Non-Fiction

Review: Out And About – Night Explorer.

Review: Out And About – Night Explorer.

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There’s plenty of fun to be had when the sun’s gone down. Outside our windows, when the night sky is shining, a whole host of animals and plants are raising their heads. Grab a torch, a grown-up, and a jacket and explore the nighttime with this handy, pocket-sized book. 

With ideas about ways to have fun out in the garden and further beyond, this is a wonderful guide which encourages safety, respect for nature and a bucket load of curiosity. 

From traditional skills like identifying animal tracks and following scent trails, to instant fun like glow in the dark paint, there is bound to be a suitable suggestion for every occasion. 

As regular readers know, I am all for books which put us back in touch with nature. Over recent generations, we have lost touch with the natural world to the extent that knowledge is being forgotten and empathy for other species is at a low. My Granddad, for example, recognised bird songs by ear, a skill which few people today have. The great news is that between the young people who are fighting for our planet, and the wave of books which has come in the past year, there has never been a better time to discover the wildlife on our doorstep. 

This would be a lovely book to slip into a satchel, and it would also make a great stocking-filler for anyone who is getting ahead on the Christmas planning. A guide book, a torch and a compass and you’re all set to go (even if it isn’t beyond the front gate). 

The design is neat and attractive. The illustrations manage to be cute while not being sentimental, and examples are clear enough for the reader to follow. I love the rounded corners and elastic band, which make this feel like a journal or an adventurer’s log-book. 

With a focus on nighttime wildlife, this offers something different to other nature books I have seen, and it is clearly designed to encourage young people to get outdoors. 

 

Thanks to Nosy Crow Ltd for my gifted copy of Out And About – Night Explorer. Opinions my own.

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Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Spies In St Petersburg by Katherine Woodfine

Review: Spies In St Petersburg by Katherine Woodfine

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Extract:

The Chief had just told her that Sophie was fine – that there was nothing for her to worry about. But he had lied. He hadn’t heard from Sophie in over a month – she was missing in St Petersburg, all the way on the other side of Europe.

(Spies In St Petersburg by Katherine Woodfine. P33.)

 

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Synopsis:

When Lil is given her second mission from the Secret Service Bureau she finds out something alarming. Sophie’s messages from St Petersburg have stopped arriving. Nobody knows where she is. Lil is supposed to be off to Hamburg, but there’s no way she’s leaving Sophie in danger. Even if it means dragging the impossible Carruthers all the way to Russia.

Behind the spectacular jewelry shops and the excitement of the circus setting up, trouble is building in St Petersburg. Whispers of a revolution may be student gossip, or they may hint at something greater.

Once again it is up to Sophie and Lil to save the day.

 

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Review:

Fans of The Sinclair’s Mysteries will remember Sophie and Lil from their days at Sinclair’s Department Store. The Taylor And Rose series follows their adventures and misadventures as they solve cases for the Secret Service Bureau and continue their quest to stop a certain group from causing trouble. Their role as secret agents takes them all over the world. This time the adventure centres on Pre-Revolutionary Russia.

Katherine Woodfine is the master of series. One end is a new beginning. The ongoing fight with a very secret society allows every book to be both its own self-contained adventure and part of a bigger picture.

She’s also good at cliff hangers and this book will leave you screaming for the next one on at least three counts.

The reader is at an advantage during this plot because, unlike Lil, we know what Sophie is up to. The question is why are her messages not getting through? The old gang comes into the story too, and there is the first hint of romance as Joe and Lil each question to themselves whether there could be anything between them. While this is no more than a hint, it made me wonder what the bigger picture is and whether Lil could have a whole new side to her life in later books.

St Petersburg is a fantastic setting, with the opulence on one hand and the fear and unrest on another, and Woodfine captures a place where everyone is looking over their shoulders. People are disagreeing about the political situation and two people in one family can have very different views. It is a time when the wrong word can be a life sentence. There are also warm homes where family and lodgers and guests live side by side and eat from the same table. It couldn’t be a better setting for this story, and I felt as if Woodfine had taken time to study and represent the historical details.

