Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Eye Of The North by Sinéad O’Hart

eyeofthenorth

img_4373.jpg

Extract:

None of this made any sense to Emmeline, but somehow, the way Pale Face said the word creature, she knew it had to take a capital letter. Every muscle in her body tensed as sh tried to ask a question that she felt, on the whole, she’d rather not know the answer to.

‘What Creature?’ she whispered.

‘What Creature, indeed?’ replied Pale Face.

(The Eye Of the North by Sinéad O’Hart. P89.)

birdSynopsis

Emmeline’s parents have tried to kill her in the past. She is certain of it. They may be eminent scientists, but life with them is a total hazard. Now they have disappeared. Emmeline receives a ship ticket, and instructions to meet her new guardian in Paris. On board the ship she befriends Thing, who stows away on ships and calls them home.

When Dr Bauer kidnaps Emmeline, she learns that her parents are more than scientists. They are part of a secret organisation, and they know all about the mythical creatures hidden in this world. Creatures like the Kraken. One drop of its blood grants the drinker immortal life. Imagine what Dr Bauer could do with immortality, and the Kraken under his control.

He’s not the only one chasing the Kraken. While various parties scheme and plot to awaken it, Emmeline, Thing and the mysterious Order of the White Flower work to stop them. Who knows what will happen if the Kraken awakes?

birdReview:

Airships, secret societies and mythical beasts combine to make a thrilling adventure. My favourite part of this story was the mythical beasts. It is no secret that I like magic and animals, especially in Middle Grade novels, but what I liked particularly here was the significance of the mythical animals in this world. It is impossible to talk about this in huge depth without any spoilers, but the ending left me hoping this would play a huge part in any sequels. If you liked Ned’s Circus Of Marvel’s you will love this. There are magical creatures in this world and they could cause a whole lot more trouble than most people realise.

 

O’Hart creates some vivid characters – her description of the Northwitch was so good I felt I was standing in front of her. My favourite character was Thing. He’s so happy-go-lucky, but memories of his past resurface and challenge his perception of himself. I did hope to learn more about Thing’s past. Perhaps knowing where and who is irrelevant to the story, or perhaps we will learn more in further novels.

 

Sometimes there is more than one perspective. When this combined with a lot of action, I would have liked to follow one character. My advice is roll with it – the reason I wanted to stick with the characters is their storylines were gripping, switching to another character’s narration keeps you in suspense.

 

The ending is cleverly designed to allow for more adventures without making a sequel necessary to book one. This is a complete adventure. Sinead O’Hart clearly has a head full of ideas and I can’t wait to see what else she creates. If you’re looking for a fast-paced wintery adventure, look no further.

Advertisements
Middle Grade Reviews

The Girl Who Saved Christmas by Matt Haig

savedchristmasbanner

haigbooks

Extract:

The cat stared sadly after Amelia. ‘I’ll miss you,’ he miaowed. And Amelia stared sadly after the cat. Charles Dickens stayed standing in the street, watching the raggedy, soot-covered, bare-footed orphan girl head off to spend Christmas in the workhouse.

(The Girl Who Saved Christmas by Matt Haig. P84.)  

birdSynopsis:

Amelia Wishart is trapped in the workhouse. Her mother died last year, and Amelia vowed she wouldn’t see another Christmas in the workhouse. Vowed she would find a way to escape. After a year of being tormented and punished by the horrible Mr Creeper, Amelia has given up hope. Not even Father Christmas has come to her rescue. So much for the magic of Christmas.

Meanwhile, Elfhelm survives a troll attack. Christmas was cancelled once, and Father Christmas is determined it won’t happen again. The Magic is fading. If Christmas is to happen, Father Christmas knows he needs to find Amelia, the girl whose hope once saved Christmas.

A search begins – everyone, from elves and chestnut sellers to Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria helps Father Christmas with his hunt for Amelia.

bird

Review:

This is the second book in Matt Haig’s Christmas series. I seem to be reading them backwards – although the adventures stand alone, and are enjoyable without previous knowledge, you do learn things about previous plots so I would recommend reading in order.

