Showing posts with label Book review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Book review. Show all posts

Sunday, 9 May 2021

Children's Books Reading Round-Up: March - April 2021

 A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll (Knights Of)

I've been a bit behind on this one as it has been around since June last year. In fact, I've had a copy sitting on my shelf for a while and my daughter had already read it and enjoyed it. Oh, and everyone else on Twitter had been raving about it and Elle McNicoll only went and won the 2021 Blue Peter award for best story with this amazing little book. It tells the story of Addie, an autistic girl who decides to campaign to have a memorial to women who were tried and executed as witches in her Scottish village. In the so-called witches she finds a kinship - perhaps they were just different and were persecuted for it? With lots of eye-opening moments, Elle McNicoll portrays what life can be like for several different neurodiverse children and young adults (one of Addie's big sisters is autistic too), celebrating what Addie is capable of because of how deeply she cares. On a personal note, I found Addie's parents to be inspirational - something for me to aspire to!

A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll can be found on my Read By My LKS2 Daughter book list on Bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/read-by-my-lks2-daughter

The Elephant by Peter Carnavas (Pushkin Press)

I wasn't sure what to expect with this one as on the surface it looks like a story for very young children (KS1) - and it is, but it has depth and beauty that will have something to say to readers of all ages. It reminded me a lot of My Dad's A Birdman by David Almond - which is a very good thing in my books. Olive's mum, an adult reader will surmise from the outset, has passed away, and her dad is grieving. In fact, he is grieving so much that his grief is the size of an elephant - an elephant that Olive sees following her dad around everywhere he goes. Olive decides that she can and must help her dad to become happier again - a huge undertaking for a child - and thankfully her granddad steps in to help her to achieve this, pointing out that she can't manage the task alone. Together, they work to bring some moments of happiness in to her dad's life. No spoilers, but the ending is lovely and very satisfying as an adult who was concerned for Olive's wellbeing throughout the story.

The Elephant by Carnavas can be found on my Children's Fiction - Reading For Empathy book list on Bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-reading-for-empathy

Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep by Philip Reeve (David Fickling Books)

I battled against myself with this one - with a publishing date of September I felt that I shouldn't read it until nearer the time. But, being a massive Philip Reeve fan, I couldn't leave it sitting on the shelf any longer. Was I disappointed? Why would I be? This is Philip Reeve and he is a master storyteller! Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep is very different to his previous series of books (Mortal Engines, Fever Crumb, Railhead etc) as it isn't futuristic/post-apocalyptic sci-fi - this time its folksy fantasy set possibly in Edwardian times, but on a remote island in a fictional archipelago of the United Kingdom. There are too, in this story, some aspects of horror, slightly reminiscent of some of H.P. Lovecraft's creations - not the racist bits but the mysterious submerged kingdoms, the strange beings that frequent the shores of the island, and the eerie sense of disquiet that surrounds so much of the action. Having said that, there is a great warmth to this story which is essentially an exploration of what it means to belong to a family as Reeve weaves his cast of richly developed characters into the plot. Given that Philip said himself that things have changed since the proof copy and that the final thing will include a map and chapter header illustrations, I might just have to read it again when everyone else can get their hands on it too.

Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep by Philip Reeve can be found on my Children's Fiction 2021 book list on Bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-2021

Can You Whistle, Johanna? by Ulf Stark, Illustrated by Anna Höglund, Translated by Julia Marshall (Gecko Press)

Can You Whistle, Johanna? was chosen as a short read whilst in between books, not wanting to commit myself to anything longer, and I'm really glad I did. Apparently, this book is a bit of a hit in Sweden where a televised version is shown every year, and I think I can see why. Despite the deception (a boy is persuaded by his friend to find himself a grandfather at a local retirement home) this is such a heartwarming story of intergenerational friendship. Berra meets Old Ned and, along with Ulf, they become great friends, sharing experiences and memories, and essentially enriching one another's lives. With a refreshing openness and honesty, this book tackles aging and death alongside its message that fun, fulfilling life is for people of all ages but that we must enable one another to achieve it.

