Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Call Me Alastair by Cory Leonardo

Review: Call Me Alastair by Cory Leonardo

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Extract: 

Aggie says Pete’s got a poster behind the register: miles of turquoise sea, palm trees and the bluest sky you’ve ever seen. Porky says the place in the picture’s Key West. Florida. 

Probably a few flaps of the wings, tops. 

It should all be quite simple, really. Birds have made an art of flying in its many forms, after all. Ever heard of the chicken who ‘flew the coop’?

Escape comes as natural as a pair of wings. 

(Call Me Alastair by Cory Leonardo. P70.) 

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Synopsis:

Alastair and Aggie are grey parrots born in a pet store. They dream of escaping and making a life together, but Aggie is bought by a boy called Fritz, while Alastair is adopted by a lonely widow called Bertie.

Although Bertie bakes cherry pies and keeps Alastair supplied with poetry books to rip up, Alastair remembers his promise to Aggie and vows to escape. Will he and Aggie find the palm fronds they dream of on the other side of the window?

A gentle story with a profound message about breaking free and staying put.

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Review:

A story about a parrot seeking better places. This is a gentle story drew me in and worked its magic until I couldn’t possibly put it down until I found out what happened to the characters.

It is narrated in three voices. There’s Alastair, a grey parrot who tells his story through prose and poetry, imitating classic poems as he experiments with form. Fritz is a twelve-year-old boy who is set on being a doctor above anything else. He’s short on friends but big on compassion. Then there is Bertie. Bertie’s voice comes through the letters she writes to her late husband. Bertie is grieving but there is life in her yet. She’s forever trying to organise socials to entertain the elderly population. All three voices were so distinctive that by the end I felt as if I had lived a few months in the characters’ lives. This is a real book for empathy because it allows us to try on the experiences of a young boy, an elderly widow and an animal born in captivity.

Alastair’s poetry ranged from intentionally hilarious to downright beautiful. I loved his experimentations with form, and the conversation he holds about the Jabberwocky is one of the most insightful explanations I have heard about the poem’s use of language. Having the poems woven into the story reminds us that poems aren’t written in isolation. They too are about life experiences and observations of the world.

The ending left me with tears in my eyes. The kind of tears which are brought on when a character wins you over. When what they have taught you about the world is profound despite its apparent simplicity. When their story is relatable and they’ve taken the right step for themselves. We need more middle-grade like this. Despite its day-to-day settings and lack of major adventure, the story moves the reader and offers them a new worldview.

If you’re looking for a gentle and beautifully-written story, this one is for you. Give it time to build on you and the characters will work their way into your hearts. Tremendous.

 

Thanks to Scholastic UK for my gifted copy of Call Me Alastair. Opinions my own.

 

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Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Ghost by Jason Reynolds

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Extract:

‘I’m not saying that. I’ve definitely been scared of someone before. Real scared,’ I added, thinking how loud a gun sounds when it’s fired in a small room. ‘That’s how come I know how to run so fast. But now, the only person I’m scared of, other than my mother … I mean, like, I do things I know aren’t cool, but even though I know they aren’t cool, like beating on Brandon, all of a sudden I’m doing it anyway, y’know. So I guess … I guess the only other person I’m really scared of, maybe … is me.

(Ghost by Jason Reynolds. P57.) 

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Synopsis:

Ghost isn’t a bad kid, but he’s got a record at school for ‘altercations’. He just can’t cope with the other kids making fun of his home in the roughest part of town or his shabby clothes. Ghost knows he’s a great runner, possibly one of the best, but he runs alone.

Then Ghost meets Coach who offers him a deal – he can join The Defenders, one of the best running teams in town, but a single incident and Ghost is off the team.

If Ghost can stay on track, he might have a bright future ahead. Together with the other newbies, Ghost trains hard and learns to be part of a team. The trouble is, Ghost needs move on from his past.

