Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Under Earth by Ellen Renner

Review: Under Earth by Ellen Renner

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Extract:

‘He’ll try to dazzle you with riches and promises! Keep your wits about you, Niece, and meet me in the Merry Whale in a five-day when the sun is six hands risen above the sea.’ (Under Earth by Ellen Renner. P29.)

 

Synopsis:

Storm’s duties as a Weather witch are getting real. She must give up her identity as a female, sail with the fleet and remain loyal to Yanlin. Her first big test turns out to be the trading island of Bellum. Bellum’s wealth is tightly controlled by a collective called the Pact, who shower Storm with gifts and attention, but it is apparent that the Pact want something of Storm’s powers in return.

The more Storm sees of Bellum Town, the more questions she has. Why are there children in poverty when there is so much wealth on the island? Why are there no local artisans? And what does the Salamander – the great, god-like spirit of fire which wants her dead – have in store for Storm?

As Storm pieces together the evidence, she learns more about her own magic. About the reason she was chosen by the other three Elementals.

 

Review:

Under Earth follows on from Storm Witch, a middle-grade fantasy which won my love in 2018. Storm lives in a world where great god-like beings rule over earth, air, water and fire. Three of these Elementals have chosen storm for a mission. The fourth, the Salamander of Fire, has tried to kill her – and will try again as it tries to upset the balance of the world and gain power. Storm knows she has been chosen as a Weather witch but not why. This story follows her as she comes to terms with what she must accept and sacrifice in order to fulfill her role.

It also introduces a new part of the world. Bellum Island is one of the wealthiest nations, yet the majority of its money is hoarded by an elite group of families. Other citizens are barely recognised as such. They are treated as second-rate people. As scavengers and slackers and a complete drain on the island’s resources. What is more, traditional skills are at an all-time low. The island no longer produces things of its own. All of its wealth is in trade. Bellum may be beautiful on the surface, especially to a guest of the Pact, but at its heart, its values are rotten to the core.

Similarities between Bellum and current-day Britain are striking. This book explores political crisis from the angle of trade and international relations, both concepts which too many adults ignore when talking about Brexit and austerity.  While these are deep subjects, they are woven into the story in such a way to provide rich details without slowing the pace. The main question for the readers is will Storm be tempted away from her home in Yanlin? Or forced?

There’s also her ongoing fight with the Salamander. This is something I loved about the series from the start. Think Moana. Think of a sea-based world where knowledge of the Gods remains to varying extents, but where everyone knows the origin stories. That’s Storm’s world too. Fire has always been held in check by Earth, Air and Water, but now it is making a bid for greater power. The consequences, if it breaks free, could destroy the world.

The ending has left me desperate for the next installment. It also linked back to those themes of austerity in a touching way. There is something about Storm which makes her different from every ‘chosen one’ you can think of. I can’t say more without spoilers, but I found this side of the story touching and brilliant.

Under Earth moves the story along while living up to the magic of Storm Witch. I am already waiting to get my hands on the third volume. Great stuff.

 

Thanks to Nosy Crow LTD for my copy of Under Earth. Opinions my own.

Young Adult Reviews

Review: D.O.G.S by M.A. Bennett

Review: D.O.G.S by M.A. Bennett

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Extract:

But because everything was so smooth, and easy, and obstacle-free, I didn’t even question what was going on, or realise I was skipping into the forest as innocently as Red Riding Hood in Hoodwinked. 

Pretty dumb, really. 

The first sniff I had that something dark was going on was when I got the second act of The Isle Of Dogs. 

(D.O.G.S by M.A. Bennett. P74.) 

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Synopsis:

A year on from the events of the Justitium hunt and Greer is focused on getting top marks in her final exams to secure a place at Oxford. Drama students at S.T.A.G.s are responsible for putting on the end of year play, and Greer has taken the role of director. She isn’t certain on which play to perform until an old manuscript is pushed beneath her bedroom door. It is the first act of The Isle Of Dogs,  a work by Ben Jonson hasn’t been seen in over 400 years. It also contains some striking parallels to the social division she has witnessed at STAGS.

Her decision to cast the play puts her relationship with Shafeen on hold, but it may have wider consequences too. As further acts appear, the play leads Greer back towards the Order Of The Stag, and to the place she thought she would never visit: Longcross Hall.