Can You Whistle, Johanna? by Ulf Stark can be found on my Children's Fiction 2021 book list  on Bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-2021

Animal Farm by George Orwell, Illustrated by Chris Mould (Faber)

Obviously a book that's been around some time, and one I've read, or had read to me, before. This year it was republished by Faber, only this time chock-full of Chris Mould's lively illustrations. Is it a children's book? Apparently so, and of course it can be read entirely without any political interpretations, however, as an adult I certainly enjoyed it on a new level, trying to match events to my scant knowledge of the Russian Revolution but also pondering the UK's current political landscape too. Chris Mould's illustrations certainly bring this much closer to being a book that today's children might pick up and enjoy, particularly those who are familiar with his illustrations of, say, Matt Haig's books or his version of Ted Hughes' The Iron Man. Energetic in style, the images do a brilliant job of mirroring the descent of the farm's utopian veneer, with Mould particularly nailing the facial expressions and body language of the animal subjects. I'm really glad I re-read this this year, and I'm really thankful for the new version - Chris really makes this new version a visual treat. 

Show Us Who You Are by Elle McNicoll (Knights Of)

I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to read this one before publishing this blog post - my reading of late has been taken up more with books about how to better parent an autistic child. However, a lovely rainy Saturday during which my children were miraculously entertained by magnetic balls and screens meant that I got the chance to read the second half of this in one go. And I have to say I was absolutely bowled over by this book. Cora, the main character, is autistic, and this fact is absolutely integral to the plot, this is not just a book about an autistic person. It's actually a sophisticated sci-fi, unnervingly oh-so-slightly dystopian story during which the reader will gain a whole load of insight into what being neurodiverse might be like. Not only is Cora autistic, but Adrien, her best friend, has ADHD. Show Us Who You Are is almost completely different to A Kind Of Spark (although there are some similarities, the main one being the MC's desire and ability to stand up for what is right), marking Elle McNicoll out as a superbly skilled writer, and if she wasn't already, one to watch as she continues to write and publish. In this book she achieves deeper depths and higher heights, smashing the mould of the growing trend for diverse, representative books which focus mostly on highlighting the plight of a marginalised group. Here we have a book that truly shows that diverse characters can and should be seen in any role in any genre and that actually the story is all the better for it. I actually can't praise this book enough.

Show Us Who You Are by Elle McNicoll can be found on my Children's Fiction - Reading For Empathy book list on Bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-reading-for-empathy

The Beast of Harwood Forest by Dan Smith, illustrated by Chris King (Barrington Stoke)

Pete, Krish and Nancy appear once more in another short but action-packed adventure from Dan Smith. This was another book I picked up knowing I had I would be able to take in the whole story in a short time. School residential stories have an evergreen appeal and they are ripe for a bit of spookiness. Very quickly Dan Smith evokes the necessary aura for a midnight exploration to go badly wrong. With nods this time to comic book capers (I'm thinking Captain America and The Incredible Hulk), The Beast of Harwood Forest taps into some WW2 vibes whilst ensuring that those Stranger Things vibes continue to resonate throughout. Without wanting to give too much away, this high interest/low level reader has a super-satisfying ending - it really is a marvel that a story can be told so well over so few pages. Helping with this are Chris King’s perfect illustrations which, as you can see from the cover, are spot on for the comic book vibes. Inside the pictures are greyscale and Chris works with tone so well that they suit the spooky content to a tee - I am so glad the publishers choose to have these books illustrated. Barrington Stoke books are a must-have for every library, and its books like these that showcase perfectly what they set out to achieve (which you can read more about here).

The Beast of Harwood Forest by Dan Smith can be found on my Children's Fiction - Supernatural & Spooky Tales book list on Bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-supernatural-spooky-tales

Friday, 2 April 2021

Middle Grade Reading Round-Up: February - March 2021

Murder on the Safari Star (Adventures on Trains #3) by M.G. Leonard & Sam Sedgman, Illustrations by Ellie Paganelli (Pan Macmillan)

The third in the series, and I was ready for everything this one had to give. Hal and Uncle Nat once again meet a cast of colourful characters (some of whom you might feel like you know already) in this (dare I say it) enjoyable whodunnit for children. I think it is a fairly brave move to have a murder in a children's book, and the events of the story should rightly raise some discussion points. The book, although an intriguing mystery in an exciting setting (complete with all the animals you'd want from a safari through Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia), is a good starting point for discussing good and bad, right and wrong as well as how different people might respond to death. Leonard and Sedgman have really nailed the format in a child-friendly form and those who've kept up with the series will be beginning to be adept at picking up on the clues needed to be sleuthing as they read.

