Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Explorer by Katherine Rundell

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Extract:

The sun was ferociously hot, and he was still alive. Those were the first two thoughts that came to Fred as he opened his eyes. He looked down at his wristwatch, but the face was cracked and the minute hand had fallen off. 

The two girls were asleep next to him. Both of them were covered in blood and scabs, but they were breathing easily. Con had her thumb in her mouth. There was a host of dragonflies in luminous blues and reds dancing around them. He thought they might be attracted to the blood. 

But there was no sign of the little boy. 

Max was missing. 

(The Explorer by Katherine Rundell, P16 – 17.) 

 

Synopsis:

Fred is sensible. A nice boy. Everybody says so. Sometimes Fred wishes people would think of something more remarkable to say. Fred would love to do something impressive, something his father would take notice of. Then Fred is in a plane which crashes over the Amazon jungle. He survives alongside three other children: Lila, her little brother Max and fearless Con.

The jungle removes all the social conventions of the modernised world. Con and Lila may be dressed in frills, but Con won’t allow Fred to act the ‘fearless man’. Con finds she is equal to Fred, once society isn’t there to tell her otherwise.

The  children find a map, which leads them to the ruined temple and the Explorer. The Explorer has lived in jungle for a long time, and adapted to jungle life. He is not keen to meet the children. Children are noisy, and under-grown. Children remind him of something he would rather forget.

The Explorer is an adult. In the ‘real world’ adults help children. The Explorer thinks differently. The jungle is as real as it gets, and he won’t help the children go anywhere until he is certain they will keep a promise. A promise Fred refuses to make.

 

Review:

Katherine Rundell is masterful in revelation. Her exposition is spot-on. Reading her work is like following a bread crumb trail: Rundell drops just enough bread crumbs to keep you hunting for more. The children are interesting characters, but the Explorer himself makes the story. I wanted to know why he was in the jungle. What is this man’s backstory? Will he help the children? The introduction of the Explorer a third of the way in opened a treasure-trove of questions.

The Explorer’s story opens ideas about the Western world imposing its values on other cultures. Rundell uses the metaphor of early explorers bringing pianos and tea cups into the jungle, trying to make the expedition ‘comfortable’ by bringing home comforts. She interrogates the values of the time, and the way people took opportunity of other cultures instead of embracing them. Fred’s narrative is closely tied to this. Initially, he hopes to return home to impress the world with his tales of the jungle.

Rundell makes clever use of imagery throughout the novel to investigate character conflict. I love the Explorer’s private space. He forbids the children to look behind the vines. It mirrors his hidden secrets, and his fear the children’s presence will bring his past into the open.

Rundell investigates the way different relationships shape us, from friendships to love and family bonds. One of my favourite lines is about love at first sight being a recognition that a person or place will make your heart stronger. Rundell is perceptive about interactions between people. She shows the affect one person can have on another. 

There is some interesting exploration of gender. The jungle takes away the conventions of the modernised world. Con thrives. At the start she is cross and defensive, bunched up in a dress which she finds unnecessarily frilly. Once she is in the jungle, she never allows Fred to put himself above her. Fred must work alongside her as an equal. Lila goes unnoticed until Fred and Con fall out. Suddenly Lila – who cares for her little brother Max and an adopted sloth called Baca – speaks out. Quiet, nurturing, motherly Lila is more perceptive in this situation the Con or Fred.

The Explorer is perceptive about the way the Western World treats other cultures. Similar in theme to Kensuke’s Kingdom, it focuses on cultural landmarks as much as wildlife. The book looks set to be beautiful, with illustrations around the text by Hannah Horn. I look forward to holding it in my hands. I recommend reading in one or two sittings. This way, you won’t have to wait for an answer to the questions which build in your mind. 

 

Huge thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for sending me an advanced copy via NetGalley. This does not affect the honesty of my review.