Where Father Christmas And Me was set entirely in/around Elfhelm, The Girl Who Saved Christmas has action in Elfhelm and Dickensian London. Matt Haig is great at building setting with details, and has done a good job of Victorian London. He makes a great contrast between the lives of the wealthy, like Dickens and Mr Creeper, and people experiencing different levels of poverty. I missed the pure Drimwickery – that’s magic – of a whole book set in Elfhelm, but not because London wasn’t done well.

Amelia’s story touches on the issue many children have with Christmas. If Father Christmas is magic, why can’t he do the impossible. In Amelia’s case, she wants her mother’s life to be saved. The resolution has a strong message about emotions, and the real-life magic of happiness – it can’t undo what has happened, but can remind you that the world can and will feel magical again. I like the gentle magic of Drimwickery. It touches on something we all experience in our lives.

As mentioned in my review of Father Christmas And Me, I think Matt Haig and Chris Mould are a strong partnership. The Girl Who Saved Christmas confirmed this. I particularly love the selfie-style illustrations of animals – the reindeer and Amelia’s black cat Captain Soot. It’s lovely to see a middle-grade book with memorable illustrations. This has happened in the past. Narnia would be different without Pauline Baynes, for example, and Dahl without Blake. The fashion changed, and illustrations were largely left out of Middle Grade books. I’m pleased to see them make a comeback. At times I read the illustrations as much as the text, and it was a joyous experience.  

I can’t wait to read book one. A book from Matt Haig looks set to become a Christmas tradition, and I can tell you, it beats Seasonal Dr Who.

Thanks to the lovely people at Canongate who sent a copy in exchange for honest review.

 

 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: I Killed Father Christmas by Anthony McGowan

killedchristmasbanner

img_4274

 

Extract

Now that I had killed Father Christmas, I knew I wouldn’t get any of the toys on my Christmas list. No robot, no racing car, no helicopter that really flies, no anything.

But that wasn’t what was making me sad. What was making me sad was the hole in the world where Father Christmas used to be.

(I killed Father Christmas by Anthony McGowan. P17)

birdSynopsis

It’s Christmas eve and Mum and Dad are fighting again. Dad says Jo-Jo is greedy for writing a long Christmas list. He says Jo-Jo is stealing presents from the poor children. Then he says Jo-Jo has killed Christmas.

Killed Christmas? Did Father Christmas die carrying that big heavy sack? Can it really be Jo-Jo’s fault that Father Christmas is dead? Jo-Jo reckons it is his job to fill the hole where Father Christmas used to be. Armed with a red coat and a pillow case full of presents, Jo-Jo sets out to do Father Christmas’s job.

birdReview

A charming story based on the misconceptions of a young child. Jo-Jo’s heart is in the right place, and he shows the reader that Christmas is about giving, not receiving.

Mum and Dad’s argument stems from worry about money. Anthony McGowan captures the pressure Christmas puts on families in a child-friendly way. There’s no judgement on Jo-Jo for wanting lots of toys for Christmas. He’s a nice kid, it’s OK that he’s excited. Is it OK that he’s not bothered about poor kids and economics? Father Christmas teaches him that the magic of Christmas is about carrying love with your heart. That love can be big enough for the whole world. It’s a sweet message, and a lovely place to start thinking about world issues.

Jo-Jo’s imagination goes wild when he overhears Dad talking. It reminded me of being a child at Christmas, when the boundaries of what was possible seemed to shift. If a man can fly around the world in one night, why should bad thoughts not start a crazy chain of events which leads to that man’s death?

The story also tackles the big question children have at a certain age. The one where that flight around the world seems a bit too good to be true. Luckily Father Christmas is on hand to explain everything, and Jo-Jo goes home for another magical Christmas. This is a lovely narrative for children of late infant/early primary age.  

Chris Riddell’s illustrations were a big attraction for me. I love his style – he uses so many different lines, and his pictures have a slightly gothic edge. These are coloured, and more gentle than a lot of his pictures, not unlike the infamous Mr Underbed. Father Christmas is my favourite illustration – he’s so big and round and friendly. Riddell has captured the warmth of Father Christmas’s character.

