Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Darkwhispers by Vashti Hardy.

Review: Darkwhispers by Vashti Hardy.

img_1103

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.)

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

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?

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

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.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The Night Before Christmas In Wonderland by Carys Bexington and Kate Hindley.

Review: The Night Before Christmas In Wonderland by Carys Bexington and Kate Hindley.

img_0823

The Night Before Christmas, just as Santa is ready to set off in his sleigh, he receives a letter from the little Princess Of Hearts. She would like a Christmas present but her parents said no. Santa is her last hope. Ignoring warnings from his reindeer, Santa sets a course for Wonderland. 

It takes AGES to get to Wonderland by sleigh. (That’s why you need a rabbit hole). Still, Santa and his reindeer eventually arrive. The only trouble is they are greeted by utter mayhem. No stockings, no carrot, and a creepy semi-invisible cat that can pop up at will. Not to mention the Queen Of Hearts. She takes one look at Santa and issues an order for her guards to cut off his head. 

A chase ensues, in true Wonderland style. This is not only a witty take on The Night Before Christmas but it has truly thought about which story would be appropriate to tell if the rhyme was transferred over to Wonderland. It makes strong use of Lewis Carrol’s worldbuilding and characters to create something which Wonderland fans – and readers excited for Christmas – will love and enjoy. 

img_0824.jpg

This is high up among my Christmas picks of 2019. It has that quality which makes it lasting. This could be enjoyed again and again and, as well as being perfect for this time of year, has the additional draw of appealing to seasoned Wonderland fans. 

Kate Hindley’s style fits Wonderland to perfection. It has a touch of the strange and mysterious but it also finds the fun and friendly in Wonderland. This is especially important for the picture book market, and personally I think it is a more faithful interpretation of the original text than making Wonderland entirely scary. Yes, there’s all that stuff about chopping off heads, but what about the tea parties and races and neighbourhood friendly lizards?  

The illustrations are striking and will go down well with both children and adults. 

A return to a favourite setting combined with a super twist makes this a classic Christmas text. 

 

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books UK for my copy of The Night Before Christmas In Wonderland. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Flip Flap Frozen by Axel Scheffler.

Review: Flip Flap Frozen by Axel Scheffler.

img_0807

What kind of creatures will you find today?

Could it be a reindeer with two antlers on its head? Or might it be a narwhal with mottled white skin? Or could it be a reinwhal with antlers and mottled white skin? Flip the flaps to make whole new animals and giggle along to the rhymes. The wonderful series that is Flip Flap is back, and this time it has a frozen theme. 

The premise is simple. Every double-page spread has an illustration, a rhyme, and a name running horizontally down the side of the left-hand page. Each of these is split over two flaps so that they can be changed with other animals. 

Polar Bears and Penguins. Wolverines and Walruses. You never know who you might meet in the snow. 

img_0808.jpg

I first encountered Flip Flap Farm as a bookseller in 2014. It was a mega-hit with younger children and won a smile from people of all ages. Then Flip Flap Jungle appeared and it got exactly the same reaction. From that experience I can tell you that the books win on several counts – the animals are drawn with Axel Scheffler’s usual attention to expression, the mix-up of names and illustrations causes great amusement and the books are just lovely things to hold. Both the flaps and the book size have been designed with smaller hands in mind. 

It is no wonder this series has had a big success. 

Attention to detail makes this even more user-friendly. The animal illustrations and names down the sides of the page share the same colour background. This means that readers who are looking to find real animals can flip through very easily even if they don’t know the word they are looking for. 

Funny, brilliant to share and a great introduction to new animals, Flip Flap Frozen will be loved by many this Christmas. Just look out for that Wolverfin – he can chase you over water as well as on land. 

 

Thanks to Nosy Crow for my copy of Flip Flap Frozen. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Blog Tour: Nevertell by Katharine Orton.

Blog Tour: Nevertell by Katharine Orton.

 

img_0378

Extract:

What she pulled out looked like a beaded necklace with a pendant attached – except, instead of a pendant, it was some gnarled old piece of wood, or stone. It was rough, pockmarked and warm. It shimmered in the dim light – like the snow did, sometimes, in the moonlight. She’d never known a stone do that before. 

(Nevertell by Katherine Orton. P41.) 

 

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

Synopsis:

Eleven-year-old Lina has never seen life beyond the prison camp where she has grown up. She is used to seeing people on the verge of starvation and to the cruelty to the guards, including Commandant Zima who is rumoured to be her father. Then Lina joins an escape party and is followed by her best friend Bogan.