Chat

Guest Chat – @goldenbooksgirl finds perfect summer destinations from her favourite fiction

Whether it’s the Leaning Tower of Piza or the Arctic wilderness, this is the time of year when social media EXPLODES with perfect pictures from perfect holidays. Meanwhile, some of us are sat at home making Pinterest boards of places we would like to visit. One way to ‘visit’ a place without stepping foot on a plane is to read a book with a great setting. Sure, you’re not actually there, but you might empathise with a new culture in a way you wouldn’t if you really were running around with a tour group or sipping cocktails on a sandy beach. Handing over to Amy from @goldenbooksgirl, one of my bestest blogging friends. Huge thanks to Amy, who is epic, awesome and all-over lovely. 

 

MY TOP WANDERLUST READS- GOLDEN BOOKS GIRL GUEST POST

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Seven Days of You by Cecilia Vinesse (Tokyo)

This book has some faults, but it did such a phenomenal job showcasing Tokyo that I still adored it. It`s the love story of Sophia and Jamie, in Sophia`s last ever week living in Tokyo, and her falling for the city all over again alongside her romance with Jamie. It made me want to jump on a plane immediately.

The Girl Who Rode the Wind by Stacy Gregg (Italy)

This is an utterly lovely contemporary adventure book, which also contains a lot of Italy`s culture and traditions and history (through the form of actual flashbacks to the main character`s grandmother when she was young, if my memory serves). I`m very overdue a reread of this, and I highly recommend it. And, as it`s Stacy Gregg, there`s obviously a huge horsey theme too! If you`d prefer some equestrian fun in Spain and learn more about that country instead, the 6th Pony Club Secrets book (Storm and the Silver Bridle would be perfect for you!

The White Giraffe series by Lauren St. John (South Africa)

While I`m not as big a fan of this series as I am of Lauren`s other books, the Laura Marlin Mysteries, I still really enjoyed them. They conjure up a beautiful, yet simeltaneously horrific picture of South Africa which is very accurate judging from comments made by a friend who lives there. Reading these was tough for me (I don`t do well with animal books, they always make me cry) but if they don`t make you want to go on a safari and experience the wonder of animals in the wild for yourself I truly don`t understand why.

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins (Paris)

This is one of my favourite romance books EVER (you`ll understand why once you`ve read it). It explores Anna as she moves to an American school in Paris and soon develops a crush on handsome, charming Etienne. The only problem is that he already has a girlfriend…

This book made me desperate to go to Paris; this book created such an atmosphere and an ambience, and the scenes exploring the city were my very favourites.

New York, New York/The BSC in the USA by Ann M. Martin

If you read my blog, I make no secret about the fact that I adore the Babysitters Club series. These are super specials, which means that they`re narrated by every club member and even a few side characters sometimes (which is always super, super fun!). They`re set in New York and on a roadtrip across America and I can basically guarantee you`ll want to explore a few locations for yourself by the time you`re done. My personal favourite narrators in New York, New York are Stacey and Mary-Anne, who have been tasked with showing the children of diplomats the sights and in BSC in the USA I think my favourite location has to be the Grand Canyon.

Stella Etc series by Karen McCombie (British seaside)

If all my exotic picks aren`t your style, why not try this sea-set series with friendship, mystery and a huge dollop of Karen McCombie humour? They feature a fabulous, hugely likeable cast of characters (my personal favourite is TJ) and the historical mystery throughout all seven books is genuinely interesting. These also have the bonus of actually being set in summer, so they are PERFECT reads for a sunny day, especially as they`re quite short and easy to get through.

 

Have you read any books which make you want to pack a suitcase and jet off? Has a setting actually inspired you to travel? Let me know in the comments bellow.

Young Adult Reviews

A Change is Gonna Come Blog Tour – The Elders on the Wall by Musa Okwonga

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When I told people about my post for the #ChangeBook blog tour, so many people said the same thing:

‘I skip the poems in anthologies.’ Are you one of those people? Listen up: if you skip the poems in A Change is Gonna Come – the epic anthology which celebrates writing from diverse communities – you’ll not only miss some great poetry. The poems offer an interpretation on the theme of Change. They create a lens, which you can use when you look at the stories in the anthology. 

