Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Eleventh Trade by Alyssa Hollingsworth



I keep my wrist loose and easy, strum-flicking. The beat builds in me, and the opera singer’s voice and the commuters’ footsteps fade. The outside worlds gets smaller and smaller until it is just me and the rebab.

But the world inside me expands. Even though my eyes are closed, I see my home. Not the apartment here in Boston, or the slum in Istanbul, or the cramped hostel in Athens, or the back room in Iran.

 I see my Kandahar house.

(The Eleventh Trade by Alyssa Hollingsworth. P5.)



Sami and his grandfather fled Afghanistan and are making a new life for themselves in Boston. Sami’s grandfather was a famous musician in Afghanistan and the sound of his rebab reminds Sami of home.

When the rebab is stolen is a subway station, Sami vows to get it back. The only problem is he will have to raise $700 to buy it back before it is sold to someone else.

Sami embarks on a series of trades, making deals which bring him closer to his goal. The only problem is, to make the trades work, he will need to open up to new people … and that’s something Sami isn’t ready to do.

A warm-hearted book about trauma and friendship.



A contemporary middle-grade book with a big heart. Sami’s life has been torn apart. People he loves have died, his home has been attacked and he has been forced to leave behind everything he knows. What he wants most – for his life to return to normal – isn’t possible. This is a story about reaching out to other people and building new connections.

I loved how this story was built around the idea of trading. Kids trade. Trading is part of any childhood – from the upsets about trades we want to reverse to the trouble caused by unfair trading. Do you remember objects being banned in primary school? Pokemon cards or Loom bands? Usually, the reason for the ban was so adults didn’t have to manage the drama caused by swapsies and trading. Kids are more enterprising than we give them credit for. Alyssa Hollingsworth has built a lovely story around this staple childhood pastime.

It was clear from both the story and the notes at the back that the author has fully embraced and learned about Sami’s culture. It is important that, when we write stories about cultures other than our own, we listen to people with the life experience. Alyssa Hollingsworth has done more than that – she has lived alongside and befriended people who have shared their stories. I wasn’t just introduced to Sami. I was introduced to a whole culture.

There are some lovely themes about friendship and particularly about remaining open to new experiences even when we can’t return to our old lives. There is a beautiful moment when Sami’s grandfather says that there can never be a replacement for the people we have lost, but there are abundant additions. New friends bless our lives and, in any form of grief, we eventually have to open ourselves to that change.

Readers will cheer Sami on in his quest and cry with him when he shares his worst experiences. A true read for empathy and a great story of our times.


Thanks to Piccadilly Press for my copy of The Eleventh Trade. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Extract: Charlie And Me by Mark Lowery



Earlier this year, I read a special book about a pair of brothers with a strong bond. 

Charlie And Me follows Martin on a journey of a lifetime. Martin sneaks out of the house and travels across the country with the biscuit tin and his little brother Charlie. They are visiting the site of a beloved holiday.

A holiday where something happened. 

With everyone back to school, the guys at Piccadilly Press thought it would be lovely to share extracts from this uplifting and warmhearted book. 

Have a great school year, everyone, and keep reading. birdA few years ago, Mum told me I was the best big brother in the world. It was cool of her to say so, but I don’t see it like that. Charlie’s a right laugh, but he can be like a lost kitten sometimes – bumbling through life all confused and unaware of what’s going on around him. It’s not like I’m a good person or anything. I just have to help him out.

Still, Charlie doesn’t always want me to help him. He likes to do things his own way. Mum says he’s a free spirit, but I’d call him a loony. In the nicest possible way of course.

Even when he was a baby he was like that. It took him ages to learn to walk, but he never let it hold him back. He used to do this strange lop-sided crawl – the walrus flop, Dad called it – which was surprisingly fast. One time when he was nearly two, Mum put him in his travel cot (aka ‘The Cage’, because it was the only way to keep him still) and nipped upstairs to do something.

When she came back down ten minutes later, he’d disappeared. The front door was open. She thought he’d been snatched and she ran outside in a blind panic. And there he was – walrus-flopping across the road, cars slamming on their brakes and swerving out of the way.

Trying to piece together what’d happened afterwards, Mum reckoned he’d been bored so he’d bitten his way through the seam of the plastic mesh wall of the travel cot. Then he’d yanked the sides apart to make an escape hole, walrus-flopped across the lounge, somehow opened the front door and made a break for it.