Lina has one mission – to survive the journey and find the grandmother she has never known.

Beyond the camp is a snowy Russian wilderness and a hint of something magical. Stories of a vengeful sorceress with a pack of shadow wolves are rife, but such stories are dangerous in Soviet Russia. Is there any truth to them? If so, does this sorceress have the power that the stories claim?

A lyrical tale about survival, friendship and the power of magic.

 

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

Review:

Occasionally you open a book expecting it to be one thing and find out it is a totally different story. And that actually the story you never expected was a valuable and magical experience. This is how I felt about Nevertell. From the cover I predicted something akin to Sky Song but with a real-world setting. Instead I found a historical novel with magic so subtle it is closer to magical realism. A lyrical tale about the power of stories and magic against real-life atrocities.

Lina and Bogdan are the only children in a Soviet labour camp. Lina was born there. Bogdan looked older and stronger than his age and was brought in with his parents. The scenes in the work camp are sensitively told and only show what is relevant to Lina and Bogdan’s story. The thing which will stay with me is the suspense. Katherine Orton creates an atmosphere in which the reader, as well as the characters, constantly expects an attack from the Secret Police, or from the criminals who are part of Lina’s escape party.

Svetlana the sorceress is like no ice queen you have ever met before. Yes, she has the same trappings – a cape and a palace of ice guarded by a great animal – but the emotional truth of her story and her conflicting nature make her a different and extremely complex character.

Lina is conflicted about what she needs to do most – escape and find the grandmother she never knew or return to the camp to help her mother who was left behind. To choose her path she must first learn about the world outside the camp and the secrets of her own past.

It is lovely to see a story where the genres merge. Does this belong closer to Emma Carroll in categorisation or is it more Abi Elphinstone? Or next to a lyrical writer like Amy Wilson. In the end, the category doesn’t matter. It is the story that counts, and this is a tale with rounded characters and rich and beautiful writing. Follow Lina and Bogdan on their journey and find out the deepest truth about fairy tales and imagination.

 

Q&A with Katherine Orton – 

 

Q. In Lina’s world fairy tales are dangerous and telling them can result in the death penalty. Can you explain her feelings when she is first confronted with them? Why did you want to explore this conflict?

A. It’s not quite as harsh as the death penalty, but fairy tales are forbidden – and Lina is as sceptical as everyone else at first. One character called Old Gleb who’s with Lina in the prison camp she was born in believes in spirits and the supernatural, and people have always just dismissed him. But Lina soon comes face to face in the most dangerous way possible with things she thought could only exist in fairy tales – and it shakes her whole world. Not that she has time to be too shocked, or even afraid: her main concern is to survive.

I wanted to explore this because I actually discovered via an amazing book called Inside the Rainbow, and the foreword by Philip Pullman, no less, that fairy tales of the magical variety really weren’t supposed to be told to children in the Soviet Union at one point. It got me wondering about who gets to decide what’s real and what’s not, why it matters, and even how the beings of a magical world might react to such a decision. That was what truly sparked Nevertell into life. (No one was ever put to death over it as far as I know, though, thank goodness).

Q. Magic in your world ranges from spirit-like shadow wolves to magical plants. What sort of magic was the most fun to imagine and write?

A. I truly loved the wolves. But the idea of being able to grow plants with willpower and with touch… I think that was probably my favourite to both imagine and write. I wanted to be a gardener myself at one point (along with a whole load of other things – paramedic, stained glass window maker, archaeologist. The list goes on…) so it’s something that speaks to me. Imagine having that connection with the natural world, and also having such a useful skill! Just think what someone could do for people with that ability, how they might affect the world. And that’s something Lina definitely begins to think about as the story goes on.

 

Q. Your title, Nevertell, refers to something Lina hears whispered by a spirit. What does this word hint at?

 I think that might be telling, haha! Let’s just say that it refers to a few different things. The truth about what happened between the spirit – a ‘shadow’ as they’re known in the book – and the sorceress, Svetlana, who’s been so fanatical about pursuing Lina and her best friend, Bogdan, without us really knowing why. But it’s also a reference to this idea that fairy tales aren’t allowed, and to the reasons that might be.

Q. What sort of challenges did you face in writing an ice queen?

A. I found it hard to make her scary enough at first, because to be totally honest I sympathised with her in lots of ways! (I know that sounds slightly worrying for an ice queen…). But once I’d realised that her character needed work, I had ridiculous amounts of fun making her really fierce and cold and terrifying. And getting her to do some really awful things, of course.

