Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Charlie And Me by Mark Lowery



As I said, we went there on holiday last summer and it was amazing. This was fourteen months ago: when we still did things as a family. Back before things got a bit crummy at home. Back before Dad started working a Charillion hours a week and Mum started sleeping in. 


Martin sneaks out early one morning with the biscuit tin, his life savings and his little brother Charlie. They are going to travel across the country and relive the memories of their family trip to Cornwall. Since their last visit Dad has been working every hour of the day and Mum has been unable to do anything at all. That doesn’t get Charlie down. He has a wicked sense of humour and Martin thinks he is one in a million.

A story of brotherly love in the style of Two Weeks With The Queen and My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece.

An excellent book. The publicity package should have come with tissues, because I sure as heck cried. Think Annabel Pitcher and you won’t be far off – memorable characters dealing with a difficult time in life.

The story alternates between the present moment, in which Martin and Charlie head to Cornwall, and the previous year’s holiday. Memories of their last trip to Cornwall build to an understanding of the present day. There is a huge twist towards the end. I decided to keep this review free of major-spoilers. This decision makes it difficult to share the key themes. All I can say is don’t peek. Don’t flick to the back, don’t scan the end pages. Keep reading and you will find yourself caught up in Charlie and Martin’s adventure.

Charlie is a wonderful character. He was born early and lots of people write him off. He hates school because he has to sit at the ‘thick-kid table’ and battle his way through work he doesn’t understand. Charlie has a creative mind and lots to say. I thought there were some really positive messages about able-ism and not making assumptions about people’s intelligence by one aspect of their ability.

Another positive aspect of this book was the working-class representation. Even in 2018 it is unusual to pick up a book and find it is about a working-class family from the North of England. Even less so to find a book about working-class lives which is not about social issues (eg drug-abuse or gang-crime.) This book was about a lovely family. It didn’t shy away from the fact that Dad had to save for two years to afford a holiday in the UK. It is important for kids to see themselves in their reading material. I’m pleased to see children’s fiction making more effort in terms of representation.

A story of brotherly love and friendship. Distinctive voices and a big heart. 


Thanks to Piccadilly Press for my copy. Opinions my own.

Louise Nettleton


Middle Grade Reviews

A Witch Alone by James Nicol



If she went to find the book she would see Estar, perhaps. Maybe even see Erraldur, the feyling city. And she couldn’t expect others to go in her place. She was the only one able to read from the book, so how could they hope someone else would be able to find it?

(A Witch Alone by James Nicol. P68.) 


During an eventful holiday in Kingsport, Arianwyn is given a secret mission by the High Elder. She must venture into the Great Wood and bring back the Book of Quiet Glyphs. Arianwyn returns to Lull to find it in chaos. The hex which caused trouble during her training has spread. Spirit Creatures and Feylings have been driven from their woodland home towards Lull. As tensions cause Arianwyn’s support network to deteriorate, she must confront her mission alone and learn the truth about the Book of Quiet Glyphs.  



James Nicol’s writing is refreshing. It is exactly what middle grade should be, full of lemon cakes and magic and moon hares. I love the progression between books one and two. Arianwyn has got her star badge, but her magical education is not at an end. Her adventures are only just beginning.

Newly qualified Arianwyn needs to believe that she deserves her badge. She thinks that being a qualified witch means she should be able to solve everything alone. This is exacerbated when she is forced to keep her mission from her best friend and confidant Salle. I loved Salle’s development, as she searches for her own place in life and learns to see herself as something more than Arianwyn’s sidekick.

This story was very relatable. Arianwyn does not receive the training and emotional support she needs from Miss Newman or The High Elder. Miss Newman’s character was developed brilliantly. We have all met that person who thinks they are a cut above others because they are in a managerial position. The mentor who gives snippy comments and criticism, but no advice.

I love this world of Snotlings and moon hares and magical voids. There is just enough danger to keep things interesting, but not so much that a young reader would get overwhelmed. The war is happening far away and there is a sense of political agendas playing out the the Witch’s Council, but this not the main story. Our main concern is Arianwyn and her friends, and their adventures in Lull. The main themes are friendship and self-confidence.

Gimma’s return made a fantastic sub-plot. I love the fact that she is given a second chance in Lull, and that the other characters learn to see beyond the events of book one. This is a very positive message of forgiveness and the fact that we all make mistakes and get things wrong.

The ending set the story up for a sequel and I can see this developing into a longer series. This is a very strong second book and I look forward to Arianwyn’s return.


Louise Nettleton

Thanks to Chicken House Books and Jazz B for my copy of A Witch Alone. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Light Jar by Lisa Thompson



‘I don’t understand. You’re not real; you’re imaginary. You’re in my head but I can’t make you go away. Why won’t you go away?’ 

