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: 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.

Young Adult Reviews

Review: D.O.G.S by M.A. Bennett

Review: D.O.G.S by M.A. Bennett

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Extract:

But because everything was so smooth, and easy, and obstacle-free, I didn’t even question what was going on, or realise I was skipping into the forest as innocently as Red Riding Hood in Hoodwinked. 

Pretty dumb, really. 

The first sniff I had that something dark was going on was when I got the second act of The Isle Of Dogs. 

(D.O.G.S by M.A. Bennett. P74.) 

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Synopsis:

A year on from the events of the Justitium hunt and Greer is focused on getting top marks in her final exams to secure a place at Oxford. Drama students at S.T.A.G.s are responsible for putting on the end of year play, and Greer has taken the role of director. She isn’t certain on which play to perform until an old manuscript is pushed beneath her bedroom door. It is the first act of The Isle Of Dogs,  a work by Ben Jonson hasn’t been seen in over 400 years. It also contains some striking parallels to the social division she has witnessed at STAGS.

Her decision to cast the play puts her relationship with Shafeen on hold, but it may have wider consequences too. As further acts appear, the play leads Greer back towards the Order Of The Stag, and to the place she thought she would never visit: Longcross Hall.

But why does she still question whether Henry might be there? That particular ghost from her past was supposed to be laid to rest over a year ago …

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Review:

STAGS was a triumph of 2017 which both hit the awards list and gathered a legion of fans. My first words when I closed the book were ‘MA Bennett knows how to tell a story’. My second question was ‘Did she mean to write a five-act structure?’ (The author answered this during a Twitter chat. Yes, she did, and to tremendous effect.) When it was confirmed that MA Bennett was the penname of an established writer – and one who studied Shakespeare’s work at masters level – I was not in the least bit surprised.

The influence of historical writers on Bennett’s work comes to the front of the second story, as Greer stages the first playing of The Isle Of Dogs in over 400 years.

This real play saw Ben Jonson imprisoned and almost executed, and this fact is the basis for the events of D.O.G.S. MA Bennett imagines what might have caused Elizabeth the First to react so violently against Jonson’s work in a fictional version of the play. Greer receives this a single act at a time, pushed under her door by a mysterious stranger.

Every act draws her deeper into a world she thought she had left behind.

New characters keep the series fresh. The de Walencourt twins, Cass and Louis, are difficult to read – are they different to the rest of their family, or does the same privileged ambition run through their veins? Ty Morgan a complete star. She’s the new ‘outsider’ to the gilded world of S.T.A.G.S, but she’s sure as heck not going to be made an outsider by the established trio. Ty’s storyline challenges everything readers have come to expect from black characters in secondary roles. Think just about every half-term film from the late 90s or early 2000s. Think about the stereotype of the black best friend. Ty smashes that role to smithereens. There’s also a new staff member whose motives are hard to figure.

D.O.G.S did everything I hoped for. It wasn’t a repeat of S.T.A.G.S, but it built on the themes of social division and an ingrained class system and developed our knowledge about the Order Of The Stag. It brought back familiar locations but allowed us to explore them in new ways, and from new angles. D.O.G.S is as addictive and compelling as its predecessor. MA Bennett sure knows how to write stories which bite.

 

Thanks to Readers First and Hoy Key Books for my gifted copy of D.O.G.S. Opinions my own.