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Review:

This is the story of a boy with a huge talent. A boy who could make his name as a professional runner. Talent isn’t enough to get where you want to be. There are other qualities, such as resilience, determination, and drive. There is support from your loved ones and mentoring from people with more experience. So many factors determine success.

Ghost is one of those kids who is too quickly written off. He comes from the roughest area of town, can’t afford the equipment he needs to train and is struggling to cope with the challenges life has already thrown at him.

It takes someone special to see past that and Coach is that person. The bond between Coach and Ghost was one of my favourite things about the novel. Coach doesn’t condone Ghost’s behaviour, but he does understand that Ghost needs a second chance. And a third one. He understands that the behaviour isn’t coming from nowhere and that without guidance and something to focus on Ghost will find it difficult to change.

Ghost spends huge amounts of time running and he also has an interest in sports theory and trivia. It is difficult not to root for someone who shows so much passion, and I thought the story spoke volumes about the inequality in our society. There are talented kids from all walks of life, but some kids need extra help to maintain a commitment.

The book is the first in a series, and the other books will follow the other newbies on the running team. Ghost, Lu, Patina and Sunny. I am looking forward to the next book very much and will recommend Ghost far and wide.

 

Thanks to EdPr and Knights Of for my gifted copy of Ghost. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Star-Spun Web by Sinéad O’Hart.

Review: The Star-Spun Web by Sinéad O’Hart.

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Extract:

‘Many of us feel that realities work like a spider’s web; a disturbance at one point leads to tremors being felt in many other places, just as a spider knows when a fly gets stuck in its trap.’

(The Star-Spun Web by Sinéad O’Hart. P87.) 

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Synopsis:

Tess de Sousa was left at Ackerbee’s Home For Lost and Foundlings under strange circumstances. Years later, when a man comes to claim her, there is nothing Mrs Ackerbee can do except give Tess the strange device which was left with her when she was a baby.

Tess is taken to Roedeer Lodge by the sinister Mr Cleat. It soon becomes apparent that his interest in Tess is part of his own scheming. Added to that, Tess suffers unkindness from housekeeper Mrs Thistleton.

When Tess learns what her strange device is, and how it can connect her to other worlds, she realises she is part of a much bigger plan.

A modern classic with elements of The Secret Garden and His Dark Materials.

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Review:

Sometimes a special book comes along. One which keeps the reader awake into the night. Where the reader feels as if they have lived alongside the character and shared their experiences. The Star-Spun Web is such a book.

It must be a challenge to take on travel between multiple worlds as part of a story when everyone associates it with His Dark Materials. A bit like writing about a magic school. Not that there haven’t been many stories about these things, but in some respects it must be a hard act to follow. Full credit to Sinéad O’Hart, because she has not only pulled it off, she has written a story which is equally as compelling and memorable.

There is a great cast of characters, from the ‘outspoken’ Mrs Ackerbee to Tess’s best friend Wilf. Think strong females and people who look out for each other.

It was lovely to see a story with STEM elements in the plot which doesn’t feel like it is about science. There is also a gothic touch, with the orphanage and the big house and the mysterious chapel in the grounds. Tess is free to roam the grounds but she is isolated from the rest of the world. The sense of foreboding inside the house reminded me of The Secret Garden and Rebecca. We know from the behaviour of the people around Tess that secrets are being kept, and something has to give.

I also loved Tess’s relationship with her spider, Violet. Tess goes out of her way to protect Violet, and acknowledges that animals can provide friendship and company as equally as humans. I loved Tess from the word go because of her consideration towards Violet.

An adventure which will keep you awake into the small hours and leave you desperate for more. I am looking forward to a reread at the earliest opportunity, and can’t wait to hear more from Sinéad O’Hart.

 

Thanks to Stripes Publishing for my gifted copy of the book. This was received as part of a promotional blog tour. Opinions remain my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Blog Tour: Sinéad O’Hart, author of ‘The Star-Spun Web’, introduces her new character.

Blog Tour: Sinéad O’Hart, author of ‘The Star-Spun Web‘, introduces her new character.

