Blogmas 2018 · christmas · Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Night I Met Father Christmas by Ben Miller

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Extract:

Torvil’s was most definitely one of the town’s richest elves. In fact, as the owner of its only toyshop, he had done rather well for himself. But whereas most people who make money are happy to share it with their family and friends, Torvil kept his fortune all to himself. 

(The Night I Met Father Christmas by Ben Miller. P19.) 

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Synopsis:

Jackson has always wondered where Father Christmas came from. How did he come to be the man who delivered all the presents around the world. 

Then, one magical night, Father Christmas arrives and takes Jackson on the ride of a lifetime. Along the way, he tells a story. A story about a stingy elf who never thought of those less fortunate, until one night three strange beings showed him a different way of thinking. 

A Christmas Carol meets the magic of the North Pole. 

cropped-bbd35e74-4b7a-46ca-8f8f-0e29fc08a5861.pngReview:

Join Jackson on the adventure of a lifetime as he searches for the answer to the ultimate question – how did Father Christmas get his position? 

There are two parts to this story – the strand in which we see Father Christmas and Jackson, and the story of Father Christmas’s – or should I say Torvil’s – life. It is this second strand where the action and development takes place, so the story is about Torvil and not Jackson. 

Let me be clear – this is a retelling of A Christmas Carol. Although the landscape is different and there are some minor changes (Torvil, does not, for example, face his own grave,) the plot builds in just the same was as the original Christmas classic. What Ben Miller has done is made it accessible to younger children, and added a bit of Christmas sparkle for bigger kids. 

This narrative has never been more relevant – young Torvil’s claims that he will grow up to help the poor fade as he grows older and greedier. At a time when politicians are putting their own personal feuds and whims above the increasing number of Foodbank users, it is important for children to understand why the wealthy and powerful need to think about others. 

The world is full of magic – think snowy hills and starry skies and reindeer. 

Accepting that this is a retelling, I think it brings the story to a younger audience. Snuggle up and listen with wonder to the story of Father Christmas himself. 

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Young Adult Reviews

Review: Shadow Of The Fox by Julie Kagawa

Review: Shadow Of The Fox by Julie Kagawa. 

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Extract:

‘Take it, Yumenko-chan,’ Master Isao ordered, and held it out to me. ‘It must not fall into the hands of the demons. You must keep it safe at all costs.’ Another boom rattled the beams overhead, and one of the monks behind us drew in a sharp breath. Master Isao’s gaze never wavered from mine. ‘Take the scroll,’ he said again, ‘and leave this place. Run, and don’t look back.’ 

(Shadow Of The Fox by Julie Kagawa. P96.) 

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Synopsis:

Every millennium, the great Kami Dragon will rise again to the one who summons him and grant one wish. Such is the dragon’s power that the scroll containing the words needed to summon him was torn in three. The pieces are guarded because if they fell into the wrong hands, the consequences could be disastrous.

Yumenko was raised by the monks of the Silent Winds temple. There she was taught to guard her true nature, for Yuemnko is half-kitsune and her fox-like magic could lead her astray. When the temple is burned and the monks killed, Yumenko is charged with guarding their greatest treasure – the first piece of the scroll.

Kage is a demon-hunter and member of the shadow clan. He is charged with retrieving the scroll at any cost. When he meets Yumenko, the pair form an alliance, but each is hiding a secret from the other.

As darkness rises around them the pair hunt for the next piece of the scroll.

birdbreakReview:

A classic quest-narrative meets a rich and detailed world, with characters so real you will feel as if you have walked alongside them. Shadow Of The Fox was like seeing anime in novel form.

The story is a duel-narrative – chapters alternate between Yumenko and Kage’s narration. The result is that we see the same world and situation through different eyes, and we’re waiting for a moment when the pair come to a joint resolution.

What I enjoyed most was the influence of Japanese mythology, in particular how Yumenko’s kitsune side means she is drawn towards nature. She’s aware of other shape-shifters. Of tree-spirits and wind witches. This world of magic and warriors hooked me in and I would love to read the myths which inspired the setting. We also learn something about Japanese culture, particularly the social customs.

There are different threats in this world. The main threat comes from a wonderful antagonist, Lady Satomi, and her connection with the demonic forces. Minor threats come from other mythological characters who serve to get in the way of the main quest. Lady Satomi is the perfect antagonist because she believes what she is doing is right and proper. She’s also decidedly creepy, the sort of baddie who comes into your head in the small hours.

Kage is a complex character. He has been taught not to bond with others or to show emotions and holds ideas about the perfect warrior, but his instinct is always to protect Yumenko. Kage is also occasionally influenced by the sword he carries – a sword with demonic powers. His storyline is about the conflict between what he has been made and his inner-nature and I hope his inner-nature wins out by the end of the trilogy.