Sam leaned towards me. The yellow of his t-shirt made a warm, buttercup glow under his chin.

‘I’m here because you want me to be, Nate. Isn’t that fantastic?’ 

(The Light Jar by Lisa Thompson. P61.) birdSynopsis:

Nate and his Mum leave their home in the middle of the night, to escape Gary. They head to a cottage they visited when Nate was small. It belonged to a gardner called William and it sits on the edge of a big estate. Now William is dead, it is the perfect place for Nate and his Mum to hide.

Except Mum goes missing, leaving Nate on his own. Well … not quite on his own. Old imaginary friend Sam returns to cheer Nate on as he works out what to do. There is also Kitty, the strange girl from the estate. Kitty is obsessed with solving a treasure hunt set by William decades ago. A treasure hunt which ended in tragedy, and was never solved.

Can Nate help to work out the clues? Will he find Mum, or has she gone back to Gary? A fantastic Middle Grade novel about fear, friends and emotional abuse.


I sat up until 1am reading The Light Jar. Once I’d started it was impossible to stop. It is an addictive mystery and a lyrical story rolled into one, and is expecptionally well written.

The child’s voice is spot-on. Nate grasps some parts of his situation, but overlooks others. For example, he doesn’t understand why Grandma was mean to Mum last time they met, or why they aren’t going to Grandma’s anyway. He is as bewildered by the dirty cottage as he is by Gary’s behaviour. On top of this, Nate has his own landscape of books and gadgets and interests. The result is that we can guess his age within a couple of years without knowing anything about the book.

The story of Mum and Gary’s relationship is sandwiched between other story lines. This means only so much is shown, and none of the detail is overwhelming for a young audience. My favourite part of the emotional abuse theme is how every single character is shown having an angry moment, or a moment where the say something hurtful. In every situation, the characters act because of their feelings or because of the way someone behaves. Every single person has moments they regret, and that is shown as normal. I loved the comparison to Gary, who often speaks in an apparently reasonable and kind voice, but controls other people’s reactions. This is an important message which needs to be heard.

The mystery is fantastic. Enough information is given ahead of the clue that young readers might work it out themselves. This gives the reader satisfaction whether they are right or wrong. I don’t know a single reader who doesn’t love the feeling it-was-there-all-along. I love the setting, and the way Nate learns the old house like a puzzle.

Imaginary friend Sam is a joy. Anybody who liked The Imaginaries will love this world where imaginary friends linger on after they are needed. It was a clever way of showing how Nate processed his situation, and how children revert to younger behaviours when they are stressed or frightened. The theme of fear runs through the book, with Nate’s light-jar symbolising hope and comfort.

Some reviewers have described this as an ‘easy’ read, but to me this only describes the length of the story. It is a short read with a huge depth, and it is an achievement in contemporary children’s fiction.


Louise Nettleton

Thank you Scholastic UK for my lovely prize. Opinions my own.



Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy




‘Arty, we can hardly traverse three continents without a sky-ship.’ 

‘There’s always a way, Maud. We could go to the Geographical Society and show them the locket.’ 

She paused for a moment then looked at him doubtfully. ‘They’ll need some convincing it means something. They don’t exactly think much of the Brightstorm name.’

(Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy.) birdSynopsis:

Arthur and Maudie’s life is turned upside down when their father dies on an expedition to reach South Polaris. Not only do they lose their father, they lose everything they have ever known. Their father is accused of stealing fuel from competitor Eudora Vane. As this breaks the Explorer’s code, his house and assets revert to The Geographical Society.

As the expedition to South Polaris failed, the prize fund still stands. The twins do not believe their father stole the fuel, so they join competitor Harriet Culpepper on her ship the Aurora. They set out on an adventure, but there are secrets along the way which others would rather they did not find.


Take to the skies with this fantastic Middle Grade adventure. Brightstorm has airships, secrets and a villain to rival Cruella deVill. I had high hopes from the description, and I wasn’t disappointed. The first chapter is perfect – it showed me the sort of book I would be reading, and left me asking questions about the world and about the twins’ situation.

Arthur and Maudie are great characters. Their relationship teaches us valuable lessons about family. Is family the bloodline we are born into, or the people around us who we love? It was interesting reading about twin main characters – Arthur felt like the main protagonist, but Maudie also developed over the story. There is a great moment where she says what she thinks for the first time.

The Geographical Society is a fantastic setting, which shows the disadvantages of class-based society. It is an institution built on tradition – it is narrow-minded and it fails to support social mobility. There are old families and there are new blood explorers. The usual route to becoming an explorer is to be born into a family of explorers. It is important for children to form their beliefs away form the prejudice of adults, and the world-building in Brightstorm supports this.