Q. You have mixed fantasy with a story about a very difficult piece of history. What do you think fantasy can offer in terms of telling these very real stories?

A. Fantasy, I think, is a powerful tool for making sense of the world. We start out as children learning through play and I don’t think that ever really stops – or at least I don’t believe it ought to. To me, fantasy is a safe place in which to process very real ideas and feelings, to learn, experiment, stretch our minds and foster emotions. This balance only works of course alongside sound, careful and respectful research into the real aspects of the story, however, and that’s something I took seriously, so I hope I was able to manage the balance.

Q. Your story has a strong sense of suspense and keeps the readers turning the pages. How did you create this in your writing?

A. Firstly it’s great to hear that you felt that. I think I just asked myself what I would want to read, and the answer was: something exciting. So I put a lot of thought into how to achieve that, and then went back over the drafts (and so did my editors!) to tighten it and to look for places where I could ramp up the tension even more. Ending the chapter at a really tense moment was something I enjoyed doing a lot. It felt a bit cheeky. I just kept asking myself, what would make this more exciting? What would make me want to keep reading?

Thank you for having me on your blog, Louise, and for your brilliant questions!

Kat

 

My copy of Nevertell was gifted by Walker Books LTD as part of a promotional blog tour. Opinions remain my own. Thanks to Katharine Orton for your time and wonderful answers.

 

 

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The Lost Fairytales by Isabel Otter and Ana Sender.

Review: The Lost Fairytales by Isabel Otter and Ana Sender.

IMG_E9889

Once upon a time, there was a girl at the centre of the story who didn’t need rescuing … 

If you’ve ever fancied a fairy tale with a strong heroine, look no further. This anthology contains 20. Better than that, these stories haven’t been rewritten to change the roles of the characters. They always featured strong females. 

The range of stories is brilliant, with tales from different cultures around the world. I loved seeing the range of influences, and also similarities between the tales – bold eagles, special presents and magic wells recur in stories from all over the world. 

IMG_E9890It also contains an old favourite of mine. Tam Lin, here known as The Company Of Elves, is about a girl called Janet who rides out at Halloween to prevent her love Tam Lin from being paid as a tithe to hell. She’s up against another strong woman, the Fairy Queen. And we’re not talking innocent fairies here. This Queen turns Tam into a series of animals which turn on Janet, but she holds tight. I’ve heard this in folk music many times, but rarely see it included in fairytale anthologies. 

A section at the back contains some thinking points about each story. These are designed to motivate young readers and to encourage readers to think about what makes the heroines so strong. There are also some useful summaries to each story which explain its background and origins. 

The book is illustrated in a way which makes it irresistible. I particularly love how details and colours are used to give an impression of the different landscapes, and how the page colours coordinate with the illustrations. This apparently tiny thing makes each tale feel unique and separate from the others. 

This beautiful anthology stands out for its range of world fiction, and for the heroines who prove that there are different ways to be strong and brave. It would make a lovely addition to any bookshelf and is going on my list of Christmas gift recommendations. 

 

Thanks to Caterpillar Books for my gifted copy of The Lost Fairytales. Opinions my own.

Non-Fiction · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Manhattan by Jennifer Thermes.

Review: Manhattan by Jennifer Thermes

img_9799

From millions of years ago, when the island was inhabited by wildlife, to the thriving metropolis we know today, this is the story of Manhattan. It’s geography, it’s history and it’s people. With maps to show how the island would have looked and illustrations of the different eras, this beautiful book is the story of one place through time. 

And what a place. Manhattan isn’t somewhere I have visited, but even so I feel I know its streets. Not only from the photo shows of my sister’s visits but from the multitude of films and television programmes which are set in New York. Before reading this, I knew little of its history, but I recognise so many of the best-known locations. 

Manhattan moves through the earliest settlements, to the American Revolution and then to the Grid Plan of 1811 and the great skyscrapers of the 20th Century. Every era is brought to life through the illustrations, which show not only the place but the people who lived there. History is easier to understand when we realise it is about people like us. Relating to another person’s story makes the past more accessible. 

img_9800The maps are so detailed, and it is fascinating to see how the city built over time, and how different areas were joined together as a result of the grid plan and subway and bridges. With double-page spreads covering different topics, this book manages to provide a detailed account of the area’s growth without overwhelming the reader. There is plenty of breathing space to look at the maps and illustrations. 