But why does she still question whether Henry might be there? That particular ghost from her past was supposed to be laid to rest over a year ago …

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Review:

STAGS was a triumph of 2017 which both hit the awards list and gathered a legion of fans. My first words when I closed the book were ‘MA Bennett knows how to tell a story’. My second question was ‘Did she mean to write a five-act structure?’ (The author answered this during a Twitter chat. Yes, she did, and to tremendous effect.) When it was confirmed that MA Bennett was the penname of an established writer – and one who studied Shakespeare’s work at masters level – I was not in the least bit surprised.

The influence of historical writers on Bennett’s work comes to the front of the second story, as Greer stages the first playing of The Isle Of Dogs in over 400 years.

This real play saw Ben Jonson imprisoned and almost executed, and this fact is the basis for the events of D.O.G.S. MA Bennett imagines what might have caused Elizabeth the First to react so violently against Jonson’s work in a fictional version of the play. Greer receives this a single act at a time, pushed under her door by a mysterious stranger.

Every act draws her deeper into a world she thought she had left behind.

New characters keep the series fresh. The de Walencourt twins, Cass and Louis, are difficult to read – are they different to the rest of their family, or does the same privileged ambition run through their veins? Ty Morgan a complete star. She’s the new ‘outsider’ to the gilded world of S.T.A.G.S, but she’s sure as heck not going to be made an outsider by the established trio. Ty’s storyline challenges everything readers have come to expect from black characters in secondary roles. Think just about every half-term film from the late 90s or early 2000s. Think about the stereotype of the black best friend. Ty smashes that role to smithereens. There’s also a new staff member whose motives are hard to figure.

D.O.G.S did everything I hoped for. It wasn’t a repeat of S.T.A.G.S, but it built on the themes of social division and an ingrained class system and developed our knowledge about the Order Of The Stag. It brought back familiar locations but allowed us to explore them in new ways, and from new angles. D.O.G.S is as addictive and compelling as its predecessor. MA Bennett sure knows how to write stories which bite.

 

Thanks to Readers First and Hoy Key Books for my gifted copy of D.O.G.S. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: A Stone Sat Still by Brendan Wenzel.

Review: A Stone Sat Still by Brendan Wenzel.

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What is a stone? How does time change our perspective? 

One stone sits in the world. It is dark in the evening shade, but light to an owl. It is loud when a snail shell smashes off its surface, but a snake curls up on it for a moment of quiet reflection. Time changes the landscape until the stone sits in the water. Time and perspective alter the way the stone is seen. It is just as it always was – and yet different every moment. 

A reassuring narrative about perspective and finding a constant in a world of change. 

img_9785This is one of the most thought-provoking picture books I have read this year. It comes at the right time – at a time when so much on the news is about devastation and change and anger. This book is about a quiet moment in the natural world. The stone is constant. It has been there for hundreds of years and will be there for hundreds of years more. This sense of connectivity is reassuring when there is so much talk about division. 

Is it a book about climate change? Not quite, but it reminds us of our connections to other living beings. However much we deny or ignore it, we are only one of many creatures on this planet. The book reminds us that other lives are meaningful and extraordinary too. 

Pale wash backgrounds contrast with detailed texture. The effect is something like being outside and zooming in on several details. We can’t notice everything in a vast landscape, but what we do notice should grab our attention. Vibrant colours, too, show the changing seasons, and the whole thing is something like a lullaby sung to us by the world. 

A beautiful picture book which poses questions and offers us a space to reflect in a hectic and sometimes disspiriting world. This text reassures us that the world is a miraculous place. 

 

Thanks to Chronicle Books for my gifted copy of A Stone Sat Still. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The House Of Light by Julia Green.

Review: The House Of Light by Julia Green.

The House Of Light

Extract:

He was shivering. His feet were bare. His clothes torn. She was sure he hadn’t eaten for a long time. But he seemed intent on moving the boat. He rocked it back and forth, loosening it from the snow and sand. He lifted it up from one end, and with a deft shove he flipped it right over. He must be much stronger than he looked. He began to push the boat away from the dunes, away from her, down the beach.

(The House Of Light by Julia Green. P32.)