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About The Star-Spun Web

Tess de Sousa was left at Ackerbee’s Home For Lost and Foundlings under strange circumstances. Years later, when a man comes to claim her, there is nothing Mrs Ackerbee can do except give Tess the strange device which was left with her when she was a baby.

Tess is taken to Roedeer Lodge by the sinister Mr Cleat. It soon becomes apparent that his interest in Tess is part of his own scheming. Added to that, Tess suffers unkindness from housekeeper Mrs Thistleton.

When Tess learns what her strange device is, and how it can connect her to other worlds, she realises she is part of a much bigger plan.

I loved The Eye Of The North last year. The Star-Spun web not only met my expectations, it blew them away. 

I am delighted to welcome Sinéad to my blog to talk about her protagonist. Thank you Sinéad for your time, and to Leilah at Stripes publishing for organising this content. 

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Sinéad O’Hart introduces Tess de Sousa. 

Who is this girl, and where did she come from? Tess and Violet originally came into my head starring in a different story completely, but they had one thing right from the start: they were a team and were very definitely meant to be together. When I needed to redraft the story, Tess and Violet had to slot into a different world, but things worked much better then – they’d found their true home, and Tess and Violet seemed to come alive in my hands. As for where Tess came from: I really have no idea! Tess, complete with Violet and her full name and how she looked, just arrived in my head one day, even if her story needed a bit of tweaking.

 

What inspired her story? I suppose she’s inspired by the women scientists and adventurers who inspire me, as well as being the sort of character I like to read about in other people’s books. As for what inspired her story: the setting, and the historical reality at the time, had a lot to do with it. Incorporating a real-life historical event into the story meant I worked back from that point, trying to create an interesting chain of events which might have led up to it. Also, the building Tess and her friends live in (Ackerbee’s) is a real building in Dublin city centre, though it’s not a children’s home. It’s a building I’ve loved for many years and I always wanted to put it in a story, so having that setting helped too.

 

I feel like Tess would be one of my best friends in school. Is there a fictional character or characters that you’d have wanted to hang out with at break-time if they were real? Characters I’d have liked to hang out with at school would have included:

Tiffany Aching, (a young witch in training from the books by Terry Pratchett – she first appears in the book The Wee Free Men) Rose Raventhorpe (from the Rose Raventhorpe Investigates series by Janine Beacham, Ivy Sparrow (from the Uncommoners series by Jennifer Bell), Coraline (from Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece Coraline), Lily and Robert (from the Cogheart series by Peter Bunzl, Twister (from the book Twister by Juliette Forrest) and the Brightstorm twins Arthur and Maudie from the Sky-Ship Adventure series first book, Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy). Imagine the trouble we’d cook up!

 

Thanks to Stripes Publishing for organising this content as part of a promotional blog-tour. Opinions remain my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Blog Tour: Michelle Harrison, author of ‘A Pinch Of Magic’, talks about curses in folklore.

Blog Tour: Michelle Harrison, author of A Pinch Of Magic, talks about curses in folklore.

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Author Michelle Harrison with a copy of ‘A Pinch Of Magic’. 

About A Pinch Of Magic

Betty Widdershins longs to leave the family home on the island of Crowstone and explore the world. Crowstone is bleak and oppressive with its marshes and tower and prison and Betty is certain there must be more to the world. Then she learns that she and her sisters are bound by an ancient family curse to stay on the island for the rest of their lives …

I have been a fan of Michelle Harrison’s work for years. Her novels combine the folklore and old traditions which I knew and loved as a listener of folk music with page-turning adventures. A Pinch Of Magic is no exception. To read my full review, click here. 

I wanted to hear more about the curse which inspired the story, and what draws Michelle Harrison to folklore. She has not only answered those questions, but she has also made me think more deeply about what the curse in her story meant to its caster. 

Thank you to Michelle Harrison for your time. 