Towards the back of the book is a wonderful double-page spread which shows the island in four different eras right next to each other. As I looked over this page, it really seemed to grow before my eyes. There is also a useful timeline which allows the reader to look over the history without reading the whole book. 

As an introduction to or visual history of an area, this is fantastic. The level of detail is impeccable and it is difficult to resist flicking through and comparing the different eras. 

 

Thanks to Abrams Books For Young Readers for my gifted copy of Manhattan. Opinions my own.

Monthly Wrap Up

Monthly Round-Up: June 2019

Monthly Round-Up: June 2019

Reflections and rambles:

Summer arrived with mild and indifferent weather. WriteMentor got real as I reached halfway through a major redraft and realised I had no idea how to go forward. Talk about cresting a hill to find a mountain. My blogging and creating mojo has been low, although admitting this to people made me aware just how normal these moments are and how they are almost always signals that it is time for self-care.

Out came some old favourite novels and I was soon scribbling away about techniques I wanted to apply to my own work.

That’s June. Sounds underwhelming but sometimes we learn more from those months than we realise.

There was one special moment. I was standing in the front garden and noticed the wildflowers which spring up around this time. They were vibrating. Looking closer, I saw huge numbers of bees gathering pollen. Bee after bee after bee. With numbers of bees in crisis and the environment generally in crisis, it was lovely to see nature hanging on in there. If we allow the wild spaces to thrive, and replace what has been destroyed over the past decades, nature will come back.

What have you been up to this June? Literary or otherwise, I want to hear it.

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

Review Round-Up:

 

 

The Wicker Light by Mary Watson

The Cantankerous Molly Darling by Alvy Carragher

Alex In Wonderland by Simon James Green

Maresi Red Mantle by Maria Turtschaninoff

The Paper & Hearts Society by Lucy Powrie

Spies In St Petersburg by Katherine Woodfine

Rumblestar by Abi Elphinstone

The Dragon In The Library by Louie Stowell. Illustrated by Davide Ortu. 

Milton The Mighty by Emma Read

When It Rains by Rassi Narika

There’s A Spider In My Soup by Megan Brewis

The Only Way Is Badger by Stella J Jones and Carmen Saldaña

The Big Stink by Lucy Freegard

I’m Not Grumpy! by Steve Smallman and Caroline Pedler

I thought I saw a … series by Lydia Nichols

The Unworry Book by Alice James

Edvard Munch Love And Angst. Edited by Giulia Bartrum

 

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

In other bookish news I … 

 

Watched the Mortal Engines film. 

The series I always wanted filmed and a bar of Dairy Milk Oreo. Happy night in. 

I had concerns about Peter Jackson as director (because the second Hobbit film is 2% derived from the book and 98% spinning it out. And even the road to Mordor can’t be that long) but the plot is relatively faithful to the original and any changes haven’t affected the pace. 

Every single character felt real to the story, especially Anna Fang and Shrike.

Tom and Hester look my age, and it took me until the end of the film to figure out that no, they really weren’t suggesting that actors close to thirty could play teens. In the original series, Tom and Hester are teenagers in the first book and adults in the remaining three. The film series cuts out the years between and presumably alters the timeline. 

The traction cities were everything I had ever dreamed of, and they way details from Old London [or London as we know it] have been incorporated into the great moving beast of a city is quite spectacular. Although I have wanted these films for more years than I can count, I am pleased they were delayed. Any attempt to create them with earlier CGI would have made them redundant pretty quickly.  

It is also a delight to see the books brought to a new generation of readers. 

 

img_9518

Bought a storage trolley for my review books.

In the immortal words of the Toy Story crew: NEW TOY.

 

img_9462
Just keep writing, just keep writing …

Dived into Writer’s HQ

At the very end of May, I had some exciting news. I was chosen for a Six Month Writer’s HQ bursary, which gives me access to online courses and writing forums.

I haven’t explored these as thoroughly as I would have expected, for various reasons, but I have logged in most evenings for a nose. Everything I’ve learned so far has helped my writing, and the material tells it like it is.  The team behind the courses understand that writing is a hard slog, that sometimes we just need to let it out, but at the end of the day, the only thing that makes it happen is maintained effort. And the odd biscuit.

I’m looking forward to getting into the serious business of working with Plotstormers and Plotstormers 2 to construct a new plot and to pull the two I have into the best shape possible.

 

What have you been up to this June? Any books stand out especially? Let me know in the comments below. Don’t forget to link to your June round-up post or reflections.