a short synopsis.

 

  • Done badly, they’re a cliché. Think drooling, snapping wolves, or princesses made brave by the first sight of a bushy tail. Wolves have been in stories since time began. As I said in my review of The Wildings, the best animal stories respect animal behaviour as equally as they anthropomorphise their characters. The setting makes me feel The Rise of Wolves will be in the second category.

 

 

  • I love stories where the protagonist learns about their environment by learning about its past. Think Kit’s Wilderness, Wolf Hollow or The Crowfield Curse. The history of the wolves, hunted to extinction and the ‘ancient challenge’ sound promising.

 

  • Kerr Thomson won the 2014 Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction competition with The Sound of Whales. Chicken House have a great reputation for knowing a good story, and the competition has unearthed some fantastic authors. It’s not only an accolade, it’s an indication of a great author.

 

The Rise of Wolves by Kerr Thomson

Chicken House

November 2017