Middle Grade Reviews

Review: School for Skylarks by Sam Angus

SchoolforSkylarks

Extract:

Great Aunt Ada’s house was so far proving most unusual, and Lyla began to look forward to telling Mop all about the things that happened in it. One thing though was a little disappointing, and that was the matter of Old Alfred the armadillo not being alive. So, because she did in fact hope there might be others, she asked, ‘Are there any live armadillos in your house, Great Aunt Ada?’

‘No … oh dear, you see there’s only Old Alfred who was a very dear companion, like Solomon – very constant, very dependable. That’s what you want: constancy and dependability. These are the things you need in those you chose to love, don’t you think? No point at all in wasting time in those who are not constant in their love for you.’

The Person Lyla loved most was Mop, so she thought about Mop, and then, though she didn’t know what to make of Aunt Ada’s words, found that they were discomfiting and somehow causing her toast to stick in her mouth a little.

 

Synopsis:

Lyla hasn’t seen her father for years. Not since he left Lyla’s mother, Mop. It was all over the papers when he left Mop for another woman. Now he thinks it is acceptable to kidnap Lyla in the middle of the night, and take her to Great Aunt Ada’s. Lyla won’t stand for it.

Furlongs is a strange house. Great Aunt Ada works on her inventions, while the butler Solomon keeps things ticking along. Who would feed the stuffed armadillo without Solomon? Lyla is adamant she won’t be staying long, and devises various escape plans. She volunteers Furlongs for the war effort, but her plan goes horribly wrong. Instead of filling the house with soliders, the war office send a school full of girls.

Lyla is not only stuck at Furlongs. For the first time in her life, she interacts with girls her age and goes to school. She would like to be friends with rebellious Cat, but doesn’t know how to go about it.

Lyla refuses to read her father’s letters. She wants Mop to write, wants Mop to send the presents the other mother sends. Surely Mop won’t leave Lyla at Furlongs?

 

Review:

A touch Eva Ibbotson, a touch Dick King-Smith. Sam Angus’s gentle prose and eccentric characters brought tears to my eyes.

Lyla is a great protagonist. She gets things wrong. We know she’s getting things wrong, but we still root for her. Lyla is so desperate for a display of affection from her mother, it is difficult not to want a happy resolution. This kept me reading. I wanted to know how Lyla would adapt to life at Furlongs.

Great Aunt Ada is the kind of eccentric aunt who only turns up in children’s fiction. Lyla needs somewhere to stay, and conveniently there is a Great Aunt who lives in a mansion. Well … you wait until you read about Furlongs. I’m all for settings which reflect the readers’ lives, but dream worthy settings have their merits. Furlongs is heavenly, with it’s strange bedrooms and homemade fireworks. And animals! A ferret here, a horse there. Angus doesn’t run away with her setting. This isn’t nostalgia for jolly-old-Britannia. Angus uses her setting to explore themes which are relevant regardless of social background.

I love Lyla and Cat’s friendship. Cat is a great character, who proves that sometimes rebels have the right ideas. Less concerned with social appearances than her peers, Cat empathises with Lyla, and never gives up on their friendship.

Lyla’s desperation for Mop’s love is handled sensitively. Lyla’s feelings take centre-stage, but Mop’s perspective opens discussion about gender-equality. Do we expect the same of mothers as fathers? Do we judge mothers and fathers equally?

The book spans six years. This is quite a time period for a short book. One advantage is the snippets of information about World War Two which are fed into the narrative. Receiving this information alongside fictional characters gives a sense of how news might have been received at the time, and how much damage had been done to communities and countries by the time it came. Father’s letters are delightful. They made me want to search out real correspondence from soldiers – although I may invest heavily in tissues before I do so.

 

Have you read any of Sam Angus’s work? Which of her novels should I read next? Let me know in the comments below.

 

 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Explorer by Katherine Rundell

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Extract:

The sun was ferociously hot, and he was still alive. Those were the first two thoughts that came to Fred as he opened his eyes. He looked down at his wristwatch, but the face was cracked and the minute hand had fallen off. 

The two girls were asleep next to him. Both of them were covered in blood and scabs, but they were breathing easily. Con had her thumb in her mouth. There was a host of dragonflies in luminous blues and reds dancing around them. He thought they might be attracted to the blood. 

But there was no sign of the little boy. 

Max was missing. 

(The Explorer by Katherine Rundell, P16 – 17.) 

 

Synopsis:

Fred is sensible. A nice boy. Everybody says so. Sometimes Fred wishes people would think of something more remarkable to say. Fred would love to do something impressive, something his father would take notice of. Then Fred is in a plane which crashes over the Amazon jungle. He survives alongside three other children: Lila, her little brother Max and fearless Con.