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Curses in Folklore by Michelle Harrison 

Folklore has featured in every book I’ve written to date, whether it’s wishing, witches, or ways of protection against malevolent fairies. As a horror-loving teenager I was obsessed with folklore in its modern form of urban legends. I was also terribly superstitious – something I’ve managed to get under control over the past few years, although it’s still an effort not to salute solitary magpies!

The concept for A Pinch of Magic came from the Essex village of Canewdon. It’s said that there will always be six witches there, and whenever one dies a stone falls from the church walls. The thought of stones falling out of an ancient building to warn of approaching death was something I found incredibly eerie, and evolved into the idea of a family curse. In my story, Betty Widdershins learns of the curse on her thirteenth birthday: no Widdershins girl can ever leave the island of Crowstone. If they do, they’ll die by the next sunset. Along with her sisters, Fliss and Charlie, Betty sets out to break the curse with the help of three magical items which have also been passed down the family: a hand mirror, a set of nesting dolls, and an old carpet bag. But are the objects enough to help them, or will they lead to more trouble?

It’s easy to understand the enduring appeal of a curse within a story. Many of us believe in luck, and we’ve all had times when it seems nothing more can go wrong or, conversely, we’re having such a run of good fortune we start to worry that it’s all about to crash down around us. The idea of curses plays on our fears; what if there are forces we can’t control working against us? Or, more frighteningly, someone who wishes us harm? We know the intent to curse is real enough – witch ladders and wax figures in museums all over the country are proof of the malevolent workings of dismissed servants and spurned lovers.

With our childhoods steeped in tales of spinning wheels and pricked fingers, it’s no wonder curses are rooted in our consciousness. Yet perhaps there’s another reason we find them so fascinating, even if we don’t like to admit it; they feed our desires for good old revenge – and gossip. Because curses aren’t thrown around lightly. There’s usually a reason, whether its jealousy, rivalry, or payback. When I created the Widdershins curse, I knew what it was, but not why – or with whom – it had begun. I only knew it would have come from a serious grudge against the family, and as I unpicked the knots and worked it all out the lines between villain and victim blurred. As Betty discovers, the wicked witch is not always what she’s made out to be, and perhaps anyone is capable of casting a curse, given the right motivation . . .

Check out the other stops on the tour: 

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Thank you to Simon And Schuster UK for arranging this piece as part of a promotional blog tour and for providing me with a proof of the book. Opinions remain my own.

 

 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Dog Who Saved The World by Ross Welford

Review: The Dog Who Saved The World by Ross Welford

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Extract:

So that was it. Damage done. I had started the end of the world.

Obviously, I didn’t know it at the time. I’ve kept the secret until now: how I handled the tennis ball that was infected with Dudley’s germs, germs that he had picked up from the little girl who wanted to adopt him. I then passed on the infection to poor Ben by letting him lick my germy hands, and then to the other dogs …

(The Dog Who Saved The World by Ross Welford. P69.)

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Synopsis:

Georgie has two best friends in the world. Her school friend Ramzy and her beloved rescue dog Mr Mash, who lives in a dog shelter.

The trio meet an eccentric and reclusive scientist and agree to take part in her virtual reality project. Georgie steps in front of a super computer, puts on a helment and is transported to a digital version of the real future.

A disease breaks out at the dog shelter, a disease as terrible as Ebola. It could very quickly spread to all the dogs and then to humans. The shelter goes into lockdown and a cull is announced.

With mankind and dogkind under threat, Georgie knows she must act quickly if she is to save the world and her beloved Mr Mash. 

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Review:

An extraordinary and poignant quest set in the near future. I bought into the science and was so immersed in the story that I felt as if I had walked in Georgie’s footsteps.

What works beautifully is how the story is set in an almost contemporary world. The dog plague is not so different to the viruses which have killed thousands of people worldwide. The supercomputer is not so far off virtual reality experiences which already exist. This is the sort of sci-fi I enjoy best, where the fiction, the make-believe, is subtle.

