Young Adult Reviews

Review: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Review: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

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Extract:

His words are mild ; his tone is not. And what he says unlocks some long-buried memory. Just like that, I’m no longer in the lecture hall but back at Rose Hill Plantation, watching as the major slowly uncoils his horsewhip from its hook. 

This ain’t your place, girl. You run back inside ‘fore you’re next. 

(Dread Nation by Justina Ireland. P76.)

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Synopsis:

Jane McKeene is nearing the end of her training at Miss Preston’s School Of Combat. Since the shamblers first rose on the battlefields of the American Civil War, a programme has been in place to train young black people in the combat skills necessary to keep them at bay.

Jane was born to a white mother and longs to find her way home. Instead, she is sent far away to a Western outpost where she uncovers terrible secrets. It seems not all the monsters are undead.

A zombie story with a political message about the consequences of ignorance and division.

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Review:

At last, a zombie novel which challenges the reader’s intelligence and makes a statement about the current political climate.

The shamblers (what a great word for zombies) are terrifying. They are unashamedly gory and bear a close resemblance to their living forms, roaming the world in ragged clothes.

They are not the only antagonists.

The Survivalists Party puts out propaganda about non-white people’s links to the shamblers and attempts to save themselves by building a wall. You would have to have spent the past two years with your head in the sand if you can’t spot similarities to political events in modern America.

Jane is a feisty and unapologetic heroine whose ideas about combat are often three steps ahead of her elders. She is forced to fight the zombies against her will, and at the same time she is faced with a climate which views her as something less than a person. As well as being an alternative history which builds on very real events, the book speaks out about the experiences faced by black people at the hands of the countries, politicians and neighbours.

If it sounds bleak, remember that this book is giving voice to experiences which have been white-washed out of history. Own voices fantasy brings lived experiences to a mainstream audience, and the world will be a richer place for having these voices in print.

A zombie novel like none I have read before. It proves that zombie stories can be about more than cheap thrills and that the most real horror is the systematic oppression faced by groups in society.

 

Thanks to Titan Books for my gifted copy of Dread Nation. Opinions my own.

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Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Against All Gods by Maz Evans

Review: Against All Gods by Maz Evans

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Extract:

‘I can’t,’ Elliot said simply. ‘I have to do this.’ 

He thought of Josie and took a deep breath. While there was even the most desperate chance of seeing her again – whatever he had to do, no matter how risky it was and how slim the chance of succeeding – Elliot Hooper wasn’t going anywhere. 

(Against All Gods by Maz Evans. P12.) 

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Synopsis:

The odds are stacked against Elliot.

His home has been stolen, his father betrayed him and the only way he will ever see his mother again is if he hands the Chaos Stones over to Thanatos in exchange for her soul.

That will put mankind in peril, but there is no way Elliot is living without his mum.

As Elliot faces his toughest battle yet, the Gods rally to fight. Can they really hold off the dark powers of the demon army?

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Review:

A final battle to save the earth, and one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the history of fantasy. While the Gods gain lots of attention with their tremendous characters, it was Elliot who stole the show with his emotional growth.

Elliot is the kind of boy who makes the wrong decisions for all the right reasons. Throughout the series, his mum and his home have been forefront in his mind. He hasn’t had much time to be a kid, because he is too busy being the adult and keeping things together. It is more than time that a boy like Elliot features as the protagonist of a fantasy series. Imagine having to fight the battle to save all of mankind when there is something more important on your mind.

Maz Evans works in references to Greek mythology while keeping the story firmly rooted in the present day. The Gods carry technology (the iGod), use modern slang and follow fad diets. This not only brings the characters up to date but takes a humorous and honest look at modern life. While some of the humour is unashamedly bold, there are subtler points too. Why, for example, do we assume that the gorgon is going to be a brainless monster when she might hold a Ph.D. from Cambridge?

This series has been a major hit, and it is easy to see why. Alongside solid writing skills, there is a touch of magic about the books which makes them unforgettable. They have great child appeal while holding the adult reader, and there is no way on earth you could fail to root for Elliot.

Many are sorry to see the series end, but the other way to look at it is that the final book makes the story whole. A fitting ending to a popular story.

 

Thanks to Laura Smythe PR and Chicken House Books for my copy of Against All Gods. Opinions my own.

 

 

 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Asha And The Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan.

Review: Asha And The Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan.

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Extract:

‘I wish you were my nanijee,’ I say, my voice quivering. ‘I need her so much.’ A grey feather tinged with gold floats down and lands at my foot. I stroke its silky softness and weave it into my plait. ‘Perhaps I’ll call you my spirit bird.’ 

(Asha And The Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan. P24.)

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Synopsis:

Asha loves her home in the foot of the Himalayas, except that she misses her papa who works in the city. When debt collectors come to stake a claim on the house, Asha discovers that papa has stopped sending money. In fact, nobody has heard from him at all.

