Middle Grade Reviews

Blog Tour: Pests by Emer Stamp.

Blog Tour: Pests by Emer Stamp.

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About Pests

Stix lives with his saftey-conscious Grandma behind the washing machine in Flat 3 Peewit Mansions. Although Stix knows that not being seeing is the golden rule – a seen mouse is a dead mouse after all – he wishes life could be a little bit more fun.

Then a rat intrudes and makes a mess, and the terrible Nuke-A-Pest are called. Grandma’s act of bravery goes wrong when she is flushed down a toilet and into a septic tank. Stix is left all alone … until he discovers the school for animals branded as pests down in the basement. Suddenly, he is encouraged to make a nuisance of himself, but what is the limit when there is so high a cost?

Pests had me hooked from the start. The strong character and voice was one reason I couldn’t stop reading. Think of Ratatouille, where a brilliant but vulnerable small creature is forced out into the wider world. Add some strong side characters and an evil non-human villain (no spoilers) with a terrible plan.

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Throughout the story, the illustrations heighten both the comedy and the emotional narrative. From the all-knowing dog in Flat 3, who is so much wiser than his humans, to Stix’s wide-eyed facial expressions, the story is made richer by the wonderful sketches.

There is also a healthy dose of humour. There are toilet jokes, although these are kept to a total minimum and done with such skill that even as a very grown-up person it is impossible not to giggle. This is in the suspense – certain things are planted earlier, and we just know … almost … that they will return in all their poo-based glory later on in the narrative.

I was delighted to be offered a guest post Emer Stamp, and even more so when she agreed to write about character creation. Stix and the gang are so believable that I can still imagine them even though I’ve finished reading the book. Thank you so much to Emer for your time, and to Lucy Clayton for organising this blog tour.

 

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Guest Post: Creating Believable Characters by Emer Stamp 

I believe the key to a good book, or film, for that matter, are the characters. You can have the best story in the world, but if the key players populating it aren’t believable, or likeable, or perhaps even dislikeable – if that’s your skit – then I can guarantee that pretty soon your audience is going to wander off and have a cup of tea or, in my case, a glass of squash.  This is why I spend a lot of time considering who my characters are and what makes them appealing or, in the case of the baddies, unappealing.

Both Pig, the protagonist in The Diary of Pig series, and Stix (a small mouse), the lead character in PESTS, possess the same quality – a childlike naivety about life. Pig is almost entirely clueless about the world beyond the farm and is quite often boggled by the everyday things inside it too. Stix is smarter than Pig but, thanks to his sheltered upbringing, is clueless about life outside the flat in which he lives. He openly admits to the reader that he has no idea what, if any, life exists beyond the front door.

I think the reason this naïve character trait works so well is that is it reflects the way children themselves so often feel – though they may not be able to give it such a sophisticated label. They see a bit of themselves in the character, which helps them invest more in its wellbeing. To be honest, even I see bits of myself in both Pig and Stix – the world still boggles me on a pretty frequent basis.

It also allows the child to feel smart.  I’ve been told by numerous parents that their child loved Pig because they felt cleverer than him. For once the child is the wise one. They know the answers to Pig’s silly questions, they know what is outside Stix’s front door.

Now, of course, not all my characters work in this way. Pig’s best friend Duck, and Stix’s best friend Batz, are more worldly-wise. They are the ones who help my protagonists make sense of everything. But, I am very careful to make sure they do this in an endearing way – no one likes a show-off or a big-head. Nobody wants a sidekick who makes the beloved hero look a fool. So, in both cases, I gave each a loveable foible, one to which I believe children can relate. Duck is the super-smart, sensible friend who needs a bit of lightening up; Batz is the over-eager friend who has a tendency to leap before she looks. In both cases my lead offers the antidote – Pig helps Duck see the funny side of life, whilst Stix’s in-built caution helps temper Batz’s dangerous gung-ho attitude.