The ancient magic and high-stakes quest make this novel unputdownable. I would love to investigate Julie Kagawa’s backlist and I look forward to continuing the series.

 

Thanks to Nina Douglas PR and HQ Stories for my copy of Shadow Of The Fox. Opinions my own.

 

If you like quest narratives, check out The Cradle Of All The Worlds by Jeremy Lachlan. 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: City Of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab

Review: City Of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab

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Extract:

I’ve seen people on TV – ‘ghost whisperers’ – talk about crossing over, connecting with the other side like it’s flipping a switch or opening a door. But for me, it’s this – finding the part in the curtain, catching hold of the fabric, and pulling.

Sometimes, when there’s nothing to find, the veil is barely there, more smoke than cloth and hard to catch hold of. But when a place is haunted – really haunted – the fabric twists around me, pulling me through. 

(City Of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab. P13.)

birdbreak Synopsis:

Cass can see through the veil which separates the living from the dead. She’s also best friends with a ghost, Jacob, who has been by her side since he saved her life. If that wasn’t weird enough, her parents are obsessed with ghosts, even though they can’t see them at all.

When Cass’s parents start filming a new TV show, the family relocate to Edinburgh – one of the most haunted places in the world. When Cass meets a girl who shares her gift, she realises how much she doesn’t know about the veil, like what she’s supposed to do there and how dangerous some ghosts can be.birdbreakReview:

If you like ghost stories but don’t want your spirits to be totally bad, this is the book for you. Victoria Schwab (AKA VE Shwab) is one of the best-known YA authors of recent years. Her fantasy novels have attracted a dedicated following. This is the first book of hers I have read, and my immediate impression was that it was written by a fluent and confident storyteller. The story hooked me and I read it in one evening. It was hard to put my finger on exactly why except it was exceptional storytelling. Every chapter opening, every plot point grabs the reader in and keeps them turning the pages.

Cass survived a near-death experience, and since then she has been able to see the veil which separates the living from the undead. She’s also been followed by Jacob – a ghost who has broken all convention and come out into the living world. I loved the constant tip-toeing the pair do around the subject of death. That one of them is living and the other dead is a sensitive issue between the friends. As a survivor, Cass is constantly aware of herself as a living thing. Her experiences were explored with sensitivity and insight.

Edinburgh was the perfect setting for a ghost story and I am excited to think there might be more stories set in other cities around the world. The book really got into the history and folklore of Edinburgh. I love it when stories inspire interest in real places.

There is a ghost causing trouble in Edinburgh, and I did enjoy that story, but what I loved more was the setting – the many ghosts Cass encounters behind the veil and their different stories. I hope we’ll learn more of Jacob’s story. I loved the details about his character, like how he has Cass turning the pages of comic books for him so he can keep up his hobby from beyond the grave. Jacob is incorporated in a clever way – instead of talking in dialogue, Cass hears his thoughts in her head. This makes Jacob feel more otherworldly, for all that he likes the same things as most modern children.

A great start to a new series full of ghost-hunters and creepy historical stories. This would be perfect for any tween or younger teen with a touch of gothic. I look forward to seeing where Cass and her family travel next.

 

 

 

Young Adult Reviews

Review: The Light Between Worlds by Laura Weymouth

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Review: The Light Between Worlds by Laura Weymouth. 

 

Synopsis:

One minute the three siblings were huddling in the bomb shelter. The next they had been called out of this world to serve as Kings and Queens in a woodland realm.

The Hapwell siblings – Evelyn, Phillipa and Jamie – had an experience like no other. They spent years in another world, growing into young adults, except when they returned to their own world they found their adventure had taken no time at all. They were children once more.

Five years on from that experience, the siblings are divided, most particularly Phillipa and Evelyn. Elder sister Phillipa would rather pretend it never happened. She was never comfortable in the Woodlands and always wanted to return home. For Evelyn, the Woodlands is sanctuary and home. She won’t be happy unless she finds a way to return.

A fantasy which shows the flip-side of adventures in other worlds.

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Review:

The Light Between Worlds has been on my radar for months. What I was most excited about was the parallels between this story and Narnia, and the commentary which Weymouth makes on the Pevensie siblings. I wasn’t disappointed. As well as being a touching story about mental health, trauma, and healing, the book re-examines the experience of going into a portal world and returning to exactly the same point in time. I cannot do this review justice without referencing another series of books –some of the most famous books in children’s literature. I am talking about The Chronicles Of Narnia by CS Lewis.  

The Hapwell siblings – the characters in Weymouth’s novel – experience something so similar to the Pevensie siblings that it is Narnia in all but name. Woodland realm, ongoing war, omniscient-but-slightly-hands-off God – tick, tick and tick. These similarities work for me because I think Weymouth has offered significant commentary on a common trope in children’s literature.