 

Thanks to Barrigton Stoke who sent a copy in exchange for honest review.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Father Christmas And Me by Matt Haig

haigbooks

Extract:

‘An impossibility is just a possibility you don’t understand yet. I have heard it a hundred times. But what about walking on the ceiling? That’s impossible. What about flying to the stars? That’s impossible.’

‘It isn’t, actually,’ muttered Father Christmas. ‘It isn’t impossible. It’s just not the right thing to do. And that’s a very big difference.’

(Father Christmas And Me by Matt Haig and Chris Mould.) 

birdSynopsis:

It’s difficult being human in Elfhelm. Amelia Wishart loves her home with Father Christmas and Mary, but it’s difficult being human in elf territory. Without drimwickery, the elfish magic, there are lots of things Amelia can’t do. Father Vodol says humans shouldn’t be allowed in Elfhelm. When Amelia damages a sleigh, other elves think he is right. Determined to put things right, Amelia sets out to work until she has paid the damages, but terrible things are going on in Elfhelm. Once again, it’s up to Amelia and Father Christmas to save Christmas, and this time there is no convincing anyone to help.

bird

Review:

I love this book. Top of my seasonal selection, Father Christmas And Me covers topical issues in a fast-paced and hugely readable adventure. Amelia and Father Christmas have taken part in previous adventures. This is the third book set in this world.

Fake News. The word – or term – of 2017. Father Christmas And Me is all about Fake News. I love the sinister Father Vodol, going out of his way to spread fear of humans. It can be hard to think for ourselves when we’re inundated with opinion, and children are especially impressionable. Taking an issue outside it’s original context can be a great way to help children think for themselves. Should humans be banned from the magical Elfhelm just because they are human? Should rabbits have been chased away? Do we want to construct a wall to keep refugees out?

The other thing this book does well is think about every day mental health. This isn’t mental health treatment. Mental health illnesses. Rather, an acknowledgement that everyone has mental health, as everyone has physical health, and some situations put a strain on our mental health. I also love the magic which can’t take away bad things, but can show you that the world contains magic, and will feel magical again. That’s the most realistic message someone facing a mental health crisis can hear, and realistic is easier to accept than false promises.

It’s a magical world. Santa’s workshop has been reimagined as a full-scale industrial operation, but the magical touches have been left. Houses are made of reinforced gingerbread. Elves learn sleigh-craft at elf school. Letters fly in from around the world. It’s a kid’s dream of Santa’s home turned into a setting, and it is special. The adventure builds up nicely, with hints in the right place. I love how the backstory of Elfhelm’s relations with the rabbits turns into something important, and how the clues are in place.

As well as being a great story, the book is made magical by Chris Mould’s illustrations. Some author/illustrator partnerships are legendary. Dahl and Blake. Donaldson and Scheffler. Matt Haig and Chris Mould belong in this category. Their work goes together like Christmas pudding and brandy cream.

Definitely one for Santa’s sack, and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

 

Title: Father Christmas And Me

Publisher: Canongate

Publication date: 12th October 2017

Pages: 294

 

Huge thanks to Canongate for sending a copy in exchange for honest review.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review – Stand By Me by Judi Curtin

standbymebannerimg_4188

Extract:

‘I’ve thought about Jeanie a lot in recent years,’ said Graham. ‘I thought about trying to find her – but the guilt and the shame always held me back … but still – I always hoped that fate would bring us together – I always hoped that one day Jeanie and I would meet again – but … well that’s not going to happen now is it? That ship has sailed without me.’

Beth hugged him. ‘Oh Graham,’ she said. ‘You poor thing. I wish we could do something to help.’ 

He gave a small, sad smile. ‘You listened,’ he said. 

birdSynopsis:

Molly and Beth are back for their second adventure.

Beth’s Great-Uncle Graham is usually the most childlike adult they know. He receives news that his childhood friend Jeanie has died, and suddenly he’s down. It’s not only her death that upsets Graham, but the intervening years. Why did he fail to keep in touch with Jeannie? What happened that summer when they were thirteen? Why has Graham blamed himself all these years?

