Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Darkwhispers by Vashti Hardy.

Review: Darkwhispers by Vashti Hardy.

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Extract:

As sunset bloomed in the west like coloured ink spreading in water, Arthur and Maudie stood with Felicity and Gilly at the aft end of the sky-ship taking in the view of hills, rising and falling like gentle waves, criss-crossed with farm fields and woodland patches will full, blousy trees. It felt good to be under the wide sky again.

(Darkwhispers by Vashti Hardy. P86.)

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Synopsis:

The Brightstorm twins are back for another adventure. Arthur and Maudie witness a burglary by their nemesis Eudora Vane. The very next day, Eudora announces a search for the missing explorer Ermitage Wigglesworth – the person whose house she has burgled.

Arthur, Maudie, and Harriet Culpepper are convinced that the search is a cover for something else. What could Eudora Vane want in the legendary Eastern Isles?

The Eastern Isles are almost impossible to find and hold many secrets of their own. The twins are separated for the first time in their lives in a territory which they hardly know. Will they be reunited? Will they work out what Eudora is up to in time?

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Review:

A spectacular, high-flying sequel to hit adventure novel Brightstorm. This is perfect for readers who dream of big, daring adventures. With skyships and jungles and magical continents, Darkwhispers builds on the legacy of the first book as an exciting and intelligent story about exploration.

Arthur and Maudie are separated for the first time and this allows us to know them better as individuals. We see Maudie’s vulnerabilities and Arthur’s desperation to live up to his brilliant sister. Grief for his father causes him difficulties, and at times people write off his reactions as being grief based. Arthur’s emotional narrative plays a strong part in the story and he grows as a character. 

The new settings are as memorable as the old, and there are some new creatures, not least the Darkwhispers of the title.

There is not only a love for geography in these books but complete and heartfelt respect. The worlds are brought to life with care and detail. It feels as if Vashti Hardy must have visited them to give the reader such a clear picture. Her worldbuilding offers questions about our own world – could we invent power sources that do no harm to the environment? Are the other animals around us more intelligent than we give them credit for?

Vashti Hardy has confirmed herself as an exceptionally strong storyteller. Her narrative is told with a confidence that allows her imaginative ideas to soar. I look forward to reading whatever she writes next and hope that there will be a return to Arthur and Maudie’s world.

 

Thanks to Scholastic UK for my copy of Darkwhispers. Opinions my own.

Board Book

Review: Gregory Goose In On The Loose board book series by Hilary Robinson and Mandy Stanley.

Review: Gregory Goose In On The Loose board book series by Hilary Robinson and Mandy Stanley.

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Featuring On The Moon and In The Jungle

Gregory Goose gets everywhere. The trouble is, it can be difficult to keep up with him when there is so very much to see. This wonderful board book series challenges readers to find Gregory Goose on journeys through different environments.

With bright and attractive pictures, these books offer an exciting game of hide-and-seek.

This format is ever popular, but what I love about the Gregory Goose series is it doesn’t push the game on the reader. It is just as possible to read through one of the books to enjoy the setting as it is to stop and search for Gregory Goose. Every double page spread introduces something new – so when Gregory Goose goes to the moon, for example, we are first introduced to rockets, then to stars, then to planets and so on. This makes the books excellent vocabulary builders. The close focus on one location makes it easy for the reader to pick up new words.

Gregory Goose himself looks friendly and inquisitive – much like a young child exploring the world for the first time. He is a kindred spirit on the great adventure that is this world. 

There is a rhyme scheme to the text, but it feels entirely natural, much like being spoken to in a slightly sing-song voice. This makes the books perfect for repetition – and they will certainly be on repeat for many readers!

The perfect books for little adventurers on the hunt for new facts about the world. 

 

Thanks to Catch A Star for my copies of the books featured in this review. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Girl Who Stole An Elephant by Nizrana Farook.

Review: The Girl Who Stole An Elephant by Nizrana Farook.

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Extract:

Chaya stood up and ran. A searing pain shot through her leg and all the way up. It was useless. She was in too much pain. This was it; they’d find her here eventually. 

And then in the distance, through a blur of pain, Chaya saw her getaway vehicle. 

(The Girl Who Stole An Elephant by Nizrana Farook.) 

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Synopsis:

Chaya can solve anything. A broken leg that requires emergency medical treatment, education fees, roof repairs … Chaya is happy to steal from the rich if it means that the people in her village are able to cover the cost of their basic needs. Then Chaya steals the Queen’s Jewels and her best friend Neel takes the blame.

The King doesn’t take kindly to thieves. Even falsely accused ones. Unless Chaya acts fast, Neel will lose his live.

Together with rich, lonely Nour, Chaya breaks Neel out of prison. Together with a stolen elephant, the King’s elephant Ananda, the children escape to the jungle.

They need to find a solution before the village suffers for their actions.