No story is complete without a horribly bad villain. So, the thought I give to these is just as rigorous. It’s important a baddie is as bad as they can be. I want my readers to really despise them. Which is why I always imbue them with a hearty helping of sociopathic tendencies. This, I find, is always a solid base from which to build. My favourite baddies from the Dairy of Pig series are the Evil Chickens. These avian aggressors who care for no one but themselves. In fact, to be correct, the Super Evil Chicken cares for no one but itself. All the other chickens are just collateral – to be disposed of in whatever way needed to facilitate the ultimate goal – taking over the farm (for completely nefarious purposes of course). A plan which, for obvious reasons, they do their level best to keep a lid on  – secrecy being another great baddie trait. No one likes secretive characters.

And there is no one more infused with secrecy than the aptly-named Professor Armageddon, the despotic cockroach whose grand plan is to destroy the block of flats the pests live in. Not only is he keeping schtum about what he’s up to, but he’s also lying and manipulating others in order to get the job done. Again, both nasty traits that engender instant dislike.

Good or bad, naughty or nice, the most important thing is that your reader feels something towards the characters you create, be it positive or negative. If they don’t, the chances are, they’ll be reaching for the kettle or a bottle of squash.

Check out the other stops along the tour –

Blog tour banner PESTS

 

Thanks to Hodder Children’s Books for my copy of Pests which was sent as part of a promotional blog tour. Opinions my own.

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Max & The Midknights by Lincoln Peirce.

Review: Max & The Midknights by Lincoln Peirce.

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Extract:

Yep, we’re talking fourteenth century. That means a lot of important stuff hasn’t been invented yet. Like paved roads, the toothbrush, and a little convenience called indoor plumbing. It’s a tough life, and – sorry Uncle Budrick – I can’t see how a few songs or some lame magic tricks will make it any easier.

(Max & The Midknights by Lincoln Peire. P3.) 

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Synopsis:

Max’s uncle Budrick is a troubadour. Not a very good one. He and Max roam the countryside, living off the vegetables that people throw to chase them away. According to tradition, all children follow in the footsteps of their parents or guardians, but Max doesn’t want to be a troubadour. Max wants to be a knight.

When uncle Budrick is taken prisoner by the evil King Gastley, Max has an opportunity to be a hero. Furthermore, it appears that King Gastley shouldn’t even be on the throne. Together with a group of new friends, dubbed the Midknights, and the aid of a retiredish wizard, Max sets out to save the realm of Byjovia. 

 

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Review:

Swords and sorcery and snorting with laughter. Lincoln Peirce, author of the Big Nate series, has returned with a brand new adventure set in a world of castles and dragons and really, really, awful singers. Presented in his trademark style – with a mixture of comics and short sections of text – this is the ultimate funny book for readers of fantasy adventure. 

Essentially it is the story of a realm suffering under the cruelty of an imposter King, and the kids who band together in defence of all things good. What makes it unique is the hilarious wit, the iconic cartoons, and the relevance to today’s society. Take Max’s friend Simon, who is desperately sad because his parents appear to be held under some kind of terrible spell that makes adults worship powerful figures regardless of the hate and suffering their reign causes. While the book doesn’t condone what Simon’s parents have done, it offers the readers hope that their parents will, eventually, come to reason and stand for a more loving society. 

And there are dragons. And witches. And there is a cameo from zombies. 

The balance of serious themes with humour is perfect. This is entirely readable, and the ideas about equality and kindness remain with the reader after finishing the book, even while they want to go back to specific pages to laugh again at the illustrations. 

With high stakes and a range of humour – from Max’s deadpan declarations to the wonderfully self-deprecating wizard Mumblin – this reminds me strongly of Merlin. Max And The Midknights is the perfect story for escapism and reassurance – the world isn’t always perfect but a good band of friends can make it easier to cope. 

Highly recommend. 

 

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books and Clare Hall-Craggs for my copy of Max & The Midknights. Opinions my own. 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Beyond Platform 13 by Sibéal Pounder. (Eva Ibbotson).

Review: Beyond Platform 13 by Sibéal Pounder. (Eva Ibbotson).

