Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Rumblestar by Abi Elphinstone

Review: Rumblestar by Abi Elphinstone

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Extract:

The dust around Casper shifted and seemed to glitter in the half-light and it was then – in that hushed moment – that the Extremely Unpredictable Event occurred. 

The key Casper was holding now looked altogether different. Without the layer of dust covering it, he could see that it was not simply a dull lump of metal anymore. It was silver and in its base there was a turquoise gem, which was glowing. 

(Rumblestar by Abi Elphinstone. P23.) 

 

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Synopsis:

Casper Tock is allergic to adventure. He lives by a timetable and believes in solid evidence and facts. It is the shock of his life when, first he stumbles into the magical world of Rumblestar and then he is told it is his job to save the world.

Utterly Thankless has lived in Rumblestar all her life. She’s a bottler-in-training, learning to contain the magic which creates weather. Life hasn’t been the same for Utterly since the terrible thing which she refuses to talk about.

Now the evil harpy Morg is awakening and her magic is once more a threat to the magical Unmapped Kingdoms. Can Casper, Utterly and their dragon friend Arlo work together to save the world from Morg and her Midnights?

A magical quest from the master of fantasy Abi Elphinstone.

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Review:

A harpy trapped in a void, a magical grandfather clock and a series of secret worlds where the weather is produced and sent to Earth. No writer should be able to pull all that off in one story, but Abi Elphinstone does so not only with ease but with apparent relish. She’s the kind of storyteller who seems to have a magical bag full of ideas which she ties together into brilliant narratives.

Rumblestar is the first book in the Unmapped Chronicles series, although the prequel Everdark was published on World Book Day. It helps to have read this, as the events of the story are referenced, although it is not strictly necessary.

Landscape always plays a part in Elphinstone’s world, from the Scottish Highland forests and rivers of the Dreamsnatcher trilogy to the icy lands of standalone novel Sky Song. For the first time, Elphinstone has invented her own lands to great effect. The Unmapped Kingdoms are where weather is invented. Each land is responsible for a different weather family, and Rumblestar is where the weather is processed and transferred to the world we know. Casper Tock’s world.

Rumblestar felt like something from Diana Wynne Jones. It is both a place where people live and work, and it is also the central part of a magical system. Reading this story made me feel as if I’d had my eyes shut to an important truth about our world, or maybe just that I should be searching for magic hidden just out of sight. This is the kind of story which makes readers believe that life is big and incredible, and that imagination is a powerful asset on our journey.

There was also an environmental message – one desperately needed given the current crisis. This was not invasive but it is important for readers to start thinking and caring about our world.

A book which is part fairytale and part breathtaking adventure. Another hit from Abi Elphinstone which will leave her readers dreaming of magical worlds.

 

 

 

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Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Dragon In The Library by Louie Stowell. Illustrated by Davide Ortu.

Review: The Dragon In The Library by Louie Stowell. Illustrated by Davide Ortu.

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Synopsis:

When Alita and Josh suggest a trip to the library, Kit is majorly unimpressed. What is there to do at the library? Won’t she just die of boredom? She’s reckoned without her own magical powers, the amazing librarian Faith and the dragon who lives beneath the bookshelves.

Suddenly the library doesn’t seem like such a boring place after all.

When it is threatened with closure, and the magic is threatened, Kit and her friends know they must do everything within their power to save it. Because libraries are magical places which should never be threatened by men in suits.

 

Review:

A magical adventure about the power of reading by prolific non-fiction author Louie Stowell. This is a story which will have broad appeal. Bookworms will love it because it celebrates that special magic which can be found in any place with bookshelves. People who dislike reading (at present) will relate to Kit. A bad early experience with words can be enough to frighten people away from a lifetime of magic. Luckily librarians like Faith know that people who are afraid of books are often the ones who enjoy a good story.

Kit is the Wizard. The one with special story-related powers. Not bookish Alita or polite Josh. This is an empowering message and it is particularly appropriate in a book which could be enjoyed by readers of all ages yet has a lower reading age than standard middle-grade books (like the early Harry Potter books or stories by Robin Stevens).

Deciphering the words is a skill. Getting into the story is very real magic.