Determined that she won’t lose her home or go to England, Asha sets off on a journey to find her papa. She will have to cross the world’s highest mountains, facing the dangers which come with such a crossing. As hunger and tiredness set in, Asha seeks courage from a bird. She is certain this is the spirit of her nanijee, here to watch over her.

A story about friendship, determination and love.

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Review:

A beautiful and heartfelt story about a girl who would cross mountains to check up on her father.

Asha stands out as a protagonist is brave but not fearless, however fearless she may believe herself to be. She is motivated by love for her family and her home and acts out of necessity and not a reckless need to put herself in danger. She knows fear along the way but seeks assurance in her religious beliefs, particularly that the spirit of her grandmother is watching over her.

The settings are brought to life with sensory detail. I felt as if I had listened to the crickets, and sipped milk with cinnamon and smelt the rose petals in a local woman’s hut. It feels as though Jasbinder Bilan has not so much written a story as taken real places and brought them to life with a special magic.

Nanijee’s spirit brings a sense of security to the reader as well as to Asha. It was lovely to hear about Asha’s religious beliefs and to understand how they might have guided her along the journey. This would make a lovely book to read ahead of a  religious education unit because religious practice makes so much more sense when we understand how they guide a person’s life.

Asha’s friendship with Jeevan was another highlight. At first she has a rigid idea of what his help and friendship should look like, but as the story moves on she finds a different respect for him.

A courageous journey to remain at home with family. This is a beautiful book which I would recommend to anyone looking for a character with a fighting spirit.

 

Thanks to Chicken House Books for my gifted copy of Asha And The Spirit Bird. Opinions my own.

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Closest Thing To Flying by Gill Lewis

Review: The Closest Thing To Flying by Gill Lewis

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Extract:

Many years ago, another girl her age had sat looking at this bird. 

Something about it had changed her life. 

Semira wondered if she and the diary were somehow connected, as if her whole future were bound up within its pages.

Maybe this small green bird could unlock the secrets of Semira’s past. 

Maybe it could even change Semira’s whole life too. 

(From The Closest Thing To Flying by Gill Lewis. P19.)

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Synopsis:

Semira and her mother have no choice but to live with abusive, angry Robel. If they tell immigration the truth Robel says they will be sent back to Eritrea. When Semira breaks the rules and buys an old hat at a junk store, she finds a diary written in the 1800s written by a girl called Hen.

Hen writes about the social expectations of women, and how fearless aunt Kitty is for forming her own opinions. Reading about Hen and Kitty makes Semira feel braver, but will it be enough to help herself and her mother?

A touching and beautiful story about the powers and limitations of bravery.  

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Review:

There is a saying. The battle’s lost but not the war. This is a story about knowing where we stand against injustice and oppression, but also knowing the limitations of what we can do alone.

Both strands of the story were beautiful. I felt I knew Semira straight away. She’s been through some difficult times and has learned through necessity to keep her head down, but she is also a fighter. A rebel. She hasn’t allowed Robel to dictate her thoughts.

Hen lives in a society where women are forced to adhere to strict rules, but the earliest signs of rebellion are happening underground. After riding a bicycle and feeling liberated, Hen questions what else women might do.

The other character who deserves mention is Semira’s real-life friend Patrick. Patrick is bullied at school and misunderstood, but he shows Semira true friendship and loyalty. As his story unfolds the reader is reminded people have experienced far more than we know from the surface.

This is also a brilliant historical and political novel, showing how the formation of the RSPB (then the Society for the Protection of Birds) was founded by a woman in protest to the use of feathers in fashion. We also see the social undercurrents which later lead to the women’s suffrage movements, and the trials faced by refugees in Britain today.

What could have been a serious book is exceptionally uplifting. We can find friends in the darkest of times, and those friends can be the catalyst we need to challenge ourselves. They also offer cake and company and an open door.

A beautiful story from an established and popular author. This made me desperate to seek out Gill Lewis’s earlier work, and I look forward to catching up on her other stories.

 

Thanks to Oxford University Press for my gifted copy of The Closest Thing To Flying. Opinions my own.

Non-Fiction · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Your Mind Is Like The Sky by Bronwen Ballard and Laura Carlin

Review: Your Mind Is Like The Sky by Bronwen Ballard and Laura Carlin

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Your mind is like the sky. It changes from blue to grey. Your thoughts are like clouds. There are nice, white fluffy clouds. Then there are the darker ones. The ones which bring worrying thoughts. The question is what can we do to prevent those clouds from hanging over us and obscuring the view? 

A beautiful picture book that introduces mindfulness concepts and techniques. Brownwen Ballard is a psychologist and coach who teaches mindfulness in primary schools, so she is well-placed to write a book for children. 

