Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Darkwhispers by Vashti Hardy.

Review: Darkwhispers by Vashti Hardy.

img_1103

Extract:

As sunset bloomed in the west like coloured ink spreading in water, Arthur and Maudie stood with Felicity and Gilly at the aft end of the sky-ship taking in the view of hills, rising and falling like gentle waves, criss-crossed with farm fields and woodland patches will full, blousy trees. It felt good to be under the wide sky again.

(Darkwhispers by Vashti Hardy. P86.)

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

Synopsis:

The Brightstorm twins are back for another adventure. Arthur and Maudie witness a burglary by their nemesis Eudora Vane. The very next day, Eudora announces a search for the missing explorer Ermitage Wigglesworth – the person whose house she has burgled.

Arthur, Maudie, and Harriet Culpepper are convinced that the search is a cover for something else. What could Eudora Vane want in the legendary Eastern Isles?

The Eastern Isles are almost impossible to find and hold many secrets of their own. The twins are separated for the first time in their lives in a territory which they hardly know. Will they be reunited? Will they work out what Eudora is up to in time?

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

Review:

A spectacular, high-flying sequel to hit adventure novel Brightstorm. This is perfect for readers who dream of big, daring adventures. With skyships and jungles and magical continents, Darkwhispers builds on the legacy of the first book as an exciting and intelligent story about exploration.

Arthur and Maudie are separated for the first time and this allows us to know them better as individuals. We see Maudie’s vulnerabilities and Arthur’s desperation to live up to his brilliant sister. Grief for his father causes him difficulties, and at times people write off his reactions as being grief based. Arthur’s emotional narrative plays a strong part in the story and he grows as a character. 

The new settings are as memorable as the old, and there are some new creatures, not least the Darkwhispers of the title.

There is not only a love for geography in these books but complete and heartfelt respect. The worlds are brought to life with care and detail. It feels as if Vashti Hardy must have visited them to give the reader such a clear picture. Her worldbuilding offers questions about our own world – could we invent power sources that do no harm to the environment? Are the other animals around us more intelligent than we give them credit for?

Vashti Hardy has confirmed herself as an exceptionally strong storyteller. Her narrative is told with a confidence that allows her imaginative ideas to soar. I look forward to reading whatever she writes next and hope that there will be a return to Arthur and Maudie’s world.

 

Thanks to Scholastic UK for my copy of Darkwhispers. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: A Sprinkle Of Sorcery by Michelle Harrison.

Review: A Sprinkle Of Sorcery by Michelle Harrison.

img_1280

Extract:

Betty took it, her heart beginning to beat fast again, but this time it was with excitement rather than with fear. She unfolded the paper carefully, but even as she did so she knew it was a map. Hand-drawn in black ink, with a decorative nautical star in the corner. 

(A Sprinkle Of Sorcery by Michelle Harrison. P72.) 

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

Synopsis:

The Poachers Pocket is on the market and Betty Widdershins is desperate for her family to leave Crowstone. Then, one night, the prison bell tolls, and a mysterious girl arrives on the doorstep, accompanied by marsh wisp.

Willow escaped the prison island with her mother. Her father has been imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. Then Charlie is kidnapped in Willow’s place, and the people who have her aren’t even who they claim to be.

The clue to freeing her, and saving Willow’s family, lies in an old map, a secret island, and a folk tale about three brothers.

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

Review:

The Widdershins are back. Their pinch of magic this time is matched by a folk tale about three brothers who were faced with a sprinkle of sorcery. With escaped prisoners, pirates and a magical island, this has all the ingredients of a fantastic tale.

Betty Widdershins takes Willow in at a great cost. Her own sister, Charlie, is kidnapped, and their granny is endangered by the same people who take Charlie. This constantly challenges Betty, as she battles with her consciene and the ultimate question – should she give up one child to guarantee the security of another? It is impossible to stop turning the pages as the stakes for everyone get higher and higher.

This exceptionally popular series introduces some new characters. There’s the ethereal Willow herself, who washes up in the night like a Dickensian waif. She’s tougher than she first appears, though, and this is what offers hope that the injustice that sees her father in desperate trouble will be reversed. Then there is Sniff. Sniff is introduced halfway through the book. He’s a pirate, right, tough as they get … except there’s more to Sniff’s story, too, than it first seems. There are also cats. Cats in all their glory.

Alongside the main story runs a folk tale about three brothers: Fortune, Luck, and Hope. Initially, it builds like any moralistic narrative. Fortune blunders his choices, valuing wealth over the right things. Luck has kinder values, but the wrong approach. Then things get interesting – because fairytales, as every reader knows, have at least some basis in real events, and real events are tied to specific locations.

This understanding of the relationship between place, narrative and real events underpins the series. Harrison’s Essex marshes begin with the real Essex marshes and a real folktale. Where that story originated from, of course, is left to speculation. The tales of the Widdershins sisters read exactly like that imaginative narrative. That if three magical sisters once lived on an island in the Essex marshes, then maybe they owned three magical objects … and with Harrison’s confident storytelling, it is possible to believe that those sisters are real people.