The girls return to Rico’s, the strange shop which played a part in their first time travel adventure. If they travel back to the 1960s, can they help Uncle Graham? Will they cut it at 1960s school? What the heck is a beehive? A warm adventure which shows that real friendship lasts a lifetime.birdReview:

 A warm and addictive read about the effect the past has on our lives. I love time travel. Time-travel, time-slip, and books where protagonists come to terms with events in their own past. The past makes us.

Molly and Beth live together. I believe there is more about their pasts, and their parents’ relationship in book one, which I will seek out. They are also friends. I love their modern-day family, where Beth’s Uncle is important in Molly’s life. I also like the relationship with Uncle Graham. I’ve been advised that children aren’t interested in adults and their problems, and maybe it is a difficult subject to pull off, but I think children can be curious about the recent past. Family stories are the first place to start.

Jeanie’s story highlights changes in attitude to disability over the past 50 years. This was a great focus. In the 1960s, many people with long-term conditions, sight, hearing and mobility problems were written off by society. This is one reason it is so important for children to think about the recent past. It enables them to see the importance of issues which prevail despite change, and to think about their own attitudes.

Graham’s grief is also a lovely story. Instead of focusing on the immediate shock, Stand By Me shows feelings of guilt and self-blame which people often suffer as part of their grief. Graham’s guilt is about the years in which he failed to contact Jeanie, and his understanding of what happened when they were thirteen. I like that the time travel doesn’t magic Graham’s feelings away. Far more realistically, it gives him some comfort.

I like the style of this story. It’s time-travel, but would be suited to readers of contemporary fiction. There is nothing fantastical about the time-travel. It just enables the girls to see a wider scope of their family’s lives. I hope to read the first novel, and am pleased to see Judi Curtin has a back list. Can’t wait to indulge. a

 

Huge thanks to Aoife Harrison/O’Brien Press for sending a copy in exchange for honest review.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: King Bones by Chris Hallatt Wells

Untitled design - copykingbones

Extract:

Danny felt a solid wall behind him. He turned and through the murk he saw the outline of a mighty door carved from solid stone.

Danny felt the creature’s breath on his exposed neck. He felt their terrible hands reaching towards him. The door was his only escape. Although he knew the stone door was far too heavy for a boy to open by himself, Danny pushed it anyway. 

At his first touch, the stone door swung inwards, silently, on oiled hinges.

‘Welcome Danny Bouygues,’ boomed a voice. ‘I’ve been waiting for you.’

It was the king. birdSynopsis:

The crown jewels have been stolen.

When Danny’s parents are arrested for the theft, he is sent to stay with Aunty Ratbag. Infamous in Danny’s family for hating children, life with Aunty Ratbag is a series of rules and punishments. Even worse is Greezy Academy. Everyone in Greezy is terrible, except for that new girl, and the local gravedigger.

Then the gravedigger introduces him to King Bones, undead Anglo-Saxon King. King Bones and his warriors want to rescue their wives, who were buried in a different place. So begins Danny’s mission, which leads to friendship and a life of theft.birdReview:

King Bones is an adventure which appeals to children’s sense of macabre. It’s humour which will appeal to fans of Gareth P Jones and Chris Priestly.

You’ve got to pity Danny. The first half of the story sets you up to root for him, as he endures the imprisonment of his parents, life with Aunty Ratbag, and the torture which counts for education in the town of Greezy. The school reminds me of Dahl’s Matilda, without Miss Honey. Danny and new girl Audrey stand out as the only people who find their situation strange. I liked the contrast between their home lives. Where Danny is with the frankly abusive Aunty Ratbag, Audrey’s home is palatial. I’m glad Danny had issues over this. It wouldn’t have felt realistic if he’d not begrudged Audrey her luck.

It’s fun to see a story about a child who becomes a master thief which isn’t apologetic for the fact. It’s not a new thing – Oliver Twist has endured for centuries – but I suppose given the natural shape of a story, it is usual for a protagonist to develop beyond their thieving ways. Not so here, and I’m glad. Danny and Audrey are good characters, good people, who have an adventure. Most children understand the boundary between life and fiction. Theft can be fun in fiction.

There is also some great historical content, which will go down well with teachers covering the Anglo-Saxon period. Personally, I enjoyed the story more once King Bones came along, and would have liked him to be introduced earlier, but I’m sure the Dahlesque school will go down as well with other readers. Hallatt Wells certainly doesn’t hold back on toilet humour, or the grotty and grim.