This post focuses the poem which opens the anthology – The Elders on the Wall by Musa Okwonga. Read on to learn about Okwonga, about Elders on the Wall, and to find out how the poem allows readers to think differently as they read the anthology. 

 

About Musa Okwonga:

Musa Okwonga was born in London to UgOkwongaandan parents and is based in Berlin. He is a journalist, musician and the author of two books about football, a poetry collection, Eating Roses for Dinner, and a contributor to The Good Immigrant. On National Poetry Day 2015, JK Rowling tweeted Okwonga’s poem Invisible Men, which speaks out against internet trolls.

Musa Okwonga’s contribution to Change encourages young people to speak out, and take control of the future. Okwonga’s work makes him an excellent role model. He is an advocate for change, and written about issues as diverse as racism and women’s rights, internet trolls and border control. A key theme of this work is the right to exist without repression. He uses different forms of communication, from spoken poetry to social media to journalism, to connect with different audiences. His material shows awareness of how everything from rhythm to movement to clothing choice can be used to communicate with an audience.

Written poetry has been an agent for change in the past. In the age of YouTube and flash mobs, spoken poetry is a form many younger people relate to. Okwonga records and performs many of his poems, and included poetry in his 2012 TedX talk.

 

The Elders on the Wall:

‘I wish to change the world, and the elders smirk’

A young persona stands in front of a wall. Older people ‘smirk’ as the young person stands before the wall, seeing ‘no visible places to grip’. The core theme is introduced in the opening lines. A young person wants to surmount something. Like other young people around him/her, the persona seeks to climb a wall. Not only do they receive no encouragement from their elders, there are times when the elders seek actively to knock the young back.

“You youths can reach where we are if you toil”,

They say, pouring oil down that wall’s face.

They didn’t build this edifice,

But they don’t seem aggrieved that it’s complete.

Perhaps those elders didn’t build the wall which stands in the young persona’s way, but they don’t seek to remove it. They would rather knock the young people back than admit the obstacle exists. This reminded me of recent political divides. The elders, ‘scurrying and scared’, who have voted for political change which will be disastrous to our futures. Changes which encourage division from the international community. It also made me think of economics. Of Student Loans at crazy rates of inflation, at a housing market which young people cannot hope to surmount. It is easy for elder people to believe younger generations are falling behind through some fault or laziness of their own. Far more difficult to stand up and fight for changes which will benefit the majority.

Older generations are referred to as ‘elders’. This language choice seemed almost Biblical. In the Bible, high walls are built to block out the message of God. Okwonga’s poem is secular, but there is no doubt the elders hiding behind the wall are blocking out the message of change. The image of oil running down the wall also seemed Biblical.  

What to do? The Wall extends

In either direction and out of view.

My choices are two

Throughout the poem there are several short lines. These emphasise the questions the young persona is faced with, and their desperation when faced with the wall. Okwonga highlights the fact that epic journeys begin when one person makes a decision. In this instance, one young person chooses not to be deterred by obstacles put in place by their elders. Instead of giving in, or fighting their elders, the young person lengthens their journey and searches for another solution.

The persona turns his back on the wall, and runs. Phrases such as ‘roughest roads’ and ‘loneliest hills’ are used to describe the landscape. These are stock phrases of an epic journey, which emphasizes that the persona’s journey, is every bit as epic as, for example, Frodo’s quest to destroy the ring of darkness.

Perhaps the young person will find a way around the wall. Perhaps they will build their own systems elsewhere. A system can only be so broken before people refuse to play by its rules.