 

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Synopsis:

Bonnie and Granda live quietly together, keeping to themselves and following their own interests in spite of all the regulations and rules from the authorities. One day, Bonnie finds a battered old boat on the beach. When news comes that the Border Guards are searching for a boy, Bonnie decides to find him first.

Ish has travelled a long way. He is cold and hungry and alone in the world. He needs shelter but keeping him safe is a criminal offence. As Bonnie and Ish talk about art and borders and people who pass through the island, Bonnie begins to wonder if there is a place out there where she can be free to live without fear of regulations. Would she be brave enough to search for such light?

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Review:

In a sea of divisions, hatred and narrow ideas, it can be difficult to know where to look for the light. Children are currently faced with news stories about global crises and politicians who shut these out to focus on their own agenda. I remember, as a child, being frightened about what 9/11 meant. Goodness knows how today’s children feel.

This masterful novel offers readers a safe space to think about these issues. It is also a story of empathy and friendship. From the moment I saw the boat, I wanted the owner to find shelter. To find people who cared. Julia Green creates powerful images which draw us in long before we know the details.

Bonnie is aptly named. She lives in a time of tight controls, where obedience and conformity are enforced, but she has been taught other values. About art and empathy and places far away. She drinks the world in, combing beaches and singing with Granda and dreaming of a time when people were free to see other parts of the world. She is a vessel of all the beautiful things which are less valued under the regime she lives in.

Her outlook is beautiful. It offers hope because so long as someone remembers these values, they are not lost. They can return.

This is a novel of our times, but it is also a novel of nature. Of outdoors. Julia Green’s books make me want to get out an explore as much as any nature biography. Her descriptions conjure the setting so well that becomes real, and the story is peppered with facts which would make anyone hungry to explore. Her books remind everyone that nature is miraculous and out there discover.

Although the themes of this story sound bleak, Julia Green is a masterful writer, and the main feelings which the reader would take away are hope. Hope and a sense of wonder at the beautiful things which are out there to find. At the difference one small person can make. This is children’s literary fiction at its finest. A beacon of light and a beautiful story.

 

Thanks to Oxford University Press for my gifted copy of The House Of Light. Opinions my own.

Non-Fiction

Review: Find Tom In Time – Ancient Egypt by Fatti Burke.

Review: Find Tom In Time – Ancient Egypt by Fatti Burke.

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Whoosh! A magic amulet has transported Tom back to Ancient Egypt alongside his Granny Bea and Digby the cat. There’s so much to see and explore. 

Where’s Wally spotting challenges meet non-fiction in this addictive book which will keep everyone staring at the pages. 

This isn’t a big fat history book. It introduces the reader to the idea of a different historical period through different spreads which show how life, death, religion, housing and daily life might have looked during that time. This gives an overview and flavour of what we know about the general period. Placing one period in relation to another can be difficult, and the first step is to understand that life has happened in times and places other than our own. 

Tom sees so many places along the way that the series would be brilliant for anyone with burning questions. What did school look like? What did people eat and what kind of clothes did they wear? Alongside the spotting game, there are short bites of text to explain what is happening in the pictures. 

The book is addictive, with additional things to spot on every page. It would be great to play alone or in a group, with each person looking for a different thing. 

Granny Bea is a wonderful addition as a female archeologist. Certain jobs are surrounded by stereotypes and the only way to end this is to constantly show all kinds of people filling these roles. 

A fun way to dive into a new period, and a great concept to hook budding historians. 

 

Thanks to Nosy Crow for my gifted copy of Find Tom In Time – Ancient Egypt. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Moon River by Tim Hopgood. [Based on the song by Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini].

Review: Moon River by Tim Hopgood. [Based on the song by Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini].

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Moon  River, wider than a mile,  I’m crossing you in style, someday.

Good song lyrics draw in the listener. They raise questions and images in our mind. Where is this river? Who is this dreamer and will he or she ever cross the river? Why can’t they do so now?

Moon River was written for the score of Breakfast At Tiffany’s, and won an Oscar for best original song in 1961, although possibly the best-known version is sung by Andy Williams. This will be familiar to anyone, like me, whose grandparents came of age and were in their 20s during an era jazz music and rock and roll.