Anxiety, worry and fear can all become overwhelming, and when that happens it can be difficult to see past our thoughts and to understand that other possibilities are equally likely. It can be difficult to see that we are in control. Your Mind Is Like The Sky suggests that rather than fighting or trying to ignore our feelings, we acknowledge them alongside all the other thoughts in our head. This helps us keep negative thoughts in perspective. 

img_8431The book follows one child through a world. We see what is really there alongside any number of other things, some of which are really there and some of which are inside the child’s head. At times it can be difficult to tell between the two, but I think that is the clever thing about the illustrations. Pictures often show what has been observed, but there is more to the world than that. There are the things we fail to see, the things we can’t possibly see and the things inside our head. At times our thoughts can feel as real as the world around us. 

Gently shaded backgrounds and colourful line-drawings add to the impression that we are sharing the child’s experience. The line-drawings have a childish quality about them in the very best way. Flowers sit alongside pianos and toy dinosaurs and lines of marching ants. All are out of proportion but somehow they build a lively and imaginative world. 

A gentle and informative introduction to the principles of mindfulness. 

 

Thanks to The Quarto Group for my gifted copy of Your Mind Is Like The Sky. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Terry And The Brilliant Book by Nicola Kent

Review: Terry And The Brilliant Book by Nicola Kent

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Terry and Sue are best friends who love playing with balls. They bat them and bash them and enjoy running around. Then Sue gives Terry a book. At first he can’t figure out what to do with it, but then he finds he can’t put it down. Sue gives it a try and she falls in love with reading too. Reading comes between their friendship when they forget to give time to other things. Then they discover the library together and learn to balance all kinds of hobbies. 

A colourful book about the joys of reading. 

As a bookworm, there are often times when I would rather be reading. In fact, that covers pretty much all occasions. Unfortunately, it can have a detrimental effect on other areas of life. This picture book introduces children to the joy of reading and teaches them to balance their hobbies with other activities. It would be a lovely book to read with any child who would do one thing above everything else.

It also shows that reading can be a hobby and a joy just like sport. Some children have never thought of reading as something which people might choose to do in their leisure time. Statistics show that many people live in households with few or no books. Understanding that reading can be a pleasure is vital if people are to maintain the habit outside of educational settings. 

I loved the colourful illustrations. The book uses lots of primary colours, with contrasting purples and pinks. The wash-effect calms these colours so that it is rather like looking at a stained-glass window or a packet of boiled sweets.  There are lots of details in the pictures for readers to pick out, from all the different things in the shop windows to the different pieces of Terry’s patchwork quilt. Books like this are lovely for sharing because it opens up lots of conversation about the setting.

A relatable and charming story about the perils of loving something too much. A lovely introduction to conversations about hobbies or ‘all about me’.

 

Thank you to Macmillan Children’s Books UK for my gifted copy of Terry And The Brilliant Book. Opinions my own.   

Non-Fiction · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Flights Of Fancy – stories, pictures and inspiration from ten Children’s Laureates. (Many authors and illustrators).

Review: Flights Of Fancy – stories, pictures and inspiration from ten Children’s Laureates. (Many authors and illustrators).

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We are all creators. Every one of us has the skill of observation. Of thought. Every one of us is capable of putting something down on paper. 

When we come to do that, it can seem more difficult. 

Flights Of Fancy is packed with stories and poems, plays and pictures from the ten children’s laureates who have inspired children across the UK. As well as being a compendium of creativity full of original work from some of the most beloved creators at work today, the book gets behind the role of Children’s Laureate and looks at the amazing work of laureates past and present. 

The laureateship is awarded every two years to an author or illustrator who has done outstanding work in their field. This person then has the opportunity to promote specific issues or skills related to children’s literature. The position is currently held by Lauren Child, author and illustrator of Charlie And Lola, Clarice Bean and numerous other titles. 

Flights Of Fancy has a profile for every past laureate which details their work and their response to the post. I was particularly interested to read about Anne Fine’s initiative to create beautiful and freely-available bookplates for children to stick in second-hand books. Not every child has access to new books and encouraging children to take ownership of the books which are available to them is a wonderful idea. The bookplates are still available to print at My Home Library

There is also new work from all of the authors and illustrators, including Quentin Blake’s fantastic drawings of flying machines and Jacquline Wilson’s story which is told in the form of a diary. 

The book is also full of tips, games and inspiration to challenge readers to engage with their creativity. From Anthony Browne’s shape game, Julia Donaldson’s word wheel and Malorie Blackman’s ideas about taking a word for a walk, there are plenty of starting points to new creative projects. What I loved most about this book was its emphasis on the similarities between creativity and play. We hear big words like imagination and gifted and creative and think that art is limited to the chosen ones who have been blessed with special powers when actually these people have played and enjoyed their hobbies and engaged with them for great lengths of time. While there is no doubt that professional-level skills take many hours to master, we can all play. We can all communicate. We can all make marks on a page. Some of those works will even be worth sharing with the people around us. 

Flights Of Fancy is an exceptional book which celebrates our creators and encourages everyone to keep in touch with their imaginative side. I would recommend this to children and ‘big children’. This would make a beautiful gift, especially if it was given alongside a sketchbook and a notebook and some pencils. 

 

Many thanks to Walker Books UK for my gifted copy of Flights Of Fancy. Opinions my own.