To lands that even maps dare not touch,

Through thoughts that scream I’ll not amount to much

 Left without the support of their elders, the persona encounters self-doubt and despair. Here there are echoes of The Pilgrim’s Progress, where the protagonist journeys through places such as The Slough of Despond to reach their ultimate destination. ‘Lands that even maps dare not touch’ appears to be metaphoric of change which elders have never envisioned, or refuse to countenance. I could imagine the elders saying, ‘you dare to suggest?’ and ‘you dare to go?’ as if it were a character aspersion.

Change comes when people dare to think differently.

‘Change is hard; still, maintain the charge.

They may have the safety but the bravery is all ours.’

Okwonga’s poem dares young people to make their own futures, and to fight for change regardless of the attitudes of older generations. It advocates making choices for ourselves, but travelling alongside likeminded people in in a quest for change.

It is a fitting opening to the anthology. It dares young people to see themselves as agents of change, regardless of attitudes they might have encountered. It dares young people to think and decide for themselves. This is a great start to an anthology which deals with change – change starts when one person decides to act differently. Decides to become the change, and make it happen.

waiting on wednesday

Waiting on Wednesday – A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares by Krystal Sutherland

Synopsis (from amazon.com): 
Ever since Esther Solar’s grandfather was cursed by Death, everyone in her family has been doomed to suffer one great fear in their lifetime. Esther’s father is agoraphobic and hasn’t left the basement in six years, her twin brother can’t be in the dark without a light on, and her mother is terrified of bad luck.
 
51aifr85u1lThe Solars are consumed by their fears and, according to the legend of the curse, destined to die from them.
 
Esther doesn’t know what her great fear is yet (nor does she want to), a feat achieved by avoiding pretty much everything. Elevators, small spaces and crowds are all off-limits. So are haircuts, spiders, dolls, mirrors and three dozen other phobias she keeps a record of in her semi-definitive list of worst nightmares.
 
Then Esther is pickpocketed by Jonah Smallwood, an old elementary school classmate. Along with her phone, money and a fruit roll-up she’d been saving, Jonah also steals her list of fears. Despite the theft, Esther and Jonah become friends, and he sets a challenge for them: in an effort to break the curse that has crippled her family, they will meet every Sunday of senior year to work their way through the list, facing one terrifying fear at a time, including one that Esther hadn’t counted on: love.

 

Why I can’t wait to read A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares:

  • Esther’s cursed family reminds me of The Probable Future by Alice Hoffman, about a family where the women have different gifts. A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares sounds like it has a similar kind of quirky magical-realism.
  • How cute is the conflict? I want to know whether Alice and Jonah will be together, and what they need to learn about themselves before they are ready to overcome their fear of relationships. I love it when fantasy is used to explore real-world conflict.
  • According to a couple of reviews I read, the novel is about mental illness. Not only is this fab in itself, the characters are definitely rounded. They do not appear to be defined by their illness, although their illness might form a big part of their journey. It is really important to see realistic portrayals of people with different health conditions.
  • I’m loving contemporary YA this year. Before 2017, I hadn’t read much contemporary YA. When I was a teen, nearly all titles for young people were contemporary, and a huge number of them were about love triangles. How the world moves on. Wing Jones opened my eyes to what I was missing. After Wing Jones I vowed to read at least one novel with a contemporary setting every month. The family curse adds a touch of fantasy to put me in my comfort zone.

 

A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares

Hot Key Books (UK)

September 2017

Sold? Not certain? Advance copies of A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares are available to win on ReadersFirst. Better still, you can read an excerpt from the start of the book and decide whether or not you’re hooked.

Chat

YALC gave me Pin Badge Envy…

Pin badges? I have previous. During the 2012 Olympics, I worked in the shopping centre next to the stadium. This put me in prime position to accost athletes and sponsors for pin badges. I have about 50 – national badges, sponsor badges and a lovely gold aeroplane from an R.A.F. pilot. One day I’ll take a picture – currently they are lost in one of those boxes which the loft and garage make so ignorable. (Anyone have cars in their garage? Throughout my extended family, garages seem to be accepted as storage space.) 

