Middle Grade Reviews

Blog Tour: Pests by Emer Stamp.

Blog Tour: Pests by Emer Stamp.

img_1727

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.

img_1728

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.

 

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

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.

 

Advertisement
Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Fowl Twins by Eoin Colfer

Review: The Fowl Twins by Eoin Colfer

fowl twins.jpg

Synopsis:

If history has taught us one thing it is that wherever there is trouble, there is also a Fowl.

Myles and Beckett Fowl have a lot to live up to. Their brother Artemis is a super genius whose many adventures with the fairies brought him to fame, until he finally became a scientist and went to Mars. Fortunately the Fowl Twins aren’t feeling the pressure. Myles is an even greater genius, and Beckett speaks multiple languages including dolphin and troll. He also has gummy sweets to cheer himself up.

Unfortunately, their famous family has gained lots of attention in the past. There are people who would use Myles and Beckett to get at another group entirely – the fairies. Like sister Jeronima, the nunterrogator, and Lord Teddy Bleedham-Drye the notorious faerie hunter.

What will happen when a troll, two Fowl children, a non-magical Pixel, a nun and a murderous Lord get entangled in the same business?

Mayhem. Fowl style.

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

Review:

Eoin Colfer is back with a new series set in the world of Artemis Fowl. The new stories will focus on Artemis’s little brothers, Myles and Beckett, and this first adventure suggests they are about to steal the limelight. It all begins shortly after the boys’ eleventh birthday, when they befriend a troll who is on the run from known faerie-killer Lord Teddy Bleedham-Drye.

What happens next establishes the first bonds between the twins and the faerie realm.

The boys are both strong characters. Myles is eleven going on fifty-five. He dislikes childish nonsense, phrases which are not strictly logical and being bested by his elder brother Artemis (noted space scientist and three times a PHD). Beckett embraces childhood, relaxation time and opportunities for jokes. He is made interesting my his love of nature – he has a bond with every living thing, animal, faerie or otherwise – and an intuitive grasp of non-human languages. He also pretends not to understand his brother just to keep a healthy balance. Neither boy is driven by criminal activity like the young Artemis, because the Fowls have put criminal genius behind them for good. Almost. Possibly.

The faeries are well represented too. Lazuli is a Pixel who works for LEP. She’s unusual in that her magic has never woken up. Like Holly Short before her, Lazuli is unafraid to break the rules, especially if it means helping a faerie in danger. Like Whistle Blower the toy troll (so named by Beckett because he squeaks) who is at the centre of the entire commotion.

One of the most interesting characters in the story isn’t human at all. NANNI is the AI system designed by Artemis (with a little input from Myles) to look after the twins, who communicate to her via Myles’s hi-tech glasses. NANNI has greater depths than anyone has realised and looks set to become as big a character as the twins themselves.

What makes the book for me is Colfer’s masterful narration. His prose has such skill about it that as a reader you relax into it, confident that however improbable the actions of a scene there is no doubt that Colfer has all the threads of the story in hand. And possibly some amazing tricks alongside them. As an aspiring author I was especially taken by the balance of action and narration – this is one of those things which everyone strives to perfect and the wonderful thing about learning from this story is that Colfer’s narrator is so clearly having fun.

Artemis Fowl was one of the major book series of my millennial childhood. Think faeries meets gadgets meets criminal genius. The twins are more hyper, less prone to criminal intent and happier to roll with events than their elder brother, which gives the book a different tone to the original series.

These are the Gen Z Fowls and everyone – devoted readers and new, older and young – will be delighted to meet.

 

Thanks to Riot Communications and Harper Collins Children’s Books for my ARC of The Fowl Twins. Opinions my own.

Young Adult Reviews

Review: The Book Of Dust – La Belle Sauvage by Phillip Pullman

IMG_6965

Extract:

There was no refusing this man. Malcolm led him out of the Terrace Room and along the corridor, and out onto the terrace before his father could see them. He closed the door very quietly behind them and found the garden brilliantly lit by the clearest full moon there’d been for months. It felt as if they were being lit by a floodlight.

“Did you say there was someone pursuing you?” said Malcolm quietly.

“Yes. There’s someone watching the bridge. Is there any other way across the river?”

“There’s my canoe. It’s down this way, sir. Let’s get off the terrace before anyone sees us.”

(The Book Of Dust – La Belle Sauvage by Phillip Pullman. P186 – 187.) 

birdbreak

Synopsis:

Malcolm lives in his parents’ pub in Godstow, where he helps with the customers and works on his canoe, La Belle Sauvage.

One night, Malcolm finds a message which puts him in touch with a resistance spy. When he agrees to keep her updated on the things he sees, Malcolm becomes aware of the powers that dictate the world around him.

The Magisterium holds power over all and it operates through different branches. The Constitutional Court Of Discipline is in charge of surveillance and discipline, while another branch goes into schools and persuades children to turn on their family and neighbours. 

Then there is Lord Asriel, clearly on the run, and there is Mrs Coulter with the evil demon, and the man named Coram. All these people are asking about one thing – a baby called Lyra who resides at the priory near to the inn.

With a storm brewing, and different sides all taking an interest in Lyra, Malcolm vows to be her protector and do what it takes to deliver her to safety.

birdbreakReview:

Set ten years before the events of His Dark Materials and featuring characters from the original trilogy, La Belle Sauvage has to be one of the most anticipated books in the history of children’s publishing. It tells the story of Lyra’s early childhood but centres on a new protagonist, Malcolm Polstead who takes it upon himself to watch out for Lyra.

Although the story is set in Lyra’s world, it features a far-smaller geographical area – the riverbanks of and around Oxford. The most interesting aspect of this was the magic specific to the location – it is a place of fairies and enchantment which draws directly on the English canon. The location, although ostensibly set close to our time-period, is more reminiscent of the Oxford known by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. This can be explained by the fact that Lyra’s world is not our world but at times comes across as nostalgic.

Malcolm is a likeable character – he’s a nice boy who is handy to have around in a crisis. He questions what he is told when other children around him accept blindly the words of the Magisterium and he never takes what he sees at face value. I liked the parts of the story which focused on the new characters – at times it felt like they were new players in the same story, but this added a new depth to the original conflict.

I first read the original trilogy when I was nine and have read it at different points in my life. The books of the original trilogy have grown with me – I see more in them at every read, but at the same time I wish I could recapture that first reading which was so much about the adventure and the magic of the world. Reading La Belle Sauvage, although I was aware of the conflict between church and resistance, I recaptured that childish wonder as I was caught up in the descriptions of the chase downriver. At times it is less important to know why things are happening than to simply enjoy the journey.

I love the illustrations – the line-drawings suit the story and bring to life the riverbank landscape.

Described by Pullman as an ‘equal’ rather than a prequel or a sequel, the first book in the trilogy certainly gains depth with an understanding of the original books but I don’t think it is necessary to have read them to enjoy La Belle Sauvage. I look forward to seeing where the trilogy goes next – with the events of the next book take place after the events of the original trilogy, I am interested to find out what draws the series together.

 

Thanks to Riot Communications and David Fickling Books for my copy of La Belle Sauvage. Opinions my own.