Tim Hopgood’s picture book interprets the song as a dreamy lullaby. It is a gentle tune about big dreams and journeys and taking in the magic of life along the way. The images of the moon on the river and the rainbow’s end lend themselves beautifully to Hopgood’s interpretation. This is the perfect book to read before bedtime.

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It follows a girl whose toys come to life and take her down the river. Teddy and Horse navigate their course while pointing out the beautiful scenery. I love particularly how this focuses on details – the light on the water and the other boats ahead. It is important to appreciate the small moments of beauty in the world.

An accompanying CD includes both the Andy Williams version of the song and a guided read-along track. This would be a lovely activity to share with a young reader and the perfect way to wind down for bed. It might also give huge amounts of pleasure to elderly people with dementia who were young when the song was released.

Tim Hopgood’s illustrations are soft and colourful, with lots of attention given to the light and water and the drifting clouds.

A dreamy story, and a beautiful interpretation of the original lyrics.

 

Thanks to Oxford University Press for my gifted copy of Moon River. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Alice In Wonderland – A Puzzle Adventure by Aleksandra Artymowska.

Review: Alice In Wonderland – A Puzzle Adventure by Aleksandra Artymowska.

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Fall down the rabbit hole and puzzle your way through Wonderland. This beautiful volume presents Wonderland as it has never been seen before. Familiar characters and settings remain, but instead of telling the story it is up to the ready to work through the puzzles and on to the next page.

From counting games to mazes, spotting challenges to pairing games, there is something for everyone. Some of the puzzles are more difficult than others, which ensures that everyone solves something and feels rewarded. Details from the book are cleverly incorporated into the game: finding a key to escape the rabbit hole, spotting a lizard inside the White Rabbit’s house, and spotting the differences between Tweedledum and Tweedledee are among many examples. Part of the delight is in recognising favourite scenes from the story.

Put this on a coffee table or in a book corner and it is bound to be poured over.

img_9790Aleksandra Artymowska has previously constructed puzzle adventures based on the work of Jules Verne, and her experience shows. The pages draw the reader in and maintain their attention, with additional mini-tasks to keep everyone going even when the main puzzle is proving hard.

Minimalist, modern characters are contrasted with a wealth of pattern and detail. The important parts of the illustration – the puzzle – draw the eye while the backgrounds are clean and simple. This ensures the focus remains on the important details, but it also creates a unique and attractive style.

This has proved a big hit in my household, both with Wonderland devotees and people who can’t rest until they figure out the answer. It is a perfect gift for fans of Alice In Wonderland. It is also one of those books which attracts anyone who sees the cover.

 

Thanks to Big Picture Books for my gifted copy of Alice In Wonderland – A Puzzle Adventure. Opinions my own.

Non-Fiction · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Manhattan by Jennifer Thermes.

Review: Manhattan by Jennifer Thermes

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From millions of years ago, when the island was inhabited by wildlife, to the thriving metropolis we know today, this is the story of Manhattan. It’s geography, it’s history and it’s people. With maps to show how the island would have looked and illustrations of the different eras, this beautiful book is the story of one place through time. 

And what a place. Manhattan isn’t somewhere I have visited, but even so I feel I know its streets. Not only from the photo shows of my sister’s visits but from the multitude of films and television programmes which are set in New York. Before reading this, I knew little of its history, but I recognise so many of the best-known locations. 

Manhattan moves through the earliest settlements, to the American Revolution and then to the Grid Plan of 1811 and the great skyscrapers of the 20th Century. Every era is brought to life through the illustrations, which show not only the place but the people who lived there. History is easier to understand when we realise it is about people like us. Relating to another person’s story makes the past more accessible. 

img_9800The maps are so detailed, and it is fascinating to see how the city built over time, and how different areas were joined together as a result of the grid plan and subway and bridges. With double-page spreads covering different topics, this book manages to provide a detailed account of the area’s growth without overwhelming the reader. There is plenty of breathing space to look at the maps and illustrations. 

Towards the back of the book is a wonderful double-page spread which shows the island in four different eras right next to each other. As I looked over this page, it really seemed to grow before my eyes. There is also a useful timeline which allows the reader to look over the history without reading the whole book. 