The jungle removes all the social conventions of the modernised world. Con and Lila may be dressed in frills, but Con won’t allow Fred to act the ‘fearless man’. Con finds she is equal to Fred, once society isn’t there to tell her otherwise.

The  children find a map, which leads them to the ruined temple and the Explorer. The Explorer has lived in jungle for a long time, and adapted to jungle life. He is not keen to meet the children. Children are noisy, and under-grown. Children remind him of something he would rather forget.

The Explorer is an adult. In the ‘real world’ adults help children. The Explorer thinks differently. The jungle is as real as it gets, and he won’t help the children go anywhere until he is certain they will keep a promise. A promise Fred refuses to make.

 

Review:

Katherine Rundell is masterful in revelation. Her exposition is spot-on. Reading her work is like following a bread crumb trail: Rundell drops just enough bread crumbs to keep you hunting for more. The children are interesting characters, but the Explorer himself makes the story. I wanted to know why he was in the jungle. What is this man’s backstory? Will he help the children? The introduction of the Explorer a third of the way in opened a treasure-trove of questions.

The Explorer’s story opens ideas about the Western world imposing its values on other cultures. Rundell uses the metaphor of early explorers bringing pianos and tea cups into the jungle, trying to make the expedition ‘comfortable’ by bringing home comforts. She interrogates the values of the time, and the way people took opportunity of other cultures instead of embracing them. Fred’s narrative is closely tied to this. Initially, he hopes to return home to impress the world with his tales of the jungle.

Rundell makes clever use of imagery throughout the novel to investigate character conflict. I love the Explorer’s private space. He forbids the children to look behind the vines. It mirrors his hidden secrets, and his fear the children’s presence will bring his past into the open.

Rundell investigates the way different relationships shape us, from friendships to love and family bonds. One of my favourite lines is about love at first sight being a recognition that a person or place will make your heart stronger. Rundell is perceptive about interactions between people. She shows the affect one person can have on another. 

There is some interesting exploration of gender. The jungle takes away the conventions of the modernised world. Con thrives. At the start she is cross and defensive, bunched up in a dress which she finds unnecessarily frilly. Once she is in the jungle, she never allows Fred to put himself above her. Fred must work alongside her as an equal. Lila goes unnoticed until Fred and Con fall out. Suddenly Lila – who cares for her little brother Max and an adopted sloth called Baca – speaks out. Quiet, nurturing, motherly Lila is more perceptive in this situation the Con or Fred.

The Explorer is perceptive about the way the Western World treats other cultures. Similar in theme to Kensuke’s Kingdom, it focuses on cultural landmarks as much as wildlife. The book looks set to be beautiful, with illustrations around the text by Hannah Horn. I look forward to holding it in my hands. I recommend reading in one or two sittings. This way, you won’t have to wait for an answer to the questions which build in your mind. 

 

Huge thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for sending me an advanced copy via NetGalley. This does not affect the honesty of my review.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review – Bad Mermaids by Sibeal Pounder

BadMermaids.jpg

Extract:

They looked up as a cluster of piranhas started making their way back down from the rock face. 

Shelly Shelby started drumming her fingers against her tail with the momentum of someone who thought time was going to run out. ‘Your mother is a dear friend of mine, Beattie, and she’d want me to tell you to stay safe, to hide. But I say – be like her!

‘But I’m not nearly as brave as her,’ Beattie mumbled. 

‘Go find danger! Be bold! Bad!’ Shelly Shelby went on, really getting into it. ‘And figure out how to stop this Swan character.’ 

(Bad Mermaids by Sibeal Pounder. P51.) 

Synopsis:

Beattie, Mimi and Zelda are enjoying a holiday on land when they receive a Crabgram from mermaid queen Arabella Cod. It instructs them to go home to the lagoon through the secret back pipe entrance. If Beattie’s Mum can investigate wrecks in the Atlantic searching for legendary shells of power, then surely Beattie can be brave?

The girls arrive home to find Arabella has been overthrown by a mysterious mermaid known only as The Swan. The Swan orders her sidekick Ommy Pike to keep the lagoon under surveillance. Piranhas follow the mermaids, drawn to them by the marks imprinted on their nails. Beattie, Mimi and Zelda were away when Arabella was overthrown, so they haven’t got the piranha marks. They may be the only mermaids who can investigate.