I love the idea of sapient animals – animals whose intelligence is recognised to be close to that of a human. The presence of intelligent animals reminded me of the daemons in His Dark Materials, and there is a fantastic plot twist which I didn’t see coming regarding a sapient animal.

Lots of people have praised the disability representation, and rightly so. Arthur is a character like any other in the adventure, and his arm is mentioned, but not studied. The things which define him are his interests, emotions and experiences. This is the kind of representation which is so desperately needed. Children need to see all kinds of people as part of their world, and as people they might meet and interact with.

If you like middle grade adventure, you need to read this. Hardy is a strong debut author and a wonderful new voice. I look forward to seeing what she writes next.


Huge thanks to Vashti Hardy and Scholastic UK for my ARC. Opinions remain my own.






Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Star Friends – Secret Spell by Linda Chapman



The stag pawed the earth in alarm.

‘Someone is working dark magic near the star friends.’

The owl nodded gravely, ‘I’m afraid it appears to be as we suspected. Two shades have already been defeated by the Star Animals and their friends. But now more trouble is coming their way.’

(Star Friends – Secret Spell by Linda Chapman. P7.)


The Star Friends have faced trouble from dark magic before, but they always come through with their magical animal friends at their sides. This time they are uncertain. The girls fall out among themselves. Will they ever work together again?

Meanwhile mean old Mrs Crooks is acting suspiciously, and her garden gnomes look exactly like one which hid the dark magic shades on a previous occasion. Could Mrs Crooks be responsible for the casting the shades?

A story about friendship and overcoming fear.birdReview: 

Secret Spell is part of a series aimed at younger midde-grade readers. Four girls develop their magical powers with the help of their star friends – magical animals. Their friendship and magical powers grow alongside each other, but they come up against dark magic known as shades. These are feel-good books for newly confident readers. The fantasy element is not overwhelming – there is plenty of day-to-day life which grounds the story in a familiar world.

I liked the setting. The small village is safe for the girls to explore alone, meaning they go out into the woods and visit their neighbours without adults tagging alone. As someone who lives in a village, it is lovely to see this world represented in children’s fiction. It sounds quaint, but these places and childhoods still exist!

The main message of the novel was not to let fear cloud your perceptions. I liked the depth of the message – it explored how fear causes havoc if we fail to recognise and overcome it. This is a big lesson at a young age, and an important one. 

The novel shows the stresses and fears of modern childhood. The girls frequently find it difficult to arrange meetings due to their hectic schedules of clubs and tuition and music practice. Lottie is under particular stress as she is expected to pass a scholarship exam. This was a realistic portrayal of modern childhood, and it shows the price some children pay for these privileges. 

The story is nice as a stand-alone, but there are references to other Star Friends books. For this reason it might be better to start with book one, but I can see fans of the series enjoying the books in random order once they are familiar with the story. I loved The Sleepover Club as a comfort read when I was young, and I can see this series taking a similar place in on a child’s bookshelf. It would be easy for a child to imagine the Star Friends as their own friends, and great fun could be had making adventures and stories up to about these characters. Lucy Fleming’s Illustrations complete the book. They are fresh and modern and give both the animals and the friends wide-eyed appeal. 


Louise Nettleton

Huge thanks to Stripes Books for my review copy. Opinions remain my own.


Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone



“I am not asking to hear your voice because I value your opinion. I am not asking to hear your voice because I care about your feelings. I am asking to hear your voice because I own you.’ Her eyes darkened. ‘You bear the mark of the Sky Gods Eska, the very Gods who used terrible magic to stir up hatred between the people of Erkenwald. But I will use your voice to tear the Sky Gods down and rid this kingdom of their evil forever.”

(Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone.) birdSynopsis:

One upon a time the three tribes of Erkenwald were united. Then the Ice Queen took power and the tribes no longer trusted one another. The Ice Queen grew stronger. She took all adults prisoner, and fed on their voices with the help of an enchanted organ. Every day the sound of their cries echoes across the ice as she grows stronger.

Eska refuses to give the Ice Queen her voice. She is imprisoned in a music box, and forced to dance until she gives in. When Flint breaks into the palace with the help of his magical inventions, Eska sees her chance to escape. Together they journey across the ice, desperate to prevent the Ice Queen from stealing Eska’s voice and making her reign immortal.birdReview:

Word perfect. Sky Song reads like a fairy tale. Every word is in place, every twist of the plot comes at the perfect time, and the world is so vivid there were times I imagined I could see my breath in the frozen air.

The Ice Queen is a wonderful antagonist, and a worthy successor to the White Witch. She is built in a similar mould, but Elphinstone’s touches make her unique enough that she is terrifying all over again. The idea of a ruler alone in her palace, growing stronger on the voices of her prisoners was chilling. We know from the start that this is a villain who shows no mercy.