Michelle Harrison’s adventures promote a sense of wonder in the world. They are not only excellent narratives, but they leave the reader ready to embrace life and all the adventures it holds. A Sprinkle Of Sorcery is a triumph, and the Widdershins sisters are already listed among the greatest families of children’s literature.

 

Thanks to Simon and Schuster UK LTD for sending a proof copy ahead of publication. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

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

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

img_0661

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.)

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

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.

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

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. 

Young Adult Reviews

Review: D.O.G.S by M.A. Bennett

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

dogs

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.) 

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

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 …

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

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.

Middle Grade Reviews

The Trouble With Perfect by Helena Duggan

IMG_E6915.JPG

Extract:

Violet felt a pang of something, deep in her stomach. Why had Boy lied to her? He said he had to go home. And whose bike had he handed to Conner? A thought formed in her head, but she shook it off. It couldn’t be Lucy’s. It just couldn’t be.

She decided to follow them. Maybe there was a good reason for this whole thing?

Maybe Conner knew something about the eye plants? Maybe he was helping Boy, and Boy couldn’t tell her because … well, she didn’t know why Boy couldn’t tell her anything. They’d never kept secrets before – at least none that she knew about.

(The Trouble With Perfect by Helena Duggan. P61.)

birdbreak

Synopsis:

It’s no longer Perfect. Now it’s just Town.

Perfectionists and No-man’s landers have been living alongside each other in a unified town. There are no longer any rules to follow – people can be themselves and live without fear of being taken from their families.

Then strange things start to happen in Town.

First objects go missing, then children. Violet’s friend Boy is blamed, and old questions arise about whether anyone who is not absolutely perfect is fit to live alongside others. Violet confronts Boy, but he insists he has nothing to do with the disappearances. Why is Boy lying?

To find out what is going on, Violet must confront a terrible monster and figures from Town’s past.

birdbreak

Review:

Compelling and original, The Trouble With Perfect is a fantasy story which reminds me of Diana Wynne Jones. It follows on from A Place Called Perfect. Thanks to a handy catch-up guide at the front, it is possible to read the story if you haven’t read book one, but only if you are happy for spoilers.

The main theme of the book is acceptance. People who do not conform to one idea of normal, to one standard, have previously been expelled from the town and forced to live in a place where they are invisible. There could be no better metaphor for the attitude some people take towards mental illness. Towards neurodivergence. The book satirises conservative attitudes, including the idea of labelling and cutting up society into subgroups and shutting others away from their families and friends. It also shows how people with strong communication skills can turn others against their neighbours. Without using labels, it opens a conversation about empathy, tolerance and respecting everyone in society.

The monster storyline was very Frankenstein, although it has been reimagined to fit into this setting. This was an apposite reference – Frankenstein’s monster wanted human dignity.

I loved the setting – Town is almost a contemporary setting, except for the eye-plants which act as security devices and the creepy passages in the graveyard. It’s apparent normality – the committees and rules and day-to-day events – make the stranger aspects stand out.

A wonderful read which encourages readers to challenge the world around them and to respect everybody, not just the people laying down the rules. These themes are brought to live through a gripping adventure. I am looking forward to book three.

 

Thanks to Usborne Publishing for my copy of The Trouble With Perfect. Opinions my own.

 

 

 

 

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The Bear, The Piano, The Dog And The Fiddle by David Litchfield

img_7097

Hector plays his fiddle. Hugo the dog is one of his biggest fans. They have always been the best of friends. Now times aren’t so good and Hector has stopped making money from his music. He puts down his fiddle for good. 

When Hugo picks up the fiddle and gains a big following and joins a famous bad, Hector is jealous. At their parting, he says something he regrets. 

Will the two friends ever be united? 

birdbreak

A poignant and beautiful picture-book about the lasting power of friendship. 

David Litchfield is a rare talent. His story is as touching and memorable as his illustrations. This isn’t a one-read picture book. It is a story which will stick in your mind. 

I loved the themes of friendship. Even the best of friends fall out and our actions are often motivated by our emotions. Elderly Hector has always wanted to play a famous concert hall but never achieved that success. Seeing his friend rise to fame brings back difficult feelings and Hector says something he regrets. This would be a lovely story for talking to children about how arguments start. Hector is not a bad person. He is a sad person. That understanding can help children to empathise with each other and to understand that, often, nobody is at fault. 

The moment of reconciliation is touching and special. 

img_7098The illustration is top-rate. Litchfield captures the atmosphere of a big city – how it can be both beautiful and ugly, crowded and lonely. I particularly love his use of light – light reflecting from damp pavements. Windows glowing and streetlights casting a narrow beam. I grew up in London and can think of no picture-book which has ever captured this quite so well. 

This is the kind of arty, beautiful book which I would gift to adults. It is also going to be a big hit with the target audience – expect it to become a real favourite and one which your children remember beyond childhood. 

 

Thanks to Quarto Books for my copy of The Bear, The Piano, The Dog And The Fiddle. Opinions my own.

Young Adult Reviews

Review: Friendship Fails Of Emma Nash by Chloe Seager

img_6695

Extract:

How is it possible that just because Steph’s busy and Faith’s away, I have no one left?! Literally no one. How pathetic is that?! How do I only have two friends in the entire globe?! The entire globe of nearly eight billion people? TWO? Out of EIGHT BILLION?