The antagonist in this story is a businessman who intended to turn the library into a shopping centre. During my last year in London, my local library was reduced in size to accommodate a gym on the bottom floor. While this was far less drastic than the loses suffered by other communities, it still felt like an attack on the space where I had grown up and dreamed. Baddies, as bookworms generally know, don’t always have magical powers. In fact, they are usually very mundane people who can twist a situation to their advantage and back themselves up with powerful friends. Showing this all to real kind of nastiness in stories is important. Even if most people aren’t wizards, they can, like Kit, find good friends who also refuse to bow down to injustice.

Louie Stowell’s message is clear. Libraries are magical and those who seek to take them away are greedy, villainous tyrants. At a time it too often feels that all the power is in the hands of such people, this book offers a healthy dose of hope along with the adventure.

Black-and-white illustrations by Davide Ortu add extra sparkle to the story. He is especially good at bringing out the hidden traits of his characters. Librarian Faith looks like she is prepared for adventure at any moment, while Mr Salt has meanness brimming out of him like an exaggerated Lord Business (of Lego Movie fame).

A delightful story which states loudly and clearly that the magic of reading belongs to everyone. I’m looking forward to more fiction from Louie Stowell.  

 

Thanks to Nosy Crow Ltd for my proof copy of The Dragon In The Library. Opinions my own.

 

 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Butterfly Circus by Francesca Armour-Chelu

Review: The Butterfly Circus by Francesca Armour-Chelu

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Extract:

The applause builds anyway until the benches are shaking. I can’t help myself; I turn to look. 

The silks flap emptily and Belle’s nowhere to be seen. 

(The Butterfly Circus by Francesca Armour-Chelu. P29 -30.)BBD35E74-4B7A-46CA-8F8F-0E29FC08A586Synopsis:

Sisters Tansey and Belle are the stars of the Butterfly Circus. Their trapeze act turns them into human butterflies. Then a bad accident leaves Tansey on the ground. Afraid to get back on the trapeze, she is certain her career is over, so she doesn’t see what happens the night Belle disappears.

The best lead is an invitation from a rival circus. Determined to find Belle, Tansey sets out on a search which takes her across the isle of Gala. Tansey’s shadow comes to life and drives her on in the quest to find out what happened.

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Review:

A story about bravery, confidence, friendship and rivalry. Tansey is certain she will never be brave enough to fly through the air again, but she doesn’t know just how many wonderful things are hidden inside her.

Stories set in performance spaces are always a treat and The Butterfly Circus is no exception. Drawing on the golden age of the British seaside holiday, Francesca Armour-Chelu has created a world of piers and promenades and fairgrounds and music halls. It is also a world of poor health and hard grind. The people on the mainland are worked to the bone, and they are only permitted to enter the holiday island of Gala if they are scrubbed down. Candyfloss and sideshows may seem light, but they came from a time which was difficult in many ways. In a world where so many things glitter and shine, it is easy to see the dirt.

Tansey has always looked to her big sister Belle for confidence. Belle is quite literally the person who catches her when they are performing, and in life she is the person who stops the pair falling flat. However, when Tansey is on her own and her shadow Rosa comes to life, Tansey finds a whole new personality to admire.

The challenges Tansey faces during her quest come in different forms. At times the story is almost Dickensian, with the threat of the orphanage looming large and disgusting characters with equally odious names prepared to kidnap children and work them to the bone. The idea of ‘freak’ shows is also explored, and it is clear from the story that it doesn’t take much for someone to be labelled as different.

A strong protagonist whose story teaches us that there are different ways to be brave. This is a story which is all about the internal struggles of the protagonist, but those are brought to life in a beautiful and visual way. Although there are plenty of circus stories for children, this one adds to the canon with its darker edge and brilliant characters.  

 

Thanks to Walker Books Ltd for my gifted copy of The Butterfly Circus. Opinions my own.

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Milton The Mighty by Emma Read

Review: Milton The Mighty by Emma Read

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Extract:

‘You and me, Mr Macey. Together we’ll clear this house of invaders.’ 

‘So, you’ll kill them?’

Felicity smoothed down her corduroy skirt.

‘Every. Last. One.’ 

At this point, Milton stopped having thoughts altogether. He went cross-eyed, eight different ways, and fainted.

(Milton The Mighty by Emma Read. P30.)

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Synopsis:

When spider Milton discovers he has been branded deadly by a popular internet story, he realises his life is in peril. His house human has a phobia of spiders and will go to any length to destroy them, which makes him an easy target for Felicity Thrubwell whose pest control business thrives on fear.