Flint is also a great character and I liked his story arc. He is one of the last people in Erkenwald to take an interest in magic. When his brother calls his inventions childish and stupid, Flint doesn’t stand up to him. He wants his brother’s approval, and he wants to be seen as a warrior. Over the course of the novel we see Flint gain confidence in himself and his abilities, and learn that bravery is about love and standing up for those we love. It is great to see messages about gender stereotyping of boys. A lot of young boys feel pressured to hide their feelings and come across as ‘tough’, and this offers them other ways to think about themselves.

Sky Song is a story of tolerance and acceptance. I loved the metaphor of tribes and wanderers. The tribes begin the story isolated from each other, but wanderers like Eska make friends with different people along the way. It was lovely to see a character with a disability whose condition is not named and examined. Flint’s sister Blu has Down’s Syndrome. Flint explains that Blu needs patience and guidance at times, but otherwise Blu is just one of the characters. She has her moments of triumph alongside Eska and Flint. Sky Song calls for tolerance of people from different backgrounds, of different abilities and simply in any situation where we may not understand another person’s motives. If we could all be as tolerant as Eska, Flint and Blu, the world would be a beautiful place.


A huge thanks to Simon And Schuster for my wonderful prize ARC.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Sky Chasers by Emma Carroll.


Though my arms ache more than ever, I’m getting used to that bobbing, weightless feeling. I can’t believe I’m flying. Time and again, I’ve looked up at the sky and wished myself there. Or envied pigeons pecking in the gutter for being able, with a flap of their wings, to escape the filthy street. And now it’s happening to me. I feel lighter. Like my body doesn’t matter. For once I’m not cold or hungry. I’m brave and strong and alive.

(Sky Chasers by Emma Carroll. From An idea by Neal Jackson. PP 29 -30.)birdSynopsis:

Magpie doesn’t know who named her. She’s never had a family. Now it is her and Coco the cockerel. They exist by stealing what they need. This is what brings Magpie to Madam Delacroix’s attention. She wants a box stolen from a house, and offers five gold coins in return.

The robbery is interrupted by a boy and his duck, and later Magpie saves the same boy when he is taken up into the air by a kite. The boy’s name is Pierre and his father Joseph is trying to discover the secrets of flight. The family takes Magpie in. She and Pierre inform the King that the flight will be ready in time to beat the English. Spurred on by this lie, they must help Master Joseph take to the skies, but there are people who would take their secrets.birdReview:

Emma Carroll is my undisputed Queen of historical fiction, and Sky Chasers is as beautiful as any of her other books. It is extra-special that it began with an idea by Neal Jackson, winner of The Big Idea competition. The Montgolfier brothers – Joseph and Etienne – really were the first people to design a hot air balloon, and it really did take flight in Paris during the reign of Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette. It is lovely that this information is included in the back of the book, to help young readers place the story in time and think about what they might research.

The story is structured around the Magpie rhyme, (‘One for Sorrow’ etc.) This works beautifully, because when you cotton on you realise the story will end with a secret never to be told. I managed not to look ahead, but it was a close call.

One of the main themes is the extent to which women have been credited for their work throughout history. This is a big conversation: we are all aware of certain names, like Rosalind Franklin, who were under-or-uncredited at the time of their work, but this novel points out that there are many more women whose contribution to our knowledge has never been recorded. Names which have been forgotten because of gender prejudice. Magpie herself is concerned about this. I love her character – she is uneducated but observant. Her observations contribute hugely to the men’s work, but she is considered a nobody. Poor. Female. Black.  This shows how quickly we judge other people based on preconceptions.

I enjoyed the race to get the balloon in the air, and the journey from rural France into Paris. Emma Carroll’s novels are full of detail. I always feel I am emmersed in the era, and this was no exception. I also liked the animal characters, especially as Marie Antoinette is known to have walked around Versailles with sheep at her tail.

It was also lovely to live the excitement of early flight. It is hard to imagine, in the age of budget airlines, how exciting early flight was. Fiction allows us to empathise with people long gone, and to gain some sense of what it meant. The detail which made it most real to me was the King’s willingness to risk the lives of poorer people for the sake of progress. The same has been true in other situations (ship builders, for example, used to expect a number of fatalities, and factor this ‘rate’ into the cost of the ship).

Another beautiful novel from Emma Carroll, and if that wasn’t enough The Lost Boy is due in 2018 about the excavation of the Pyramids. Savour Sky Chasers, then look forward to The Lost Boy. Perfect.


A big thank you to Jazz Bartlett at Chicken House for sending a copy of the book. This does not affect the honesty of my review.