It is impossible not to love the dogs. From Mr Mash, who swallows things which are totally not edible, to Dudley to Ben the snarly Jack Russel, the dogs add a huge amount of warmth to the story. Having fallen in love with their individual characters, we are desperate for Georgie to do the impossible and change the future.

Georgie’s character development centres around her acceptance of her stepmother, Jessica. Jessica is allergic to dogs, and this is the reason Mr Mash had to go back to the shelter, where he lives as a permanent resident. Georgie hasn’t adjusted to the new family dynamics and she hasn’t forgiven Jessica for the allergy. This story isn’t a typical bad-stepmother narrative. Jessica is a great role model and a brilliant scientist who plays her own part in the story. She’s just not Georgie’s Mum. It was great to see this story told in a way which wasn’t melodramatic or over emotional. The family functions, but it takes time for Georgie to feel OK about that.

Ramzy is another brilliant character. His family has fled a warzone and their life in the UK is nothing like their life back home Ramzy is the kid who has to wear the same shirt to school every day. Who goes hungry to help his siblings. Often characters suffering from extreme poverty are featured in books which focus in on ‘issues’. Ramzy is bright and capable and he is 100% part of the adventure. It is important for people from every background and in every circumstance to see themselves at the centre of the action. Ramzy’s poverty isn’t brushed over and there is a powerful scene where he opens up about his experiences.

A dystopia filled with love and laughter. Having read this I want to read everything else Ross Welford has written, and I would recommend it to any reader of middle-grade fiction.

 

Thanks to Harper Collins Children’s Books for my gifted copy of The Dog Who Saved The World. Opinions my own.

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: How To Train Your Dragon (10 book set) by Cressida Cowell

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Review: How To Train Your Dragon (10 book set) by Cressida Cowell

There is only one difficulty about being a children’s literature fanatic, an aspiring author and a book blogger. You can’t read all the books. Until this month I had missed out on one of the biggest children’s series of the 21st Century –  the How To Train Your Dragon stories by Cressida Cowell. 

With millions of copies sold and borrowed worldwide, with a successful film franchise based on the books, it was clear I was missing something. 

When Books2Door offered me the chance to review a boxset, I jumped at the chance. 

So what is How To Train Your Dragon about? 

The story begins with Hiccup, son of the fearless Viking leader Stoik. Hiccup is training to be a great warrior. The only trouble is he is a wimp. My heart went straight out to Hiccup. I was that kid who was picked last for PE. I still have no coordination, no sense of direction and generally no skills which would make me of any use on a sports team.  I rooted for Hiccup from the first chapter and didn’t stop until I had finished the series. 

You see, Hiccup learns that there is more to being a hero than wielding a sword. There are other skills which are valuable in this world, like logic and empathy and resilience. Hiccup has those in spades. He continually outwits perils – from dragons to Barbarians to a deadly volcano – with his own skills and the help of his friends. 

In short, it is about dragons and Vikings and sea battles and warriors. 

The recurring antagonist Alvin keeps the tension up in a way which reminded me of the Harry Potter series. Every time something goes wrong in Hiccup’s life, the reader wants to know whether Alvin is behind it. 

What I loved about the series was the plots differed from each other. The first book is about the other Vikings realising that their tribe needs more than one skill to survive. The second is a quest for an ancient sword. There are quests and mysteries and survival narratives. 

The books are also witty and conscious of their young readership. Passages of text are broken up with slogans in large fonts and information files about dragons which reminded me of Top Trumps cards. 

Would you recommend the books?

The books are page turners and I can see why they are so hugely popular. As well as being a detailed world, they are just well-plotted stories. Reading the boxset was a lovely experience because I was able to follow Hiccup and his friends through their different adventures. The boxset I read contains the first ten books and is available from Books2Door

If you are yet to visit these classics, dive in. You’re in for a treat. 

 

Click here to buy the same set and join the tribe.

Thanks to Books2Door for gifting my set of How To Train Your Dragons books. Opinions my own.