Then there was the day when he was four and he decided he didn’t like his eyebrows. He said they were freaking him out. So, being Charlie, he shaved them clean off with Dad’s razor. There was blood everywhere. He looked like he’d been attacked with a potato peeler.

And how about when he played the innkeeper in the school nativity play? We still watch the film of it every Christmas. He only had one line to remember – ‘Sorry. No room at the inn.’ – but this is Charlie we’re talking about. After telling Mary and Joseph that they could stay in the honeymoon suite (who knows where he got that from?) and that the donkey could have its own room, he pulled the baby Jesus out from under Mary’s dress, held Him up by His ankle and announced: ‘Behold! The King of the shoes!’ On the film you can almost hear the teacher slapping her forehead off-screen as she says, ‘It’s King of the Jews. And put Him back – you’re a day early.’


Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Warrior Boy by Virginia Clay

Review: Warrior Boy by Virginia Clay



‘…you’re the only son of the great warrior, and they haven’t met you yet? Do you think they’ll just smile and say hello?’

He didn’t know what to say. 

‘No Ben. There will be a huge welcoming ceremony with dancing and singing and their finest young bull will be slaughtered. But not just that … ‘ She took a deep breath. ‘Blood will be taken from a heifer and you’ll be expected to drink it.’ 

(From Warrior Boy by Virginia Clay. P14.)


London boy Ben is heading to Kenya for the first time in his life. He gets to meet his Maasai family, his Dad’s family.

There’s just one problem – Ben needs to overcome his phobia of blood.

Ben meets his cousin Kip, and the boys are taken into the Savannah to learn what it takes to become a warrior. They must keep their cattle safe, hunt for food and even keep the elephants safe from a gang of poachers.

Can Ben protect his family and become a true warrior?


A good story should be a window on someone else’s life. It should take you outside your own world experience and teach you to look at the world a little differently. That’s what Warrior Boy did for me.

Ben comes from a comfortable home and has always been protected. He’s teased a little at school because he comes from one of the nicer areas of London and isn’t part of a gang. It was lovely to see a male character written this way. Ben’s not a tough-boy stereotype. He’s hardworking and looks out for his mum. He’s concerned he might not fit in with his family in Kenya.

Ben is mixed-race. He lives with his Scottish mother and has grown up in London. The Dad he never knew was from a Kenyan tribe. Warrior Boy looks at a character who learns about the other side of his family for the first time aged twelve. Ben is keen to embrace the culture, but it frightened he might not live up to his Dad’s memory.

The poaching storyline broke my heart and I hope it inspires young readers to speak up for conservation. It was a story sensitively told but the message was clear. Unless poaching stops more beautiful species will be lost.

I loved the relationship between Ben and his cousin Kip. There is a kind of healthy competitiveness and a true comradeship between the boys. I also loved the bond between Ben and his Grandfather. It showed that you don’t need to speak a common language to communicate love and pride.

Warrior Boy is a beautiful addition to the middle-grade shelf. It shows us the beauty of embracing a second culture and tells a story relevant to many children in Britain.



Middle Grade Reviews

Blog Tour: Storm Witch by Ellen Renner

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‘…Does anyone doubt that was Air magic? The Albatross’s prophecy proves this: ‘As you command words, so you shall command the wind. Storm-bringer. Storm-rider. Storm-queller.’ 

‘Her choosing has confirmed our suspicions. The Albatross signaled its intent to grant power to the child before she was born: Storm is an Air-witch.’ 

(From Storm Witch by Ellen Renner. P57.) 


At thirteen, children on Yanlin are Chosen by one of the elementals – Earth, Air, Fire or Water. Their choosing determines their apprenticeship and their future life-path. Storm, still recovering from the loss of her father, wants only to avoid the Water Elemental.

Instead, she is chosen by three Elementals – Earth, Air and Water. The fourth tries to kill her. There will be no easy destiny – Storm is a witch with great powers. She must help her island in the fight against The Drowned Ones, the band of pirates who roam the seas, destined never to live on land.

Then a boy washes up on the island and Storm makes a decision – a choice which will change her life forever.


Storm Witch starts a new fantasy quartet which will be beloved by fans of Abi Elphinstone. Think the one chosen for a different destiny. Think vengeful pirates. Think Gods with a plan. Guys, this one is something special and it is going to be huge.