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Extract:

Lina dragged her feet along the platform, and then she saw her, just up ahead – a teenager in bright blue boots. Lina watched as a man rudely barged into her. But then the most peculiar thing happened: he bounced off her as if she were nothing but bones and magic. The teenager turned and mouthed something at the man. Something that looked a lot like –

‘HAG!’ Lina shouted.

And then everything went black.

(Beyond Platform 13 by Sibéal Pounder. (Eva Ibbotson). P7.)

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Synopsis:

Lina wishes her parents would see magic as something more than a fairy tale which their daughter will soon outgrow. Lina just knows there are magical creatures in the world – like Odge, the hag who finds Lina at Vienna Central Station.

Odge is on a mission. Mist has been taken over by harpies. Many of the magical creatures have been expelled and the royal family have been forced into hiding. The gump – the portal which allows people from the ordinary world into magical one – is about to close, and if the harpies are not defeated before then it will be years before the citizens of Mist have another chance to return.

Meanwhile, the little furry creatures known as mistmakers are not well and it is their magic which protects the island.

Can  Lina help Odge and her friends to heal the mistmakers and defeat the harpies before the gump closes? A whole new adventure in the world created by Eva Ibbotson in The Secret Of Platform 13 begins.

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Review:

When I was nine my school librarian placed a book into my hands. ‘You’ll really enjoy this one’ she told me. It was The Secret Of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson. I enjoyed it so much that, when a certain Platform 9 and ¾ started to gain more attention later in the same year I told everyone smartly that Platform 13 was already quite magical enough thank you very much. I remember dreaming about Eva Ibbotson’s world in the playground and sneaking the book outside to read it during my lunch break.

The original book is the story of a missing prince who disappeared into the human world nine years ago. It is about a rescue party, led by a wizard and a certain ogre called Odge, sent to find him before the gump closes for another period. In Beyond Platform 13 Odge returns older and wiser as a key player in a rebellion group whose aim is to overthrow the usurping harpies. Except, instead of finding the person she is sent out into the human world to discover, Odge brings back Lina – a young girl with a big imagination and a suspiciously fluffy backpack.

With high stakes and an impossibly short about of time to oust the harpies, Lina and Odge have their work cut out. Luckily they are helped on all sides – by Prince Ben, and a ghost rat named Magdelena and Netty Pruddle the hag who is prepared to risk her life going undercover as a handmaid to the harpy Queen herself.

Lina is a lovely character. She is the child with such a big imagination that the ordinary world simply doesn’t feel good enough. She doesn’t think she can possibly belong in a world of school and work and nine-to-fives and tax returns and absolutely no witches or warlocks at all. Anyone who has ever banged hopefully on the back of an old wardrobe or checked the doormat on their eleventh birthday can relate to her. As much as she wants to remain with her parents, her heart belongs in a more magical place altogether. This theme carries through the book and the conclusion Lina comes to is beautiful. Belonging and being in a physical place can be two very separate things. This is not only relevant to the modern-day, but it pays tribute to Ibbotson who came to Britain as a child refugee from Austria.

Sibéal Pounder was the perfect choice to write the next story in Ibbotson’s world. Pounder too develops rich and complex worlds, and like Ibbotson, her magic has something of a lighthearted touch. Pounder’s stories, like Ibbotson’s, deal with serious subjects like war and revolution while maintaining a kind of playfulness and an awareness of the line which a seven or eight-year-old would be too afraid to cross. They never underestimate the reader- quite the opposite, in fact – but they narrate the tale in a way which is entertaining and exciting to young readers. Pounder is the perfect successor to Ibbotson and she has done the world justice in this new tale.

A magical story for readers of all ages. Whether this is your return to Mist or an introduction, it will capture your imagination in the same way that Ibbotson’s work held mine almost twenty years ago.

 

 Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books UK for my copy of Beyond Platform 13. Opinions my own. 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Pages & Co – Tilly And The Lost Fairytales by Anna James.

Review: Pages & Co – Tilly And The Lost Fairytales by Anna James.