Currently, I collect RSPB pins. Every time I walk at my local bird sanctuary I buy I couple. I would like to say I recognise the birds. I’m afraid, like most people, I can recognise a robin, a pigeon and a Canada goose. Regardless, the pins are lovely and it is a great way to support a charity. 

All the Tweets about Y.A.L.C. gave me pin fever. Where else could I get bookish pins? Turns out the answer is everywhere! I had already found the Mockingbird pin when I wrote my post about bookish gifts. My pin wishlist has grown.  Y.A.L.C.ers? You’ve got me on to something. If anyone has that STAGS school badge, I’ll swap you for….I dunno….but I’ll swap you.

Do you collect pin badges? Have you got any bookish pins? Let me know in the comments below.  

 

 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review – The Boy Who Went Magic by A.P. Winter

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Extracts:

A hand shook Bert’s shoulder. He gasped and looked around, to find that he was back in the real world again , lying in front of the mirror with the Professor beside him. He wasn’t sure how long he had been oblivious, but he could tell something bad had happened. The other children were shouting in alarm, and Mr Fitzroy was trying to gather them together. 

‘Are you alright?’ said the Professor. 

‘I saw something,’ said Bert. He blinked dizzily. ‘I was in another place.’ 

‘Right, well … that’s interesting,’ said the Professor. He seemed distracted. ‘I’m afraid this really isn’t going to plan. I didn’t imagine they’d have such unstable artifacts.’ 

(The Boy Who Went Magic, AP Winter. P27.) 

 

Synopsis:

Bert’s school insists there is no such thing as magic. The government and Royals of Penvellyn say the same thing. They sanction a museum exhibition to teach the public about all the crazy things people used to believe about magic, and the land of Ferenor. Bert’s class aren’t quite sure what to make of the exhibition. It doesn’t help that a pirate leads their group to a room full of secret objects. Objects Bert has a special connection with.

Bert activates a magic mirror, and attracts the attention of Prince Voss. Voss has his own interest in magic, and in the spirit Bert unwittingly called from the mirror. The Government have been in charge of the country for too long. Once upon a time, Royalty meant something. Voss is keen to bring the old days back. He’ll execute anybody who disagrees.

Bert is swept away from school by the pirate, who goes by the name of the Professor, and his plucky daughter Finch. Their destination is Ferenor – but there are people who would rather they didn’t get there…

 

Review:

I wanted to know more about Bert from the outset. He is rescued from a family who are branded as traitors to the throne. The man who rescues him doesn’t leave an identity, but pays for his education in full, and keeps quiet tabs on Bert. Likewise, Bert’s friend Norton is entirely miserable in Penvellyn. He’d much rather tag along with Bert.

Norton’s relationship with Bert was a highlight of the story. At the start, Bert leaves Norton in school. Bert is desperate for a ‘proper adventure’, and will leave his friend behind if need-be. Bert’s biggest development as a character is in the respect he finds for his friend, and I liked him better for it.

There were so many great locations, at times I wished we had a book for each one. The school, the airship and the strange land of Ferenor – it was like the ultimate Lego game, spread out over an afternoon, in which the adventurer’s legs are pulled off and swapped with the mech’s, while the other adventurer gets the pirate hat. That kind of adventure. A.P. Winter deserves credit. It is difficult to make a world like that believable, but he does so with aplomb. I think this is due to the everyday touches – the school, the museum and the bank, and how totally recognisable they were even with the strange objects inside.

The middle of the story was strong. Wherever there was a goal within the story, there were obstacles. This was interesting from my perspective as an aspiring writer, to see how Winter kept the action going.

The history between Penvellyn and Ferenor acted as a story-within-a-story. The ending implies a sequel. I hope we will find out more about the relationship between the two worlds, and what happened to the mages of Ferenor. Bert learns something pretty huge about himself in the last pages, which hints at the direction the story might take.