Storm has experienced tragedy before, and she wants nothing more than to keep her loved ones safe. Unfortunately, the Gods don’t seem to have planned it that way, and she finds her home and family in constant danger. I love how Storm had to face up to and own her abilities. She’s not a cardboard cut-out chosen-one but is forced to embrace her powers by circumstance.

Storm is teased for her boy’s name, and when she becomes a witch she gives up her gender entirely. Meanwhile, her cousin is considered soft because he allies with Earth and wants to remain on the island rather than go out on the boat with the men. It was lovely to see commentary about gender worked into a fantasy story. The culture of Yanlin divides male and female in a way which could be a metaphor for real-life preconceptions about gender. I will be interested to see whether this theme develops across the series.

There was another character who provided an interesting dynamic – Mixi is introduced as a bully, but her own perspective is slowly fed to us until we empathise with both Mixi and Storm. I love it when authors write strong characters who we don’t necessarily like. The difference between liking and empathy is one of the most important lessons we can learn as human beings.

As well as being a gripping adventure, Storm Witch introduces a new setting. Storm’s world of pirates and Elementals and apprenticeships to the island’s Elders was so well described that I finished the book feeling as if I had visited Yanlin. From the magical caves of the Elementals to the staff-carrying elders, there was just enough description to make this place real.

A strong start to the series which establishes the world and character and sets out Storm’s dilemma. This will doubtless be a hit and I look forward to finding out how the story continues.


Storm Witch by Ellen Renner is published on 6th September by Nosy Crow in paperback priced £6.99

Thanks to Nosy Crow LTD and EDPR for inviting me on to the tour and for my ARC of Storm Witch. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Stig Plays A Dangerous Game by Jon Claydon and Tim Lawler

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‘Stig,’ said Sam. ‘He’s called the Stig.’ 

‘Right,’ said Minnie. ‘I’m beginning to suspect he could be the answer to a lot of things around here.’ 

(From The Stig Plays A Dangerous Game by Jon Claydon and Tim Lawler. P113.)


Sam Wheeler is the new boy in town. His parents moved to Bunsfold and now they, like everyone else, are addicted to the game Xenon. Everyone is playing Xenon. The school even encourages children to play. It is making PT Crusier exceptionally rich, and is furthering his plans to control humanity. 

Only one person stands in his way – the mysterious Stig. Will the Stig turn up in time or will it be up to Sam and his friends to save Bunsfold and the universe? 


A fast-paced and humorous adventure which ties-in with the popular television series Top Gear. This will appeal both to fans of the show and to readers of the target age who love humour. Think car-based names, over-the-top villains and references to popular culture. There are also lots of machines and vehicles. Cars and computer games and a home-made Go-Kart called the Bunsfold rocket.

The big question throughout the story is the Stig. Will he turn up? When will he save the day?

The book is fast-paced, with lots of dialogue, online conversations and illustrations. Cartoon sections break up the text, making it perfect for less confident readers. There is also a high level of reward in spotting the Top Gear references and car-based jokes. At the head of each chapter, a couple of lines summarise the key events of the coming scenes. This might hook readers and make them more confident because they have an idea of what’s going on before they start. 

Like many first books, this introduces the villain and sees our main characters come together and fight back. Sam and his friends are the only people not playing Xenon and they resolve to fight PT Cruiser until the Stig comes. They also support each other to survive their school, with its gang of bullies and strange fixation on Xenon. I loved their kinship and how they recognised each other as like-minded. 

A pacy and humourous tie-in which will keep readers turning the pages.


Thanks to Faye Rogers PR and Piccadilly Press for my copy of The Stig Plays A Dangerous Game. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock



‘Rib tooth thumb shin dust skull home,’ I whispered to myself. How grand those words sounded. Like a prayer. 

‘Tooth is my next task, and challenging it will be. But I am more optimistic, now that I have a boy who can climb.’ He slipped the book into his robes. ‘The first task I’ve already accomplished. Do you know the story of St Peter, Boy?’ 

‘Of St Peter?’ Indeed I did, from Father Petrus. ‘Peter was a simple fisherman, but he because the very first pope of Rome, and now he minds the gates of heaven.’