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Extract:

She looked around, searching for the source of the smell, and was surprised to see, through the window, that the train was running through a deep, dark forest. Tilly was sure there weren’t any forests of this size within a twenty-minute train ride of north London, and yet there it was. The trees seemed to crowd in on every side, as if they were trying to reach inside the train with their spindly branches. 

(Pages & Co – Tilly And The Lost Fairy Tales by Anna James. PP. 99 – 100.)

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Synopsis:

Following the disappearance of Enoch Chalk, whose antics caused Tilly and her friends no end of trouble, a new Head Librarian is appointed at the Underlibrary. Melville Underwood’s policies restrict the movements of adult Book Wanderers, and ban children from the practice altogether.

Tilly is alarmed by this appointment but she has other things on her mind. Her Grandmother has forbidden her from book wandering altogether, but strange things are happening with fairy tales and Tilly wants to explore. Should she listen to her Grandmother, or to Gretchen – a lady she meets in Paris whose view is that book wandering should be completely unrestricted.

Feeling the pressure to pick a side, Tilly must figure out the best way forward to protect the beloved stories from the mysterious changes.

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Review:

The sequel to Pages & CO – Tilly and The Book Wanderers is here, and it lives up to the first story. This series turns the magic of reading into a literal world where people can wander in and out of stories and a hidden library monitors their movements and the security of the texts. It is also a brilliant fantasy and the second book sees a new antagonist and a sense of sides building and action brewing.

What is the same? The same sense of a secret bookish community, the references to sweet treats (which adds to the book nostalgia because some of the best children’s classics contain heavy references to food) and the same world of book wandering and underlibraries. We meet some new characters, including the ambiguous Gretchen, and visit some new places (both real and in the bookscape, so to speak).

The story was more complex in that it didn’t move exactly as I predicted. First we were introduced to the new Head Librarian and then the action moved away to Paris and to the fairy tales which Tilly first read and later explored as a book wanderer. I loved how the threads came together and especially the growing sense that something wasn’t quite right within the fairy tales.

Oskar comes out of himself too and claims a bit more of the spotlight. We meet his family in Paris which gives us a deeper insight into Oskar’s life. He’s a wonderful role model as a boy character because he is arty and gentle as well as practical and kind. It is clear that he doesn’t want to let Tilly take all the credit for their adventures, and quite right too.

Tilly is on her own mission too. She wants to know more about the Archivists, god-like beings who most book wanderers stopped believing in long ago.

Pages & Co has gained fans of all ages. It is the perfect nostalgia-fest for adult readers, who want to recapture that sense of being lost in the world of stories for hours on end. Child readers have taken to the series too, and I can’t imagine a more magical way to get acquainted with the classics. It is like an invitation to young people to join the world of reading and stories.

Tilly And The Lost Fairy Tales is a treat to read and it has made me excited about where the series is going.

 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Time Of Green Magic by Hilary McKay

Review: The Time Of Green Magic by Hilary McKay

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Extract:

The cat thing sunk down, deep and heavy on the bed. The night air from the window was cold, but the cat-thing was warm, and Louis found himself wishing it would purr. 

‘Iffen …’ he murmured, and found the cat-thing’s eyes on his, a direct golden gaze that went straight to his astonished, worshipping soul. 

(The Time Of Green Magic by Hilary McKay. P51.) 

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Synopsis:

Abi is happily growing up with Dad and Granny Grace. Then a chance accident brings Dad together with Polly. Granny Grace moves away, Dad and Polly marry and Abi is forced to share her life with stepbrothers.

Then the family moves to the ivy-covered house, and strange things start to happen.

Abi tumbles into books, Max notices strange things lurking in dark corners, and Louis summons a wild animal into his bedroom. Unless the children come together, they will be unable to change things. Can they figure out where the strange creature came from and send it back?

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Review:

Abi prefers life when it is quiet. She likes to hide away and read, which is pretty difficult with a small step-brother she never asked for grabbing at her stuff. But, over time, an understanding emerges between Abi and Louis. They’ve seen things in the strange new house. Things which should be impossible.