Is that normal??!!

I’m Robinson Crusoe, sitting out on a tiny island all by myself. And no one’s coming to rescue me. 

(From The Friendship Fails Of Emma Nash by Chloe Seager.) 

birdbreakSynopsis:

Emma’s given up on love but all her friends are in relationships. Suddenly Emma isn’t sure what to do with herself and she misses the old dynamic of her friendships. This puts her on a mission to make new best friends. 

The school fashion show seems like the perfect opportunity to meet new people.

The result is a series of hilarious situations and mishaps. Emma is back online and she is unafraid to share all. 

birdbreak

Review:

Editing Emma was one of my surprise hits of 2017. By surprise, I don’t mean there was any reason the book shouldn’t have been fab. I mean I wasn’t certain it would be for me. I was late the party with contemporary YA and had just discovered what it fabulous genre it is when I read Editing Emma. The book had a distinctive, chatty voice and the characters stayed with me long after I opened the book. It reminded me what it was really like to be the teenager and its themes about online identity were totally up to date. 

Guess what? The sequel is fab too.

Lots of seventeen and eighteen-year-olds have to confront shifts in their friendship groups. Partners come and go, groups expand and reshape as young people move into sixth-form and there is the great big end-of-school looming over everything. That’s what is happening to Emma Nash. She may have sorted out her own love life but with her friends in relationships, she’s feeling pretty lonely. 

So Emma logs back online. 

I love how these stories explore the role of the internet in modern friendship groups. This is something which – until the past couple of years – wasn’t acknowledged in YA. It was like the unspoken taboo. Teens had a whole world online but people were afraid to encourage it. It is great to see books which honestly reflect how teenagers use the internet. Friendship Fails Of Emma Nash covers everything from trawling through profiles of people we vaguely know to awkward emails to how it can feel when the internet turns nasty. 

This book is also upfront about the things teenagers really talk about. Periods. Sex. This book is unafraid to visit the supposedly-taboo topics. Emma is unafraid to share everything – and I mean everything. She’s like that real girl you knew as a teenager who would give you regular updates on bra-size and period flow. The reader is reminded that these subjects are totally normal and hopefully this will give them confidence to have open conversations and challenge stereotypes. 

Another hit. Laugh, cry and nod your head in recognition. Emma is every-girl and she is your new fictional BFF. 

 

Thanks to Nina Douglas PR and HQ Stories for my copy of The Friendship Fails Of Emma Nash. Opinions my own.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Peril In Paris (Taylor& Rose Secret Agents) by Katherine Woodfine

img_6622

Extract:

For a moment, she saw Carruthers’s sneering face again, then heard the Chief say, ‘your friend is a very courageous woman’. Was the implication that she herself was not? But surely that wasn’t fair: her mind flashed at once through scenes of underground passageways and rooftops and standing in an empty Office, face to face with the Baron himself. But that had been different, she realised. Then she’d always had Lil by her side.

(Peril In Paris by Katherine Woodfine. P40.) 

birdSynopsis:

Taylor and Rose detective society is turning its hand to espionage.

Sophie and Lil are sent abroad on top-secret missions. Lil must play an undercover governess, while Sophie is posing as the niece of a recently dead professor. Although both girls have solved many mysteries, Sophie is uncertain how she will fare without Lil by her side.

Can the girls get to the bottom of the murder and intrigue before international security is threatened?

bird

Review:

The gang from Taylor and Rose are back and now they are having adventures on an international scale. I am a long-time fan of Katherine Woodfine’s mysteries and am pleased to see the same characters back in a different guise. By shifting the focus of the series, Woodfine has maintained the same characters but broadened the setting. Their adventures could now take them anywhere in the world.

The Taylor &  Rose series follows on from The Sinclair’s Mysteries. You could certainly read this first, but if you haven’t read the earlier books I can’t recommend them enough. They are set in an Edwardian department store and follow a group of young detectives.

Katherine Woodfine is the master of the overarching plot. I’ve said it before but this series confirms my conviction. Without giving too much away, things we learned as the Sinclair’s series came to an end have become the first plot-point in a new storyline. While every book has a standalone plot, there is also a larger story. Something which needs to be solved across the series. Peril in Paris not only sets up a new story, it follows neatly on from The Sinclair’s Mysteries.

Peril In Paris takes a fascinating look at European history. Although the countries in the book are made up, their politics and geography situate them in the middle of very real events. This would make a fascinating introduction to the political events which lead to World War 2 because it takes in a complex web of relationships and conflicts.

There are also some beautiful moments which pay homage to made-up European countries in past children’s literature. It was a delight to see those countries from a different angle.

I’ll make no secret that these are some of my favourite mystery-books of all time. They are complex, intelligent and have just the right mix of history and legend. Without any spoilers, it is difficult to say more. I know readers of these books aged between 8 and 70-something and the big kids wait as eagerly as the real ones for the next installment.

 

Thanks to Egmont UK for my copy of Peril In Paris. Opinions my own.