Every year the mermaid queen appoints five mermaids to rule the districts of the Lagoon. When it becomes apparent that the only mermaids Arabella met with on the day she vanished were the newly appointed SHOAL councillors, Beattie and her friends journey across the lagoon, seeking the truth while trying to avoid some seriously bad mermaids.

 

Review:

In Witch Wars, Sibeal Pounder made a distinctive world, of friendship, glitz and quirky buildings. She’s done it again. The Lagoon has its own fashions and sports, television shows and cars. The different areas of the Lagoon are distinctively different from each other, allowing Pounder to go to town with her ability to create interesting places. You’ve got to love the restaurant built in the stomach of a floating shark, and the drive-through hairdressers of upper-class Oysterdale. Pounder is clearly observant of people and their quirks.

The mystery itself is straightforward. It can only be one of four people – we work through the SHOAL councillors until we realise what we’re overlooking and the mystery is solved. I don’t read much younger MG, (although Pounder’s books make me think I should read more,) but I imagine the limited range of suspects is comforting to a very young audience. There is more to the story than the initial mystery. A secondary plot comes into play, opening new questions and leading us into a sequel.

Pounder’s books remind me of some of the puzzle adventures I read when I was young. This is not about the style, but the poems and magazine pages, menus and letters which build the narrative alongside the story itself. We’ve got half an eye on Beattie’s Mum, who is off exploring wrecks. There a secret codes to solve, and a whole chapter written in ‘mermish’. Reading is about so much more than sitting with a book. Reading is about involvement with a text. Pounder offers her young readers different ways to interact with the story.

On a similar note, throughout the story we’re keeping track of press cuttings from ‘The Scribbled Squid’ and ‘Clamzine’. I was ridiculously tickled by this element of the text. The Scribbled Squid is a newly opened gossip tabloid. Alongside news from the Clamzine, we’re presented with misinformation and unnecessary gossip form The Scribbled Squid. What a great way to open conversation about reliable and unreliable media from the very young. What an important conversation to have with children, who have access to a range of communication from an early age. You’ve got to laugh when meet Penny Poach, editor of The Scribbled Squid. So much can be communicated by a character’s name.

Fun and funky, Bad Mermaids is a great adventure. Certainly a quick read for adult kidlitters, but you close the book feeling as if you have been in Lagoon. I look forward to the rest of the series, and intend to read the rest of Witch Wars at the nearest opportunity.

 

 

 

 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review – Defender of the Realm by Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler

Defender

Extract:

‘…It must be tough to care about the future when your fate has been decided for you since the day you were born.’

Alfie was speechless. It was as if Lock had reached into the darkest corner of his mind and shone a light on the thing he’d been secretly feeling all his life. That strange empty sensation deep down in his gut: that feeling of total utter pointlessness. Like nothing he did mattered. He tried not to think about about the future, because when he did, all he saw was more of the same – a life not his own, governed by stupid rules and traditions and ceremonies he neither understood nor cared about. His father’s life. The life that would one day be his. 

(Defender of the Realm by Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler. P54.) 

 

Synopsis:

Alfie is heir to the throne, but he’s not keen on the title. It is difficult enough being fourteen, and dealing with the school bully. Being Prince means the world is watching your every blunder. It means constant monitoring by security services. It means failing to meet your father’s expectations. Everybody knows Alfie’s brother, Richard, is the one for the job. As far as Alfie is concerned, Richard can have it.

Alfie’s life changes in a moment, and it turns out there is more to being a Royal than waving to the camera. Alfie is called on to be the Defender. There’s a whole side to Britain’s history which has been covered up. With a monster on the loose, there is no time to learn.

Hayley is caring for her elderly gran. It’s a huge responsibility, but Hayley would do anything for Gran. Hayley is given additional worries when a trip to the Tower of London ends with a brutal attack by a supposedly made-up creature. Hayley pockets evidence of the attack, and draws the attention of Britain’s very secret services. The ones who destroy such evidence at all costs.

The events which began at the Tower draw Alfie and Hayley together. Is the difference between them deeper  than their social background? Will Hayley evade the evil agents? Is Alfie ever going to be fit to save the realm?

 

Review:

Ancient myths are given a new lease of life. Like Ned’s Circus of Marvels, and Harry Potter, Defender of the Realm uses the old myths to give Britain its hidden past. Devil Dogs? Vikings unleased them when they came to conquer. Dragons? Still causing mayhem. That’s the first reason I love this book. As well as forming the plot, mythology crops up in unexpected places to give the book its tone. (The Prince’s dog? His name is Herne.)