There are things we could have learned about Norton. Things we could have learned about the Professor and his airship, and about the land of Ferenor. That can’t be a complaint. It’s more of an impatience. It seems there is more to come, and the first book has whetted my appetite.

Middle Grade Reviews

Heaven Eyes by David Almond

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Extract:

‘I remember many things,’ he whispered. ‘I remember I was all alone. I remember I did dig Heaven Eyes out one starry night from the mud of the Black Middens. Long long time ago. Long ago as she has been alive. I remember I am caretaker and always been the caretaker. But I do not remember many other things.’

He rubbed his eyes, focused on me, wrote again. 

‘You dug her out?’ I said. ‘What do you mean, you dug her out?’

‘Grampa is the caretaker,’ her said. ‘Grampa dug Heaven from the Middens one starry night. This is long long time back and much in memory does fade away. Heaven Eyes is called Heaven Eyes cos she does see through all the grief and trouble in the world to the Heaven that does lie beneath.’ 

 

Synopsis:

Erin plans to run away with her best friend, January Carr. Away from Whitegates. Away from Maureen, who looks at the children in her care and sees broken, damaged people. Away from circle-time, and talking-about-it, and Maureen’s obsession with writing life-stories. Maureen seems to think she could have done a better job of being a Mum to Erin. Like Erin’s Mum was a failure for dying.

Erin, Mouse and January sail down the river on a homemade raft. They are met by Grampa, who can’t decide whether they are ghosts or devils, but wants to dig them back into the Black Middens before they can lead little Heaven Eyes astray. Heaven Eyes wants them to stay and be her brothers and sisters. Heaven Eyes sees beautiful things inside other people. 

There are secrets buried in the Black Middens, and secrets buried deep inside Heaven’s Eyes.

 

Review:

I had never read Heaven Eyes. I don’t know why – in all the years of knowing Almond’s work was amazing, I hadn’t read Heaven Eyes. I finished rereading Skellig on Saturday night. On Sunday morning, I read Heaven Eyes. I read both books in a sitting. Both earned the highest accolade I ever award books – they are so perfect, I cried not for the plot, but for the sheer experience. For the words on the page. Heaven Eyes is called Heaven Eyes cos she does see through all the grief and trouble in the world to the Heaven that does lie beneath. If you didn’t understand what I meant before, that quote should clarify.

Reading Almond has changed my approach to writing. So often when we ask what a story is about, we want to know about genre or setting, or some interesting action. Almond’s stories are about people. Erin Law became real to me through her life experience, and the thoughts and feelings she had as a result of her experience in the world so far. Grampa became real by the choices he made with regards to Heaven Eyes.

In April, I heard Almond speak alongside Morpurgo, at an event organised by Seven Stories. If you have not visited this haven of children’s literature, amend this. It is the best museum, and one of the most special places, I have ever visited. The talk taught me that Heaven Eyes, like parts of A Song for Ella Grey, is set in a fictional version of* the area Seven Stories is situated in. Being able to visualise the place enriched my reading experience. Few books are set in such specific locations. This is a huge shame. Local history and geography bring a setting to life.

Heaven Eyes and Grampa speak in ‘broken’ English, yet their language is beautiful. Whether coincidentally or otherwise, this mirrors Erin’s conflict. Maureen treats Erin as something ‘broken’, yet Erin feels her life is as perfect and wonderful as anyone else’s. Grampa’s English is ‘broken’, yet it is Grampa who speaks those beautiful words: Heaven Eyes is called Heaven Eyes cos she does see through all the grief and trouble in the world to the Heaven that does lie beneath.

Those words. They are up there with the scene in Tom’s Midnight Garden where Peter Long cries ‘that’s not Hatty: that’s a grown-up Woman’, a second before the tower warden cries ‘Time’. Among the finest words in British children’s literature, they encapsulate the novel.

 

 

  • Almond made this distinction – when he uses real-life places, he has freedom to add fictional elements.