As an introduction to or visual history of an area, this is fantastic. The level of detail is impeccable and it is difficult to resist flicking through and comparing the different eras. 

 

Thanks to Abrams Books For Young Readers for my gifted copy of Manhattan. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Unicorn Club by Suzy Senior and Leire Martín.

Review: Unicorn Club by Suzy Senior and Leire Martín.

Unicorn Club

Amy is disappointed when no other children arrive for unicorn club. Then she sees a swishy tail and a sparkly horn. Real unicorns have come instead. Out come the glitter and the sparkly disco ball for a magical session of fun. 

A beautiful story about turning disappointment around and finding new friends. 

Disappointment can be a big blow to small people. When an anticipated activity or trip is cancelled, it can be difficult to stay happy. In the story, Amy not only meets a heard of unicorns, she also gets out her paint and crayons and glitter. She has cupcakes. People often equate cancelled fun with a boring day, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Turning to our own creativity and imagination can lead to hours of entertainment. 

The unicorns are also new friends. A cancelled playdate doesn’t mean there is nobody to play with. Not if a trip to the local park or play area is possible. Amy’s easy acceptance of the unicorns could encourage children to think about how they might respond to playing with groups other than their closest friends. 

This book will also be popular with fans of pastels, glitter and all things pink. 

What I liked about the illustration was it didn’t go overboard on the cute. There was a nice balance between sparkle and everyday. Amy likes pink, but she dresses in practical clothes. She likes glitter, but she also likes climbing into her treehouse. Certain things have, for too long, been associated with one gender, and this balance allows them to be included without sending stereotyped messages about what it means to be a girl. 

There is so much joy in this book. From the big, unicorn smiles to the sparkly rainbows, the story reassures readers that a disappointment can turn into a whole new kind of fun. 

 

Many thanks to Little Tiger UK for my gifted copy of Unicorn Club. Opinions my own.

 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Switching Hour by Damaris Young

Review: The Switching Hour by Damaris Young

Switching Hour

Extract:

‘Until the rains arrive,’ Granny Uma said, ‘you must come home before the Switching Hour. No one is safe from Badeko the Dream Eater at night, no matter how fast you think you can run.’ 

(The Switching Hour by Damaris Young. P15.)

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Synopsis:

Everyone knows about Badeko. He creeps into house and steals away children to devour their dreams. When he has finished feasting on them, the memory of their existence disappears from their loved ones, who then suffer from terrible grief known as The Sorrow Sickness.

Amaya knows the rules. Every night she locks the door to protect herself and her little brother from the sorrow sickness. Then one day she loses her temper and in the aftermath, she forgets to lock the door.

Her small brother is taken, except Amaya determines to bring him back. With the help of her pet goat Tau and new friend Mally, Amaya sets out to find the Badeko’s nest.

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Review:

When a talented storyteller begins a tale, it creates a feeling in the reader. Something like a shiver, except they are so hooked that they sit still. This is the feeling I had whilst reading The Switching Hour. I knew from the first page that I was in the hands of a talented author.

The story also centres around climate issues, which have never been more relevant given the climate emergency which threatens life on our planet. Amaya lives in an extreme climate, and the terrible creature which steals children from their homes was awoken by drought. The community desperately awaits the rains which will send Badeko back to sleep. This is the first time I have seen a tale about a creature awoken by climate crisis, and yet it felt like something I knew inside my heart. As if the story is already playing out around us and the author told it in the very best way.

On a personal note, Amaya’s grief for her mother was told in a real and beautiful way. As a twenty-something who has just undergone the same loss, I related to much of what Amaya felt. That desperate fear that I will forget details about my mother, and that I am not doing as she would want in any given situation. Bereavement and loss is not only a thing that happened at some point in time. It shapes a person’s reactions and thoughts and emotions ever after. The Switching Hour shows this to perfection.

The story feels like a folk tale not only because of the forest and the fantastical creature but because it tells a story of our times and poses a question: do we want this to happen?

The Switching Hour is not only a strong concept, it is told with language so beautiful it gets under the skin. This is storytelling. This is what a good book looks like.  

A haunting and memorable debut.

 

Thanks to Scholastic Children’s Books for my gifted copy of The Switching Hour. Opinions my own.