Milton’s only hope is to prove he is not a deadly spider. Luckily he has help. Milton’s eight-legged friends are on board, and so is the younger human Zoe. Together they set out to straighten out the facts.

But will that be enough to stop Felicity Thrubwell?

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Review:

A story about a little spider with a big heart. Milton’s quest to clear his name and save spider-kind is the sort of animal tale I loved when I was small. Dick King-Smith was one of my favourite childhood authors, and this reminds me of his work. It has the same mix of charm and resilient characters, with up to date technology.

Milton’s campaign for justice is balanced with a whole load of creepy crawly fun.

The theme couldn’t be more relevant to our times. Milton has always had trouble from some humans, but a piece of viral internet content turns the whole world against him. And it’s just not true. Milton isn’t a killer spider. Emma Read resists an anti-internet stance. Instead the book shows that the internet can be used for good or bad and that we must trust our own judgement and knowledge.

Zoe is a wonderful character. She’s having trouble at school because she just refuses to cave into the anti-spider hype. She knows better. It is good to see a role model who sticks to her principles and is determined to make a change. Like Greta Thunberg, the young climate activist who has turned heads and opinions, Zoe knows that making a change isn’t about being big or special. It’s about being unafraid to get your message out.

This is also a book about friendship and the power of changing our habits. Fears and actions can be ingrained. It takes kindness and understanding – not anger – to help people change their ways.

A fantastic story with two heroes (a spider and a girl) whose resilience, determination and kindness make them perfect role-models to us all.

 

Thanks to Chicken House Books for my gifted copy. Opinions my own.

 

 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Longest Night Of Charlie Noon by Christopher Edge

Review: The Longest Night Of Charlie Noon by Christopher Edge

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Extract:

‘Old Crony lives in the woods. Deep in the heart of the woods. He’s been there for years. He’ll be the one that’s left the message, not some stupid spy.’ 

Beneath the dark line of his close-cropped hair, Johnny’s eyes stare with a strange fascination.

‘Old Crony eats children, you know.’ 

(The Longest Night Of Charlie Noon by Christoper Edge. P13.) 

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Synopsis: 

There could be anything in the woods. Even Old Crony, the legendary monster. They say he eats children. Charlie, Dizzy and Johnny set out in search of the truth.

First the trio get lost among the trees. Then they get lost in time. Faced with puzzles and questions and all kinds of revelations, Charlie fears they will never leave.

What if they remain lost?

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Review:

An intelligent middle-grade novel which demands a second reading. It begins with three children who get lost on the trail of a legendary figure. Events get stranger, puzzles deeper and the children are forced to question where they stand in time. And whether time exists at all.

The mystery of Old Crony builds tension throughout the story. Are the children in danger of being eaten? What kind of creature is it that lives in the woods?

As the puzzles are solved, the characters are faced with big questions. What is time? Are we ever in one moment?  

Science and Philosophy aside, this is a great story. It has a strong cast of characters – friends and frenemies. The fact that Johnny doesn’t begin the story as one of the gang makes it stronger, both at points of conflict and when they all manage to work together.

The reader, like Johnny, is forced to face their own prejudices as information about the characters is spelt out. Details we didn’t know are made clear. Reviewers often talk about these moments as big character revelations but we need to think a little deeper. Have we learned anything new? Or have we learned plenty about the character, about the person’s traits and interests, already? What difference does this new information make?

This is not only a story about time. It is also about nature. The two are inextricably intertwined, especially at this moment when our world is facing a climate crisis. Time (as the old riddle goes) eats men, women, children, animals and trees … and this time it might not only take individuals away. It might take every species. Towards the end of the story, our protagonist Charlie asks the question which must plague today’s children: what can I do when I am so young? The answer is encouraging and powerful. ‘You will change the world. All you need is time.’

A book which proves that stories for children can be both gentle and intelligent.

 

Thanks to Nosy Crow Books and Clare Hall-Craggs for my gifted copy of the book. Opinions my own.

 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Maker Of Monsters by Lorraine Gregory

Review: The Maker Of Monsters by Lorraine Gregory

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Review:

The creature clutches at his head with his huge hands and lets out a blood-freezing cry, showing off the many rows of enormous serrated white teeth which fill his massive jaws. 

‘You will follow my orders or suffer the consequences!’ Lord Macawber insists, holding the locket with one hand and extending his other palm out towards his creation. 

(The Maker Of Monsters by Lorraine Gregory. P37.) 