The second reason I love this book: it is edge-of-the-seat readable. Huckerby and Ostler are masters of scene. They are great at hooking the reader, pulling them along, then throwing in the unexpected to keep things interesting. They know when to ramp up the drama, and when to use comedic effect. You’ll always be on for one more chapter. I defy you to put it down past chapter three.

The story is up to date with its technology – news spreads via social media, and kids are ahead of adults in communication and gadgetry. Hayley is a ahead of Alfie in the technology stakes. It is nice to see a female character as a role model for STEM interests. Alfie inherits some seriously cool super weapons which date to the dawn of time, but Hayley makes his job easier with a webcam and microphone. 

Huckerby and Ostler have done a great job of ensuring a diverse readership can relate to Alfie. Alfie is complex enough to be more than a poor-little-rich-boy. If you can’t relate to his private education and palatial home, you might relate to how difficult he finds it to deal with the school bully. How Dad is too busy with work to help Alfie figure the world out. Failing that, Hayley provides a great contrast. In material terms, she has nothing. She also has a huge responsibility as Gran’s carer. Hayley proves a great role model to Alfie, regardless of her social background. 

The main theme is responsibility, and the core message is about the difference between having superpowers and being a hero. Alfie learns there are better reasons to do your duty than to fit the title. A fast-paced adventure with a lasting message. Brilliant. 

 

 

Huge thanks to Faye for my copies of Defender of the Realm and Defender of the Realm – Dark Age. I look forward to reading book two.  I won my copies in a competition. This does not affect the honesty of my review.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review – The Wildings by Nilanjana Roy

thewildings

Extract:

‘You don’t know what a clan is, do you?’ said Beraal. 

Mara concentrated very hard on tearing up the carpet. 

‘Mara, do you know what the difference between inside and outside cats is?’ 

Mara refused to say anything, though her ears twitched a little. ‘Do you understand why I was stalking you a little while ago, why why any cat from the Nizamuddin clan would try to kill you, Mara?’ 

The kitten’s ears folded back. ‘No,’ she said. ‘It wasn’t very nice of you, was it?’ 

(The Wildings, Nilanjana Roy. P34.) 

Synopsis:

Years of peace are about to be broken. The Wildings – the cats who roam Delhi – have known seasons of peace. Something is stirring in The Shuttered House. The scent of death surrounds the Bigfoot who lives there. When the Bigfoot dies, the feral cats who live behind its walls will come out. Will they obey the same boundaries as the other animals – the boundaries which keep the relationship between predator and prey respectful?

Into the midst of the Wildings comes Mara, a ginger kitten with special powers. All cats can communicate with each other using their whiskers, but Mara can do more. She is a sender – she can read the thoughts of other cats from a distance, and communicate with other species. She can also travel outside her body.

Most of the Wildings would kill Mara straight off. Beraal fights for Mara’s life. Senders come in times of danger. Will Mara leave the comforts of her home to help the Wildings?

 

Review:

The Wildings reminds me of Varjak Paw – not because it is about cat clans, but because it is about how the relationships between clans change in times of crisis. Instead of a tribe of pampered cats who are invaded when their owner dies, a tribe of cats comes outside, full of bloodlust. I found it strange that the cats were portrayed as born killers. The blame lay squarely with the cats. There was no discussion of the circumstances which led to their state. Everything else was perfect. Like Varjak Paw, the relationships between the cats are well imagined. There are rules which govern the life of an outdoor cat, and rules which govern the relationships between the different species.

As in The Jungle Book, there was interesting exploration of the place of man in a world of animals. In The Wildings, Man is neither predator or prey, but can easily become either. I liked the contrast between Mara’s life as a pampered house-cat, and the life of the tigers in the city zoo. The outdoor cats consider Mara to be imprisoned, but Mara is free to dictate her life. It is the big cats in the zoo who are truly imprisoned. Cubs are separated from their parents according to the zoo’s greed for more tiger-cubs, or want for money. Mara’s home may look like a prison, but its doors and windows are open wide.

Novice writers are often told not to write from an animal’s point of view. The Wildings proves advice is there to be ignored – but it handles the point of view well. Like the best animal books – The Jungle Book, Watership Down, Varjak Paw – it is unsentimental about its protagonists. It respects as animals, as much as it anthropomorphizes, its characters. The is some impeccable observation of feline behaviour – you have it from a life-long cat owner.

The language is beautiful. I was particularly excited to find a snake referred to as a ‘nagini’. This is a book which is exciting for its languae as well as its plot.

Be warned – you will cry your eyes out towards the end, not only for the events, but for how beautifully they are handled. The Wildings is part of a duology, and you will want the second book to hand.

 

Pushkin Press

320 pages