A fantastic addition to the series which sees the characters moving on internally, questioning what their moral positions would be in certain scenarios and learning ever more about their enemy. Katherine Woodfine is a confirmed genius of the mystery adventure. However long the wait for the next book feels, I know it will be worth it.

 

Thanks to Egmont UK for my gifted copy of Spies In St Petersburg. Opinions my own. 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Wildspark by Vashti Hardy

Review: Wildspark by Vashti Hardy

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Synopsis:

Prue Haywood hasn’t felt the same since the death of her brother, Francis.

When a Craftsman from the Imperial Personifate Guild Of Medlock inquires about a talented mechanic called Francis, Prue sees her chance. She scribbles a note for her parents, leaves home early one morning and disguises herself as a mechanic called Frances. Getting into the Guild might be her only chance to reunite herself with her late brother.

The Guild leads Personifate research and creation. A Personifate is an animal-like machine which houses a human spirit. The spirit of someone who has died. This has been made possible through scientific discoveries about a very special material.

If Prue wants to find her brother, she will have to help the Personifates to remember their first lives. Doing so goes against the wishes of the Guild leaders.

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Review:

First Vashti Hardy wrote Brightstorm, which took us to the skies in adventure. With Wildspark, Vashti Hardy confirms herself as an exceptional storyteller. The premise, that spirits can be brought back to being as mechanical animals, opens a world of political discord, entitlement and questions about what makes someone alive.

The Guild first harnessed the technology has a monopoly on Personifate creation. Like many professions in Medlock (a city which plays the same role London plays in the UK) it is open mainly to the old families, although some people like Craftsman Primrose make it their mission to find talent regardless of birth. One of Prue’s fellow apprentices, a girl called Cora, lives and breathes this entitlement but another apprentice, Agapantha, is much friendlier. The final apprentice, Edwin, is the first Personifate in the role. At every twist and turn, his right to be there is challenged. Prue suffers the same treatment, although negativity towards her is displayed in a much subtler way.

This was a brilliant way of showing how constantly hearing that you shouldn’t be somewhere shapes young people’s aspirations and self-belief.

Other major themes include the definition of life and our sense of personal identity. Debates rage in Medlock about whether Personifates should exist, and what sort of rights they should have? At what point is something a machine and when does it become alive? To what extent do our bodies shape our identity? The story raises fascinating questions without ever losing its momentum or sense of wonder.

Prue is a fantastic STEM role model, and the way characters of different genders were written felt considered and non-stereotypical. Subtle things make a huge difference. For example, many male role models (and particularly in steampunk) have names relating to machinery or power. This gives a false impression that men in STEM are tough and overtly-masculine. By naming a man ‘Primrose’, Hardy shows that boy can be an engineer.

The worldbuilding is both detailed and nuanced. This has the same feel as worlds by Pullman and Rowling, where everything is known from the material used to make apprentice uniforms to the range of sweets on offer at the local shop. Great thought has been given to how the world functions too. Medlock, like London, enjoys great investment over the rest of the country.

This is one of those books which deserves to be read widely and for a long time. Vashti Hardy is a storyteller to watch and a writer of wonderful stories.

 

Thanks to Scholastic UK for my proof copy of Wildspark. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

So what is How To Train Your Dragon about? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would you recommend the books?

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: A Pinch Of Magic by Michelle Harrison

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Synopsis:

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

That isn’t the only magic in the Widdershins family. Three magical objects have been passed down the family for generations – a carpet bag, a mirror and a set of nesting dolls. The sisters inherit one object each and with them, they gain a pinch of magic.

Betty is determined to break the curse but to do that she must unravel certain mysteries – who is the mysterious prisoner Granny has been visiting in prison? Do the special objects contain enough magic to help break the curse? Who was the witch who cursed the family and began all this in the first place?

An atmospheric and timeless fairy tale.BBD35E74-4B7A-46CA-8F8F-0E29FC08A586Review:

An ancient curse. Three objects with a specific and special magic. A spooky prison island. Three sisters whose desires pull them in different directions. This story has all the ingredients of a great tale and Michelle Harrison brings them together as only a true storyteller can.