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Synopsis:

Brat has lived in the castle since he was small, caring for all the monsters that his master has created. Some of the monsters are kind, but recently they’ve become scary and dangerous. Lord Macawber’s plan is to build a monster army and rescue his daughter, but one day the monsters get out of control and turn on their creator.

Only Brat can escape into the city and warn the other people of the danger but do this he must overcome the feeling that he is hopeless.

The world outside the castle may be as brutal as the one inside.

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Review:

A fantasy story which explores the definition of the word monster.

Like Dr Frankenstein, Lord Macawber creates monsters from body parts. His reasoning is that his daughter was taken from him and he is entitled to revenge. And certainly the man he is seeking to harm has done some terrible things. The novel explores whether Lord Macawber’s reaction is justified when other people who have been harmed are looking to find their own place in the world without endangering others.

Lord Macawber shows no respect for the creatures he creates. His early creatures, whose personalities were too kind for the job, are treated as scrap. Brat, whose life Macawber sees as worthless compared to that of his daughter, is treated as a slave whose life is disposable. However, it is Brat who acts with humanity, warning the other people of the danger. The theme of prejudice recurs throughout the book. Brat and his monster friends have learned that they are worthless, but eventually they question what they have always been told and find new ways to define themselves.

The setting is spook-tacular. A crumbling castle over the sea. A community of outcasts. A walled city with hidden tunnels. This is a wonderful landscape to adventure through and all the large buildings serve to make Brat appear smaller and even less significant than he feels.

Although this is short it has real depth and an extraordinary narrative which balances various subplots and settings. It would be wonderful for older readers after something shorter.

A wonderful fantasy which pays tribute to Frankenstein but brings something new and entirely magical of its own.

 

Thanks to Oxford University Press for my gifted copy of The Maker Of Monsters. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Kat Wolfe Takes The Case by Lauren St John

Review: Kat Wolfe Takes The Case by Lauren St John

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Extract:

‘And not just any dragon,’ said her father. ‘If I’m not mistaken, it’s a two-hundred-million-years-old dracoraptor, breathing fire across the ages. It’s so perfectly preserved that one could almost believe it capable of springing from its sandstone tomb to hunt again.’ 

(Kat Wolfe Takes The Case by Lauren St John. P45.) 

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Synopsis:

A pair of Hollywood actors arrive in Bluebell Bay, a strange explosion causes a cliff slide and a rare dragon fossil is unearthed on the beach. Kat Wolfe and Harper Lamb are thrilled by all the exciting things happening in their local area.

Then an apparently innocent man confesses to the murder of his old friend. The girls begin investigating the death and uncover a whole web of dangerous secrets.

Meanwhile, a series of sheep attacks put Kat’s wild cat Tiny in trouble and he is threatened by an animal control officer. Can Kat and Harper solve the mystery and save Tiny before it is too late?

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Review:

The second book in the Wolf & Lamb Mysteries series brings together a huge number of strange situations and ends in a conclusion which is both satisfying and brilliant in that it offers huge potential for the rest of the series. A new Lauren St John story is always exciting and this book is no exception. With her trademark mix of environmental narratives, Famous Five fluffiness and modern-day technology, Lauren St John has written a page-turner.

Kat Wolfe and Harper Lamb met in the first book. With Harper’s coding and language skills and Kat’s intuition and love of animals, the girls were already a strong team. Add Edith, a librarian for life, and new character Kai and the range of skills is formidable.

Kai’s own story builds across the story without distracting us from the main action. During the introduction, we learn that his father, a Chinese herbalist, has been threatened by masked men. Kai’s own quest puts him in touch with Harper and Kat.

As well as strong themes about caring for the world, this book shows how preconceived ideas and prejudice cause people to make uninformed judgments. This is about the good guys picking on good people, and Kat and Harper are as guilty of it as anyone else. When they are called out by their friend Edith, they face up to it admirably and then Kat starts seeing it everywhere. Fear of homeless people, unkindness towards stay dogs and assumptions about a bright young man who dropped out of education. With every person who makes a poorly informed judgement, these characters suffer another setback. Themes like this have never been more important in children’s literature. With politicians, news outlets and policies spouting discrimination, change needs to come from the bottom up. We will never fight prejudice and hate crime until we face up to the problems caused by basically good people making casual statements.

 

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books for my gifted copy. Opinions my own.