In the Narnia books, most of the children return to this world as loyal subjects of Aslan, ready to answer his next call. The exception to this is Susan Pevensie, who returns first reluctantly, then not at all. In the final book, it emerges that Susan grows older to deny her whole experience. She is derided for this choice as someone shallow and ignorant. The Light Between Worlds examines in greater depth what Susan might have been feeling and challenges the original evaluation.

Evelyn Hapwell – like Lucy Pevensie – is at home in the Woodlands. Her heart belongs to the Woodlands and her only thought it Cervus’s next call. A call which isn’t coming. While she may be true to her heart and her own values, Evelyn is also unwell. She has never recovered from her forced return our world.

Phillipa, meanwhile, is determined to hide her experience and make a life in this world. The difference in opinions has divided the sisters.

The narrative is split in two – we hear first from Evelyn, then Phillipa. This form is unusual for YA but allows us to consider both stories, and re-evaluate Evelyn’s experience after seeing it through Phillipa’s eyes. Both characters feel real and I think this is because of our close view of their internal lives.

A story which is worth reading on its own merits, but doubly-interesting for the commentary it makes on a famous trope. This book is sure to provoke discussion and make us think deeper about how fantasy-experiences would really affect our characters.  

Young Adult Reviews

Review: The Extinction Trials by S.M. Wilson

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Extract:

‘How do we really know what the dinosaurs are like? Maybe they’re not all horrible people-eating monsters, maybe some of them are fine. How do we actually know? Maybe this is the only way we’ll ever get to find out … ‘

(The Extinction Trials by SM Wilson. P100.)

birdSynopsis:

Earthasia is out of resources, and the population keeps growing. The Stipulators want humans to colonise Pilora. To make it safe for habitation, they want to wipe out the dinosaurs who live there with a genetic illness. First they need dinosaur DNA.

Rewards are offered: a lifetime of food and healthcare for the team who bring back the most dinosaur eggs. Lincoln needs those rewards for his dying sister. Stormchaser wants to know the truth about Piloria and the dinosaurs. She has reason to believe the dinosaurs may be more intelligent than the Stipulators admit. Storm and Lincoln quickly become a team, but can they afford to get too close? Anything could tear them apart.

birdReview:

A roaring adventure, and a great political dystopia. The Extinction Trials is a fast-paced adventure which looks at the true cost of damaging the natural world.

I’m pleased to see dinosaurs in YA fiction. Dinosaurs are a staple of the Under 7s literary landscape, but for some reason they become ‘geeky’ somewhere between here and the teenage years. The Extinction Trials proves this doen’t have to be so, using dinosaurs to look at overpopulation, and our attitude towards the natural world. It is the perfect setting for this story. We automatically link dinosaurs with extinction, the threat which faces the characters. 

The themes are similar to The Hunger Games, but I thought The Extinction Trials was better written (and I don’t underestimate THG. It is a great series.) The theme of overpopulation remains present throughout the story, and all the main characters have clear motivation for their actions. I like the conflict between Storm and Lincoln’s motives – Lincoln says family comes first, but Storm wants to do what is right for the world. Fear about what will happen to those closest to us is often a driving motive in not supporting change. Whether we are talking about banning animal testing on medications, or solutions to overpopulation, many of us find it difficult to see past our loved ones. The conflict ensures we follow both characters like hawks to see whether one betrays the other.

The book says a lot about the difference in life quality between the few and the many. It shows an extreme, where some people have food and health care, while others share a bed in shifts and do the hard labour without enough to eat. This feels disturbingly close to the real world, and I hope it encourages teenagers to empathise with those less fortunate than themselves. The way the Stipulators treat other lives as expendable and worthless is eerily close to current political attitudes. 

The Extinction Trials is going to be massive. It is addictive, well-paced and it is highly relevant to our world. Grab a copy ASAP and join the adventure. I warn you, you’ll be left wanting more.

 

Louise Nettleton

 

 

 

 

Literary Fiction Reviews

Review: The Devil’s Highway by Gregory Norminton

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Extract:

‘…Had Irene in all her strength risen, we would have driven the occupiers back into the sea. It was not faith or the lack of it that did for us. It was the cowardice of your elders. A shame they mean to ram down your throats. And will you kneel like supplicants while this happens?’

(The Devil’s Highway by Gregory Norminton. P86.) 

 

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Synopsis:

In Ancient Britain, a young boy discovers a terrorist plot against the Roman Invaders. His brother is implicated, and he thinks he can find a way to spare his family from retribution. In the 21st Century, a man shattered by divorce tries to assert his hold on family land and finds himself up against enraged locals who have always used the land. One of these is Aitch, who is traumatised after fighting in Afghanistan. In a future ravaged by climate change, a band of children try to reach safety. The world is ravaged by war, and the children are in danger from slavers and starvation. They fight among themselves about the extent to which they should trust outsiders.