The ivy-covered house is up there among the most memorable of magical houses in children’s literature. It is subtle magic, yet it is one which reflects the children’s’ internal struggles and eventually brings them together. I was especially touched by Louis’s longing for a granny just like Granny Grace, and Abi’s difficulties in sharing the people in her life. Divorce narratives once read like tales of woe. This story is more subtle. It hints at hurt and anger but also shows love and new friendships and recognition which grows over time as new connections grow between the people involved.

The other star of the story is Iffen, the wild cat Louis summons into his bedroom. Exactly what species is he? Where does he come from? Readers will enjoy posing theories as the mystery grows.

Hilary McKay’s writing is a joy. The sentences and words are crafted to perfection so that it is impossible not to whisper certain parts aloud. The experience of reading was almost like listening to a storyteller because the words were beautiful and the story kept me hanging on at every twist and turn.

A gentle and lyrical story from a  master storyteller. This is a wonderful book about the bonds between families, and what it takes to shape them.

 

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books for my gifted copy of A Time Of Green Magic. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Under Earth by Ellen Renner

Review: Under Earth by Ellen Renner

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Extract:

‘He’ll try to dazzle you with riches and promises! Keep your wits about you, Niece, and meet me in the Merry Whale in a five-day when the sun is six hands risen above the sea.’ (Under Earth by Ellen Renner. P29.)

 

Synopsis:

Storm’s duties as a Weather witch are getting real. She must give up her identity as a female, sail with the fleet and remain loyal to Yanlin. Her first big test turns out to be the trading island of Bellum. Bellum’s wealth is tightly controlled by a collective called the Pact, who shower Storm with gifts and attention, but it is apparent that the Pact want something of Storm’s powers in return.

The more Storm sees of Bellum Town, the more questions she has. Why are there children in poverty when there is so much wealth on the island? Why are there no local artisans? And what does the Salamander – the great, god-like spirit of fire which wants her dead – have in store for Storm?

As Storm pieces together the evidence, she learns more about her own magic. About the reason she was chosen by the other three Elementals.

 

Review:

Under Earth follows on from Storm Witch, a middle-grade fantasy which won my love in 2018. Storm lives in a world where great god-like beings rule over earth, air, water and fire. Three of these Elementals have chosen storm for a mission. The fourth, the Salamander of Fire, has tried to kill her – and will try again as it tries to upset the balance of the world and gain power. Storm knows she has been chosen as a Weather witch but not why. This story follows her as she comes to terms with what she must accept and sacrifice in order to fulfill her role.

It also introduces a new part of the world. Bellum Island is one of the wealthiest nations, yet the majority of its money is hoarded by an elite group of families. Other citizens are barely recognised as such. They are treated as second-rate people. As scavengers and slackers and a complete drain on the island’s resources. What is more, traditional skills are at an all-time low. The island no longer produces things of its own. All of its wealth is in trade. Bellum may be beautiful on the surface, especially to a guest of the Pact, but at its heart, its values are rotten to the core.

Similarities between Bellum and current-day Britain are striking. This book explores political crisis from the angle of trade and international relations, both concepts which too many adults ignore when talking about Brexit and austerity.  While these are deep subjects, they are woven into the story in such a way to provide rich details without slowing the pace. The main question for the readers is will Storm be tempted away from her home in Yanlin? Or forced?

There’s also her ongoing fight with the Salamander. This is something I loved about the series from the start. Think Moana. Think of a sea-based world where knowledge of the Gods remains to varying extents, but where everyone knows the origin stories. That’s Storm’s world too. Fire has always been held in check by Earth, Air and Water, but now it is making a bid for greater power. The consequences, if it breaks free, could destroy the world.

The ending has left me desperate for the next installment. It also linked back to those themes of austerity in a touching way. There is something about Storm which makes her different from every ‘chosen one’ you can think of. I can’t say more without spoilers, but I found this side of the story touching and brilliant.