The pilgrim nodded. ‘You’ve been taught well. Guard that pack, Boy. Guard it as you would your life. For in that pack rests one of Saint Peter’s ribs.’ 

(From The Book Of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. P31.) 


The year is 1350. Boy looks after the goats which belonged to the lady of the manor. He knows he is different because of his hump, and wishes people would stop calling him a monster.

One day a stranger arrives. Secundus is on a quest and he takes Boy as his servant. Seven relics are waiting to be found and the person to unite them will gain entry to heaven.

A quest begins from France to Italy, Church to Church, as Boy and Secundus find the bones of St Peter.


A brilliant middle-grade quest set in 1300s Europe. This story takes characters from religion but throws in a whole new fantasy. What if the one to unite a set of relics could gain entry to Heaven? What might that mean in the 1300s, when people were terrified of being condemned to an eternity in hell?

Boy is a wonderful character. He has a special connection with animals – he is able to communicate with them without using words. Throughout the quest he is followed and found by different animal friends. Boy’s biggest wish is that people will stop seeing him as a monster. He continues on the quest because he wants St Peter to make him a real boy. Although I knew what Boy had essentially to learn, there is a wonderful twist. No spoilers here.

Secundus is fabulous too. He reeks of hell and he shows no obvious affection for Boy, plucking him from the manor because he sees that Boy might be able to help him. Slowly we learn more about Secundus and his remarkable history. I love it when an author makes me think deeper about a character.  

The setting takes in a period of history which isn’t particularly common in children’s fiction. The depth in which the time-period is explored is fantastic – Secundus’s explanations to Boy about different situations and locations act as information to the reader and the result is that I finished the novel wanting to know more about Europe in this period.

 It is great to find a strong stand-alone novel and I would recommend this to both children and big kids. This will be a hit with fans of Penelope Lively – it has just the same balance of history, action and remarkable situation as Lively’s best novels.


Thanks to Chicken House Books for my copy of The Book Of Boy. Opinions my own.




Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Rise Of Wolves by Kerr Thomson



The next Laird of Nin couldn’t just be any man. He had to be brave and noble and strong. He had to prove himself worthy. And so a challenge was set. If any man, and it was the eighteenth century so it was only men, no women allowed, if any man could successfully re-enact The Bonnie Laddie’s Leap and jump the gap from one side to the other, he would win the prize. And what a prize! There was even a castle.

(The Rise Of Wolves by Kerr Thompson. P40.)


Innis Munro is walking home across the wilderness of Nin Island when he hears a wolf. There are no wolves in Scotland. Wolves were hunted to extinction three-hundred years ago. And who is the strange boy, Lachlan, and why is he so cagey?

When an energy company decide to build turbines on Nin Island, it seems the wilderness will be destroyed. Then Innis finds out about the old legend which says anyone who jumps across a huge chasm becomes the Laird of Nin. If he completes the challenge, he will own the land the energy company plan to build on. And he might even be famous.

All that stands in his way is a surly boy and a gap so wide men have died in the attempt.


 This is a classic coming-of-age story. The strong local setting and the protagonist who is determined to transform themselves into something more. For Innis, it is about being a champion. About being noticed. This story has all the joys and pains of being young.

Anybody who knows my reading tastes knows how much I like stories centered around a local legend or myth. This story centres around a contest which has been open so long it is part of local folklore. It all began when Bonnie Prince Charlie jumped the impossibly-wide chasm to escape a band of soldiers. The first man to perform the leap would be made Laird of Nin. There is a second legend at play – the wolves of Nin are supposed to be extinct. They too are a story from history. I love how these two strands build until they come together, and I love how we feel connected to the island’s past.

The book has a strong trio – Innis, who wants to be noticed. Lachlan who wants to go unnoticed. Kat who wants to be noticed one day but is happy to wait. I loved Innis because he was so determined to try to the point that he was sometimes impulsive. Lachlan has a good heart but doesn’t want people to know it. I finished the book not only feeling I knew the main characters but knowing I had empathised with them. Empathy is surely the most important reason to read.

Although I have never visited the Scottish Islands, I felt familiar with them by the end of the story. There is a clever balance between showing tradition and history which tells us about the island and things which are universally familiar – the kitchen table, the dance hall and the trio of friends heading to school.

This was a book I meant to read last year, and I am pleased to finally have it on my shelves. I can’t recommend it enough, especially if you like stories centered around old legends.