Our relationship with the land is examined and questions are raised which have never been more pertinent. The cycle of time challenges our assumptions as we see the destructive nature of civilisation repeating itself.

birdReview:

One setting, three time-periods and a cycle which repeats over the centuries. The Devil’s Highway is an extraordinary work which challenges our ideas about civilisation, and explores our relationship with place and time. Themes and motifs recur and build as we cycle between three stories set along a Roman road known in folklore as The Devil’s Highway.

This is the sort of novel which demands a second reading. It is intelligent and thought-provoking, and I am certain I would make more connections on a second reading, as well as marveling at the detail I missed first time around. It shows different people coming into one place, so bent on progressing their own cause they are willing to cause destruction. It depicts the people caught in the wake of such times: a group of children, a band of disenfranchised young men and a man with PTSD. I was stuck by these depictions of the young caught up in the acts of their elders.

The future depicted is dystopian. The words which tell the story are like our own language, except instead of developing with time it has been ravaged. Languages fall apart as communities are broken up, and the children live in a world of tight tribes and poor connections. Reading the narrative this way was like experiencing that break-up. At one point a character points out that we should fear the damage of climate change far more than the damage of war. Climate change is equally the result of society bent on its own agenda, and the cycle of life will continue if we can reduce the impact of climate change.

The narrative set in the present is interesting within the context of the others. The disagreement we see is between landowner and local council tenants, but there is another war discussed. One which is happening far away in Afghanistan. This is the story of our time – of Brexit and dissatisfaction. Of the Middle East which has been invaded too many times by the West, and of the young men who have grown amid these wars and want revenge. We see a middle-class man hound the men from the council estate off ‘his’ land. It is the same cycle of behaviour we have seen before, played out on local scale. Perhaps everything begins on local scale, with attachment to land pitted against legal ownership or political control.

This is a compelling narrative which tells the story of our times without referring to Brexit or Syria or Trump. This is the story of our times, and it is the story of all times.

 

Thanks to 4th Estate Books for sending a copy to review. Opinions are my own.

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone

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Extract:

“I am not asking to hear your voice because I value your opinion. I am not asking to hear your voice because I care about your feelings. I am asking to hear your voice because I own you.’ Her eyes darkened. ‘You bear the mark of the Sky Gods Eska, the very Gods who used terrible magic to stir up hatred between the people of Erkenwald. But I will use your voice to tear the Sky Gods down and rid this kingdom of their evil forever.”

(Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone.) birdSynopsis:

One upon a time the three tribes of Erkenwald were united. Then the Ice Queen took power and the tribes no longer trusted one another. The Ice Queen grew stronger. She took all adults prisoner, and fed on their voices with the help of an enchanted organ. Every day the sound of their cries echoes across the ice as she grows stronger.

Eska refuses to give the Ice Queen her voice. She is imprisoned in a music box, and forced to dance until she gives in. When Flint breaks into the palace with the help of his magical inventions, Eska sees her chance to escape. Together they journey across the ice, desperate to prevent the Ice Queen from stealing Eska’s voice and making her reign immortal.birdReview:

Word perfect. Sky Song reads like a fairy tale. Every word is in place, every twist of the plot comes at the perfect time, and the world is so vivid there were times I imagined I could see my breath in the frozen air.

The Ice Queen is a wonderful antagonist, and a worthy successor to the White Witch. She is built in a similar mould, but Elphinstone’s touches make her unique enough that she is terrifying all over again. The idea of a ruler alone in her palace, growing stronger on the voices of her prisoners was chilling. We know from the start that this is a villain who shows no mercy.

Flint is also a great character and I liked his story arc. He is one of the last people in Erkenwald to take an interest in magic. When his brother calls his inventions childish and stupid, Flint doesn’t stand up to him. He wants his brother’s approval, and he wants to be seen as a warrior. Over the course of the novel we see Flint gain confidence in himself and his abilities, and learn that bravery is about love and standing up for those we love. It is great to see messages about gender stereotyping of boys. A lot of young boys feel pressured to hide their feelings and come across as ‘tough’, and this offers them other ways to think about themselves.

Sky Song is a story of tolerance and acceptance. I loved the metaphor of tribes and wanderers. The tribes begin the story isolated from each other, but wanderers like Eska make friends with different people along the way. It was lovely to see a character with a disability whose condition is not named and examined. Flint’s sister Blu has Down’s Syndrome. Flint explains that Blu needs patience and guidance at times, but otherwise Blu is just one of the characters. She has her moments of triumph alongside Eska and Flint. Sky Song calls for tolerance of people from different backgrounds, of different abilities and simply in any situation where we may not understand another person’s motives. If we could all be as tolerant as Eska, Flint and Blu, the world would be a beautiful place.

 

A huge thanks to Simon And Schuster for my wonderful prize ARC.