Under Earth moves the story along while living up to the magic of Storm Witch. I am already waiting to get my hands on the third volume. Great stuff.

 

Thanks to Nosy Crow LTD for my copy of Under Earth. Opinions my own.

Blogmas 2018 · christmas · Guest Post

Author Guest Post: Michelle Harrison’s gingerbread recipe

Author Guest Post: Michelle Harrison’s gingerbread recipe

2018
Author Michelle Harrison

There is one middle-grade novel I am extra especially looking forward to in 2019. Michelle Harrison writes folksy, magical stories full of black-cats, fairies and local traditions. I have loved every story she has written so far, and  A Pinch Of Magic looks equally amazing.

It is the story of three sisters who must break a deadly curse which has haunted their family for generations. Each sister possesses an object which has been handed down the family – a mirror, a carpet bag and a set of wooden nesting-dolls. None of these objects is what it seems. 

The Widdershins sisters kindly agreed to share their gingerbread recipe. It is a pleasure and a delight to welcome Michelle Harrison and the Widdershins to my blog. 

 

Widdershins Gingerbread

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The isle of Crowstone, home to the Widdershins sisters ‒ Betty, Fliss and Charlie ‒ is often damp and chilly thanks to the freezing fogs from the nearby Misty Marshes. So what better treat to stay cosy with than some warming, spiced gingerbread?

Ingredients

  • 350g plain flour (plus extra for rolling out)
  • 2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 125g butter
  • 175g soft light brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 4 tbsp golden syrup

 

mh1Makes approx. 20 pieces, depending on cutter size. I found this gorgeous Russian doll one on eBay which came with a stamp to press in the detail. I’ve used it several times and the shapes are always met with delight. Without further ado I’ll hand over to the Widdershins . . .

Method

 

FLISS: In a large bowl, sift together the flour, bicarbonate of soda, ginger and cinnamon. Add the butter and rub together with your fingers ‒ CLEAN fingers, Charlie! ‒ until it looks and feels like sand.

BETTY: Sand? That looks more like shingle from the marshes. Rub it in some more.

FLISS: Shh. This is my recipe.

CHARLIE: No, it’s not. It’s Granny’s.

BETTY: Stop eating the sugar, Charlie.

FLISS: Stir in the sugar. I usually close my eyes and make a wish when I do this part.

BETTY: Can you wish not to burn it this time?

FLISS: *Snorts* Lightly beat the egg and the golden syrup together in a jug—

CHARLIE: Make sure it’s a free range egg. They’re tastier and kinder to the chickens.

FLISS: —then pour the egg/syrup mix into the bowl. Combine until it begins to clump together, then remove from the bowl and knead until smooth.

BETTY: Sprinkle some flour on to your work surface so the dough doesn’t get too sticky. When it’s ready, wrap it in cling film and chill in the fridge for fifteen minutes. This stops it spreading out too much and losing its shape while it’s baking.

FLISS: Ooh, yes. I always forget that part.

CHARLIE: Who cares what it looks like? Get it in the oven I WANT TO EAT IT!

FLISS: Pre-heat the oven to 180C/160C fan/Gas 4. Line two baking trays with greaseproof paper. Once chilled, roll out the dough to a thickness of about 0.5cm on a lightly floured surface, and cut out the gingerbread shapes. Place them on the tray with a gap between them and bake for 12-15 minutes until lightly golden brown. This usually gives me just enough time to write a little love poem.

BETTY: No, this is when you clean up the kitchen and keep an eye on the oven, feather-brain. The best gingerbread is a bit chewy, so don’t overdo it! Once it’s out of the oven, leave it on the tray for a few minutes, then move to a wire rack to finish cooling.

CHARLIE: IS IT READY YET?

FLISS: Once cooled, you can make your shapes look pretty by adding icing, and silver balls or sprinkles.

CHARLIE: Or just scoff it as it is. Jumping jackdaws, that’s good!

 

Huge thanks to Michelle Harrison for your time. A Pinch Of Magic publishes in February 2019. Pre-order here.

 

Check out day one and day two of Blogmas.