 

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Review:

Are you ready for adventure? Chaya is the new daredevil protagonist to win readers’ hearts. Her habit of causing real trouble is matched only by her determination to do the right thing. Think break-ins and breakouts and epic getaways. And an elephant named Ananda.

This novel challenges us to question our definition of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Chaya does something illegal when she breaks into the palace. However, the people of Chaya’s village aren’t able to meet their basic needs without the theft and the King hasn’t raised a finger to help. He lives off the profit of the land and allows the villagers to go without. This context opens some interesting questions about morals and actions. How far would we go to have a secure life? Does this make Chaya’s actions right? We see very early on that what Chaya does is a gamble and that it can lead to greater and more desperate trouble. However, there was no doubt for me as a reader that my empathy lay with her. This is a brilliant middle grade novel to introduce topics about social injustice – a topic which is sadly all too relevant in the present day.

 This is also a story about revolution, without the focus on the bloodshed and sacrifice that is more common in YA. We see that scary things happen, desperate things, but the story itself is mainly about Chaya’s escape and return to the village. This allows younger readers to learn about the idea of revolution without seeing the scarier parts in lengthy detail.

That’s not to say the stakes aren’t high. We know the King won’t relent unless he is fought.

The friendships in this story are wonderful and the tensions between the children are clear. Chaya wants to do right. Neel can see that the cost of Chaya’s actions might be too high. Nour wants company and friendship – a big thing to her, but she struggles to see that Chaya isn’t playing games. I loved what Nour brought to the story. Middle-Class children are too often derided in fiction without any consideration given to the fact that they are young too, and only know their ‘normal’. This story empathises with Nour while gently showing that she hasn’t seen enough of the world yet to understand the wider picture. She is naïve and often frustrating to the other characters, but she is also good-hearted and willing to stick by her new friends.

I love stories where the main characters aren’t natural bosom buddies. The development, and the way they come together, is often deep and memorable. This is the case with The Girl Who Stole An Elephant.

This is pure middle-grade brilliance and deservedly Waterstones Book Of The Month for January 2020. Prepare to have your heart opened and to fall in love with this fantastic adventure.

 

Thanks to Nosy Crow Ltd for my proof copy of The Girl Who Stole An Elephant. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Frostheart by Jamie Littler

Review: Frostheart by Jamie Littler

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Extract:

My parents are out there somewhere, Ash reassured himself. I have to find them. And I have to find out who I am – who the Song Weavers are. I can’t do that from behind Stronghold walls. If there really is a Song Weaver Stronghold, I have to find it. That’s where I belong. 

(Frostheart by Jamie Littler. P117.) 

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Synopsis:

Out in the frozen lands live a group of tribes cut off from the rest of society and at the mercy of the monsters which lurk under the Snow Sea.  

Ash has never known his parents. He was left with the Fira hunters as a baby and doesn’t know where he originally came from. When an accident reveals that Ash is a song weaver – a person capable of powerful and ancient magic – Ash and his Yeti guardian are expelled from the tribe.

Together they board the Frostheart – an explorer’s sleigh with a crew whose mission is to unite the tribes. Can they help Ash find his family, or will he fall foul of people who would use his magic?

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Review:

Enter a new fantasy world populated with yeti and explorers and mysterious monsters. If you like quests and stories of exploration from authors like Abi Elphinstone and Vashti Hardy then you will love this. It has all the tropes of a good fantasy and wonderful world-building.

This story is set in the years after the world has undergone an environmental crisis. Old technology is prized by scavengers and archeomekologists, while strange creatures known as Lurkers rise to the surface of the snow to wreak their anger on humans. Living in this world is Ash. He has a strange and greatly feared power which seems to have some sort of connection to the Lurkers. He is on a quest to find his long lost parents and his only clue is the old rhyme they used to sing to him which speaks of a Song Weaver Stronghold.

This is a story full of strong characters, from Ash himself to Tobu his wise and grouchy guardian, and Shaard the enigmatic scholar and outcast. Ash’s friend Lunah stands out as one of those characters you remember for life. She has enough energy and enthusiasm for six people, and the kind of voice which is infectious. However much she kids with Ash, it is clear that Lunah is someone to trust.

Middle-grade fantasy is one of the main genres which helped me develop a love of children’s literature and it is a genre I aspire to write in. Frostheart is a solid story set in an intriguing world. I finished wanting to know more about certain elements of Ash’s world. This to me is the sign of a good fantasy.

Jamie Littler has a background as an illustrator and has made his debut as an author/illustrator with this wonderful story which is illustrated all the way through. I am delighted to see a book for older middle-grade readers so heavily illustrated. This confirms my belief that books for older readers benefit from illustration.

If you are looking for a magical and snowy world to get lost in this winter, you can’t do better than Frostheart. Climb aboard the sleigh and let Jamie Littler’s storytelling and illustration sweep you away.

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.

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.