I have loved Harrison’s work since I first read The Thirteen Treasures almost ten years ago. With black cats and quaint place names and references to folk customs, the settings are straight after my own heart. She’s also a great writer. Her plots keep the reader turning the pages will her prose ensures they savour every word. A Pinch Of Magic is no exception. It will delight old fans and new readers. The setting is particularly evocative – the misty marshlands and the three islands. Repent (which houses the prison), Lament (where the dead are buried) and Torment (which is out of bounds to all but the exiled.) The thought of looking across the water and seeing those islands is enough to give anyone chills.

The three sisters – Betty, Fliss and Charlie – are distinct and memorable characters. Each one has a strong voice and we very quickly learn what they want and how they are likely to react in any given situation. Charlie particularly is a treasure. She’s the youngest and she demands to be heard, even if it goes against her older sisters’ plans. She is the voice of little sisters everywhere, and even those of us who have grown up until we are practically the same age as our siblings will smile with recognition.

The readers learn about the Widdershins family history along with Betty, Fliss and Charlie until we find out how the curse came to be. I love it when a strand of the story builds up to a full understanding of historical events. The story concerns two sisters, Sorsha and Prue, and their desperation to leave the island of Torment.

A Pinch Of Magic is a book full of wonder. I was up into the small hours to see the heroines through to the final pages. A must-read for fans of fantasy and adventure.

 

To meet the heroines of this story and to share their very special gingerbread recipe, click here. 

 

A Pinch Of Magic is available 07.02.2019 from Simon And Schuster UK. Thanks to Simon And Schuster UK for my proof copy. 

 

 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Knights And Bikes by Gabrielle Kent

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Extract:

‘The knights who left decided that the treasure was cursed. They wanted to return it, but one night the whole castle just disappeared without a trace.

No one knew what happened to it, or the knights, or their pile of treasure. I reckon they all fought each other to little pieces, then they rotted and their eyes fell out and now their skellingtons guard the treasure from anyone who comes looking for it.’

(Knights And Bikes by Gabrielle Kent. P23.)

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Synopsis:

Penfurzy Island is the best home in the world. There’s a scrapyard, a tor and a not-so-busy caravan park where Demelza lives. When another girl appears in the middle of the night, Demelza is determined to prove that exciting things do happen on Penfurzy, starting with the legend of the Penfurzy Knights and their missing treasure.

Then Demelza’s Dad makes a terrible announcement: he is going to sell the caravan park.

Can Demelza, her new friend Nessa and Honkers the goose find the treasure in time to save the caravan park? Who is Nessa anyway, and what is she doing on Penfurzy? Action and adventure and foam swords abound in this Retro-adventure.

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Review:

Remember the games you played between five and eleven-or-so? The ones where you and your friends could take on anything with a weapon (be it a toy sword, invisible ray-gun or silly string), transport (skateboard, bike or scooter) and a pinch of imagination. Knights And Bikes conjures up those games in a way which will make adult readers nostalgic. The best part of all? The Penfurzy Knights are real.

I loved the realistic setting. Lots of quest narratives are about children taken out of the ordinary. Children with special powers or equipment or all-powerful mentors. Nessa and Demelza are ordinary kids with a slice of attitude. They know they can do anything if only they pedal the fastest.

The story is set in the 1980s – a move which will be popular with many parents of current middle-grade readers. Novice writers are often told that children aren’t interested in the recent past. The advice is not to lose sight of modern childhood in favour of your own. I’ve always found this a pity – children are generally receptive and open to stories set in other periods of history and I think it is important for children to be able to place their special adults on a timeline and to understand what made their childhoods different.

I also liked that the nostalgia wasn’t rose-tinted. The bad (see the chain-smoking worker) is shown alongside the brilliant.

Knights Of is a brand-new publisher whose list for 2019 is looking very exciting. They are on a mission to publish voices which are underrepresented in children’s publishing, and they’ve already found some fabulous and exciting stories. Knights And Bikes was longlisted for the Blue Peter award and I’m we’ll hear more from this publisher in the near future.