 

Thanks to Mikka at Everything With Words for sending a copy in exchange for honest review.

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review – Michael’s Spear by Hilton Pashley

pashley review

SPOILERS – while this review does not spoil the plot of Michael’s Spear, it contains information about other books in the series. If you have not read the first two books, please skip the extract. 

51rdcfyk95l-_sx329_bo1204203200_

Extract: 

‘What the hell is that?’ asked Jonathan over the shreiking wind. 

‘Consequences,’ Lucifer shouted, looking pointedly at Sammael. ‘I warned you this might happen. You couldn’t settle for just killing Baal, could you? I know he destroyed Heaven, I know he left Jonathan’s father out to die of his wounds, but this is what happens when you go too far. You used your wings to rip open reality, just so you could fling Baal’s rotten soul out of creation and into eternal torment. You’ve damaged the weave of creation, and there are things outside this universe of ours that want in.’ 

(from Michael’s Spear by Hilton Pashley) birdSynopsis:

Jonathan is the only half-angel, half-demon. In the last eight months, he has made the magical village of Hobbes End his home, and faced a series of battles with the arch-daemons. Now there is only one archdemon left, and she may be most dangerous of all.

The fabric of creation is damaged. Hobbes End is under threat from things outside the universe, which would wreak damage. Lucifer blames Sammael. When she cast out the arch-demon Baal, she tore a hole in the fabric of the universe. It is clear such damage can’t happen again. Then Jonathan realises Sammael’s brother Michael is alive. To save him, she must tear another hole in the universe.

Jonathan needs to find the Book of Creation to heal the universe. The problem is, Lillith wants it too. What is Lillith up to? Where is Michael’s spear? The final battle for Hobbes End may be for the universe itself.birdReview:

Hobbes End is one of my favourite middle-grade trilogies. It has the perfect mix of adventure and fantasy, and a memorable cast of characters from Heaven, Hell, Earth and your wildest daydreams. The texture of the world is Milton crossed with Dr Who. Sounds hectic, but it isn’t. The detail forms the world, but the storyline itself is watertight. You will be hooked from start to finish.

The rift between Heaven and Hell, which happened before Jonathan was born, provides material for his adventures. The three arch-demons provided a brilliant way to extend Jonathan’s adventures past one book, and I love how the introduction of Michael opens new possibilities. The other thing which Pashley is good at inventing is objects. This time the focus is on Michael’s Spear, and the Book Of Creation. This is clever – new threat is introduced as Lillith hunts for the book to fulfil her agenda.

A world of angels and demons might have been difficult to relate to, but Jonathan’s world is recognisable as our own. References to smart-phones and cars ground the story in reality. Pashley has a lovely, light sense of humour, and perfect timing. The Dummies Guide To Cosmic Knitting was my favourite moment – a mildly flippant solution to an endangered universe.

Jonathan has changed as a character over the trilogy, and it is lovely to see him taking the final steps towards embracing his identity as the world’s only half-angel, half-demon. This seems like a great metaphor for discovering a sense of self. Children may see themselves as half of this parent, and half of the other, but whatever that is, it becomes a new and unique being.

I love the settings from across the trilogy. Hobbes End has always felt like something between a character and a setting, with its ability to care for and protect its residents. It is a place which embraces anyone and anything – werewolves and vampires, angels and demons. It is also a place were inanimate objects come to life. Stubbs and Monty, the gargoyles, are favourites of mine. They remind me of Shakespearian Clowns, there to lighten the atmosphere, but very much involved in the plot.

I also like the idea of angels and demons interacting. This is a realistic message about the world – whoever you are, you have capacity to behave in all manner of ways. I can’t stand the suggestion that some people are good and others bad, so Pashley’s interpretation of angels and demons makes a lot of sense to me.

A worthy end to the trilogy. If you haven’t read Hilton Pashley’s books, start with Gabriel’s Clock. You’ll be hooked at Chapter One. Otherwise, get ready to cheer Jonathon on in his final adventure, and have a box of tissues ready for the final chapter. It is touching.