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BookMurmuration has moved to a new site

After three happy years as a blogger I decided it was time to give my site a makeover. The new domain has drop-down menus making it easier for users to find the content they are interested in. 

Thanks again to every single one of my followers. I hope you will join me over on https://bookmurmuration.com/ for more bookish content. 

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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. 

 

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Don’t Mess With Duck! by Becky Davies And Emma Levey.

Review: Don’t Mess With Duck! by Becky Davis And Emma Levey.

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Duck likes peace and quiet. When his neighbours continue to quack and splash, Duck packs his suitcase and sets off in search of a quiet place. The trouble is that everywhere he goes is noisy and overcrowded. When he finally finds a peaceful spot, he has competition. Duck And Frog refuse to talk to one another, each determined that the pond belongs to them.

Everyone needs some chill time. With increasing numbers of people renting in busy cities, and living without garden space, it can be difficult to find somewhere to unwind or concentrate. Duck and Frog are both in search of the same thing, but they realise that maybe the competition for space doesn’t have to be so fierce. Maybe a little noise is worth it if it means having a friend around?

Duck’s anger is brought out in the illustrations to humorous effect and the crowds get noisier, busier, and more extreme (a flock of bats, anyone?) with every move he makes. Knowing how Duck has reacted in the past builds anticipation, and his reactions get more and more comically livid. This would be a wonderful book for discussing overreaction with children – Duck’s initial response might be justified, but it soon becomes an ongoing campaign.

It is lovely to find a picture book that makes the most of watery settings. From elegant white ducks in boaters rowing across a pond to a fountain populated by pigeons, seagulls, and rodents, the illustrations especially bring the settings to memorable life. There is a touch of The Wind In The Willows – perhaps a homage – in the interactions between the different communities on the water. 

A humorous and enjoyable story about balancing our needs with an open mind to new experiences. A true keeper. 

 

Thanks to Little Tiger Press for my copy of Don’t Mess With Duck. 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.

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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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Alice’s Wonderland Tea Party by Poppy Bishop and Laura Brenlla.

Review: Alice’s Wonderland Tea Party by Poppy Bishop and Laura Brenlla.

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Alice wants to host the perfect tea party. Not a party with tricks and jokes. Not an upside down party with upside down cake. Just a perfectly ordinary perfect party. Unfortunately, Wonderland specialises in the extraordinary.

The tea party scene is one of the most famous from across Lewis Caroll’s works. With more than a little help from Walt Disney, whose Very Merry Unbirthday song is memorably catchy, the Hatter’s Tea Party has proved to be an enduring legend. What we often forget is Alice’s frustration as she searches frantically for the stable and ordinary.

Hosting a tea party in Wonderland is quite a challenge. With magic and mayhem around every corner, the residents must be a tricky bunch to impress. In this story, while Alice’s efforts are thwarted, the residents pull together to produce a party which nobody will forget. The book introduces some of our favourite Wonderland characters – from the Hatter and the Hare to characters from the original text like the Duchess. Alice In Wonderland is one of those stories which is so popular that readers are likely to know about it before they ever encounter the book and enjoyable picture books like this bring Wonderland to life. 

The themes will be relatable to many, especially at this time of year when sometimes we just want to organise things without other people and their not-so-great ideas getting in the way. Learning to compromise – and finding space to share our own ideas – can be a difficult balance. This story teaches us that, frustrating though other people can be, their ideas can bring a new and unexpected type of magic. 

The design is superb too, with flaps of every shape and size and cut-out details. The illustrations strike a balance between the quirky and the cute, making characters seem out of this world without being at all scary. Likewise, there is a mix of pastel and navy backgrounds. 

This will be a hit with fans of Wonderland and with anyone who has ever felt the frustration of other people being anything other than perfect. 

 

Thanks to Little Tiger Press for my copy of Alice’s Wonderland Tea Party. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Shadows Of Winterspell by Amy Wilson.

Review: Shadows Of Winterspell by Amy Wilson.

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Extract:

There’s a magical boundary, just at the point where our fence divides the garden from the green marshland that leads to Winterspell, and the creatures in the forest don’t cross it, but sometimes I hear them at night, faint whispers of parties, the clamour of hooves, the high-pitched call of fierce, flying things. 

(Shadows Of Winterspell by Amy Wilson. P8.)

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Synopsis:

Stella is lonely and she is tired of hiding. She has lived in fear of Winterspell Forest for too long, kept safe from its shadows by her ghost Nan’s rules. Now Stella is determined that she is putting herself out there. And that begins with going to school.

Unfortunately, she happens to pick just the sort of school her Nan would be afraid of – one where students with any hint of magic share special lessons in Fae history and craft once a week after school. It is here that Stella first hears the legend of The Lost Prince and realises that there is more to her own family story than her Nan ever let on.

The darkness which holds Winterspell was created by Stella’s father, the Shadowking, and only Stella can release the forest from its hold.

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Review:

Amy Wilson, the author of three previous novels, is back with another lyrical fantasy. Her work has impressed me over the years for its understated magic systems and its clear attention to language. Winterspell is no different.

