Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Frostheart by Jamie Littler

Review: Frostheart by Jamie Littler

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Extract:

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

(Frostheart by Jamie Littler. P117.) 

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Synopsis:

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

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

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

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Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog Tour: Nevertell by Katharine Orton.

Blog Tour: Nevertell by Katharine Orton.

 

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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.) 

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Fowl Twins by Eoin Colfer

Review: The Fowl Twins by Eoin Colfer

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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.

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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.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The Wind In The Wall by Sally Gardner. Illustrated by Rovina Cai.

Review: The Wind In The Wall by Sally Gardner. Illustrated by Rovina Cai.

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Tap – tap – tap. 

A young man has waited out the years, trapped inside the walls. He was once, long ago, a gardener for the Duke of Northumberland. The young man and the Duke shared an admiration for the amaryllis, and the young man had hoped he would rise through the ranks to become Head Gardener. 

Then the pineapple reached Britain. The gentry were besotted. 

Pushed aside, the young man watches as a stranger appears at the house with claims to charm the pineapples. The young man knows a charlatan when he sees one, and yet he wants to know the stranger’s secret. What he witnesses has consequences that will last for centuries. 

A subtle and touching ghost story from Sally Gardner. 

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The setting of the old estate is made magical by the knowledge that a man became trapped in the walls for centuries. Sally Gardner’s stories often feel this way – as if we know the setting intimately and yet at the same time we know nothing at all, because anything might happen. The result is that we are firmly in the hands of the storyteller as we wait for all to be revealed. 

What the young man discovers will stay with the reader for life. The harmony between the words and the pictures, especially at this moment, is stunning. 

The story is something between a ghost story and a time-slip. The young man is left haunting the walls long after the other characters have gone. 

If you fancy a ghost story this autumn but want something free from gore and gimmick, this one is for you. My favourite kind of ghost stories are rooted firmly in real-life stories (albeit with the occasional pinch of magic thrown in). The terror doesn’t necessarily have to come from the undead, and it certainly shouldn’t come from the fact that ‘it’s a ghost’ alone. The Wind In The Wall ticks all my boxes with its strong back story and the chemistry between the characters. 

Rovina Cai’s illustrations tell the emotional story. The passion on the protagonist’s face as he tends the amaryllis is replaced with creeping darkness which begins with the pineapples. The illustrations tell the story by themselves and they add extra layers to the words.  

A striking read around Halloween and a timeless story that could be read at any time of year. 

 

Thanks to Hot Key Books for my copy of The Wind In The Walls. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The House Of Madame M by Clothilde Perrin.

Review: The House Of Madame M by Clothilde Perrin.

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Are you lost? Come in! 

Welcome to The House Of Madame M, where things slither and creak and nothing is as it seems. There are skeletons in the cupboards – real ones – and clawed things in the corners and the food in the kitchen would literally kill. 

This pop-up book is a delight for the insatiably gothic. With doors to open and dials to turn, it is super hands-on. The illustrations are rich in detail. As well as playing with the interactive features, the reader is kept busy scanning over the page and taking in the surprises. 

For surprises there are. It seems a shame to spoil any more, but I jumped once or twice as I came across things I hadn’t seen at the first glance. 

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Four or five lines accompany each spread, giving the impression that someone – or some creeping, crawling thing – has been charged with giving the reader a guided tour. The implication is that, once a person enters the house, they can never ever leave. 

My interest in this was particularly as a pop-up. There’s something about pop-up books. Perhaps they remind us that storytelling can take so many different forms. They break the rules, almost, by giving the reader so much authority over what moves when and in what order things are explored. Anybody who had a pop-up book in childhood will gravitate towards them in a second-hand bookshop, even if they don’t intend to buy. This format lends itself well to the gothic and unruly world of Madame M. There’s something compelling about playing with the illustrations while being guided through the book by the unearthly narrator. 

I love the use of dark and light. The eye is drawn to the patches of yellow and then to the details within them. The use of texture is also exciting, especially to bring the monsters to life. 

Both trick and treat at the same time. With added surprise value. A lovely creation that will excite readers this Halloween. 

 

The House Of Madame M is available now from Gecko Press. RRP £16.99

Thanks to Laura Smythe PR and Gecko Press for my copy.

Non-Fiction · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Atlas Of Amazing Birds by Matt Sewell.

Review: Atlas Of Amazing Birds by Matt Sewell.

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Our planet is home to some amazing birds. Open your eyes and meet the true wonders of the world. Knowing about the birds we share our planet with encourages us to care about their wellbeing. 

This is divided into seven sections and introduces the birdlife of eight continents. Each section begins with a map, making this part Atlas, part guidebook. As a whole, with its jewel-bright illustrations and informative fact files, it is a book to marvel over. 

It is the images that make the book. The full-colour images draw the eye as soon as the book is opened. The style is a play on scientific drawings – flat, and forward-facing, they are certainly there is no pretence at a story or pose. However, they are also filled with a certain character which makes it possible to imagine them coming to life and to picture how they might move. This one would glide, for example, and that one flutter. 

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Each entry includes the scientific name and the common one. The common one comes first which not only allows readers to spot the familiar but to marvel over a vocabulary which is in danger of becoming lost. Two or three paragraphs accompany the names. These are well-written and explain where the bird might be found and introducing some of its habits. 

In organising the birds by continent, the book also introduces the idea that we adapt to our habitats. Flicking through, it is impossible not to notice similarities and differences between the birds, and discussing how all the small, bright birds live in warm places, for example, would open an interesting conversation with young readers. 

A page at the back includes a glossary of bird-related terms and suggestions for songs featuring birds. This is such a lovely touch and would make a wonderful ‘next activity’ after reading. 

This is the kind of book which helps a reader form a love with a new subject. After looking through the pages, it is impossible not to want to spot birds in the real world and to know more about the birds which live far away. 

The perfect holiday gift for a young nature enthusiast or for readers who just love a beautiful book. 

 

Thanks to Pavilion Children’s Books for my copy of Atlas Of Amazing Birds. Opinions my own.