The other thing which Wilson’s novels have held in common is that the protagonists often have a complex relationship with school. They rarely shun education and learning, but often don’t quite fit inside the system. This book is a little different in that Stella desperately wants to go to school. She loves making friends and socialising but her right to access this is complicated by her family history and the fae politics of Winterspell. Wilson’s work shows that fitting in can be a challenge but by being unafraid we can gain so very much from other people.

While the magic of this world was more conventional than in, say, A Faraway Magic, Wilson used it to create something very much her own. This is a world of faeries and centaurs and sprites. It is also a world held under the shadow magic of a raging king.  Throughout the book, Top-Trumps style card pages help the reader to keep track of the different inhabitants of the forest and to compare their different magical powers.

Friendship and family play an important part in the story. My favourite character this time was Nan, who has lingered as a ghost to raise her grandchild. From the very first page, I cared deeply about Nan’s connections to the world and wanted to know whether she would remain beyond the story to continue raising her grandchild. I am currently grieving for my mother and I forever berate myself for not meeting my mother’s standards in day-to-day tasks. So often I know what she would say without thinking. It made the idea of being raised by a ghost not only relatable but intriguing.

The language in this book is, as ever, rhythmic and beautiful. It feels as if the story itself is a form of magic that conjures the world of Winterspell into being.

An exciting and beautiful story. Amy Wilson’s work continues to be imaginative and creative and every new novel is a treat.

 

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books for my copy of Winterspell. Opinions my own.

Non-Fiction

Review: Remarkable Trees by Christina Harrison and Tony Kirkham.

Review: Remarkable Trees by Christina Harrison and Tony Kirkham.

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Trees are remarkable. As the introduction to this beautiful book notes, they are central to our existence, providing, food, shelter, resins, and materials which we use to support our everyday life. Trees are also incredible examples of evolution. You only have to compare the trees of one climate to another to see that they have adapted to survive in their habitat. 

Over 8000 species are currently under threat and yet too often we are unaware of trees, treating them as scenery instead of as living, breathing plants. 

This wonderful book, written by two experts from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, details the lives and plights of over sixty trees. 

What is interesting about this book is the sections it is divided into are all about the human relationship with trees. Building And Creating, Feasting And Celebrating, Healers And Killers, Body And Soul, Wonders Of The World, Threatened and Endangered – nearly all of these headings are about our existing knowledge of trees. That the Caco tree creates chocolate, or that Mahogany was once popular for furniture is relatively common knowledge. However, once you reach the pages on the individual trees, you learn not only about the human relationship to the tree but about the plant itself. This is something like moving a lens away from the close-by towards the distance and the unknown. 

Even the trees we walk past every day have hidden lives of their own. 

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Each fact file is three or four pages long and accompanied by full-colour pictures. Headed with the common and Latin name, there is also a single fact away from the main text which stands out to a reader flicking through the book. This not only makes it a great coffee table book, but it is also a wonderful way to hook a reader. I found myself drawn in by these snippets and had to read more.  

It is fascinating how much of human history we can learn through the lens of trees. Remarkable Trees touched on trade and diet, literature and religion, all by studying human interaction with trees.

The illustrations are detailed, both the full page botanical drawings and pictures which show the tree in situ, as it were, which help us to build an idea of how trees differ across the world’s habitats. The muted colours and exquisite detail make this the sort of book which you can’t help but pick up. 

A stunning non-fiction title or coffee table book. This would make a beautiful gift for anyone with a growing interest in the natural world and reading it reminds us that we live in a truly remarkable world. 

 

Thanks to Thames & Hudson in association with Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew for my copy of Remarkable Trees. Opinions my own.

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: There’s A Spider In My Soup by Megan Brewis

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Little Spider is warned about the dangers of swinging from the web. Cats, light bulbs and clumsy feet are all mentioned. There’s only one problem. Swinging from the web is so fun that Little Spider can’t stop. One day, when everyone is asleep, she ignores all the rules and swings out into the wide world … to land in a bowl of soup. 

It should be a disaster, but taking a risk isn’t always dangerous. The soup-based adventure leads to new friendships, and soon all the spiders are following Little Spider’s lead. 

Little Spider could have been eaten up. Or drowned. That’s the fact, and it is worth pointing that out to young readers. How do we know when it is safe to take a risk and when it is just plain not a good idea? Danger is a difficult subject to discuss with young readers, however, a climate where children are afraid to push themselves and explore is unhealthy too. This is a brilliant story to open conversations about danger and risk. After all, diving from a higher board at the swimming pool is a very different risk to jumping out into the traffic. Risking a grazed knee is a different thing to multiple fractures. Understanding that, as we get bigger, we sometimes have to trust our own instincts is a huge lesson.

The spiders are delightful, and not the least bit hairy or scary. Of course, I’m a spider-lover and have been since childhood, but as illustrated spiders go these are gentle enough that the story could be shared even with people who are phobic. 

 Calm backgrounds are used as a canvas for multiple patterns and colours. Different objects have their own patterns and the result is a collage picture which feels like a snapshot of a normal kitchen. 

An adventure which encourages readers to trust their instincts and to talk about different types of danger, and a wonderful spider-based story. 

 

Thanks to Oxford University Press for my gifted copy of There’s A Spider In My Soup. Opinions my own.