'Murder on the Safari Star' is available now and features on my Children's Fiction 2021 list at bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-2021

Space Oddity by Christopher Edge, Illustrations by Ben Mantle (Chicken House)

A book about life and the things that matter, all rolled up in a story about a boy who discovers he is part-alien. The last book I read by Edge was The Longest Night of Charlie Noon which I felt was aimed at a slightly older age group than Space Oddity - this new one could easily be managed by 8 or 9-year-olds. Apart from being a twist on the classic abducted-by-aliens narrative from the old days of Sci-fi this book is actually a sweet ode to human creativity. Whilst acknowledging that people have done a lot of damage to our planet, it also celebrates the beautiful things that we have created. Of David Bowie's 'Space Oddity' Jake's alien dad says: "...songs... tell us what it means to be alive. This was the most beautiful song I'd ever heard. And a human being had made it. I thought if they were capable of this, then maybe they weren't as primitive as we though they were." Every child who has ever felt embarrassment at how weird their parents can be will relate to this brilliantly-told story.

'Space Oddity' is available now and features on my Children's Fiction 2021 list at bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-2021

Melt by Ele Fountain (Pushkin Press)

Two stories intertwine in the cold, unforgiving Arctic as a subtle message about climate change and human irresponsibility is passed on to the next generation. Bea is a city kid, tired of moving around with her dad's job and suffering bullying at yet another new school. Yutu lives in a remote Arctic village with his grandmother who holds to a simple, traditional way of life. After Yutu decides to try and prove himself as a hunter out on the tundra, and as Bea crash-lands a plane as she flees her father's attackers, they are brought together in the freezing environment and theirs becomes a race for survival. Those who have read and loved Bren MacDibble's books, or Nicola Penfold's 'Where The World Turns Wild' will love this, as will those who have read 'Viper's Daughter' by Michelle Paver ('Melt' is a like a modern-day version). In the mold of a classic adventure story, complete with bad guys but with a truth that must be uncovered rather than a treasure to be discovered, 'Melt' is a testament to friendship, determination and all-important know-how.

'Melt' will be published on 29th April 2021 and features on my Children's Fiction 2021 list at bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-2021

City of Rust by Gemma Fowler (Chicken House)

Sci-fi again, but set in what I assume to be a post-apocalyptic world, ruined by human wastefulness. So far have humans gone with their refusal to reduce, reuse and recyle, that they have taken to flinging their trash into space. However, the poor of the earth are resourceful, and there's plenty they can do with the rubbish, so long as the Junkers can get it down to them. We meet Railey and Atti, her bio-robotic gecko in Boxville, where they are star drone racers. What they don't know is that they have been training for years - training to save the world from the revenge of those who hate the way of life in the Glass City. Fowler's creations are a treat for the imagination and although Karl James Mountford's cover is absolutely stunning I'd also love to see some artistic representations of the world we are shown in 'City of Rust'. In an original adventure, perfect for fans of Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines and Railhead books, Gemma Fowler spins a tale of loyalty, ingenuity and derring-do whilst making an important statement about the potential consequences of materialism.

'City of Rust' is available now and features on my Children's Fiction 2021 list at bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-2021

The Chessmen Thief by Barbara Henderson (Cranachan Publishing)

Historical fiction - probably my favourite genre. Even more so when it is medieval historical fiction. This, set in Norway, the Hebrides and the Orkney Islands in the 12th century, is a Norse tale after Henry Treece's Viking books for children. 'The Chessmen Thief', an imagined origin story for the famous Lewis Chessmen, paints much of the culture in a positive light, including the influence of Christianity. Henderson paints a vivid picture of life for slave boy Kylan as he pines for his mother whilst plotting and scheming to make his escape. The descriptions of people, place and actions great and small are so evocative of times gone by and it is easy to feel that one is there, among the people, able to smell the sea air and feel the excitement brought about by the creation of these innovative and exquisite pieces of craftsmanship. This book is a fantastic addition to the growing number of titles focused on the Viking age, this one made more rare by not focusing on activity post-1066.

'The Chessmen Thief' will be published on 29th April 2021 and features on my Children's Fiction 2021 list at bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-2021

The Life and Time of Lonny Quicke by Kirsty Applebaum (Nosy Crow)

If M. Night Shyamalan wrote middle grade fiction, then he'd write something like 'The Life and Time of Lonny Quicke'. Kirsty Applebaum has already mastered the art of making a reader feel unsettled for the whole duration of a book, and in this one she does it again. Bringing folk tale aesthetics to the modern world, Applebaum spins a supernatural story of life and death. What makes this stand out from some other children's books that might be categorised similarly, is that very little suspension of disbelief is necessary: only does the reader need to allow themselves to accept that Lifelings, people who can prevent others from dying by giving up some of their own life, are indeed real. This brilliantly-spun yarn provokes many moral questions and is a great device to really get children thinking about self-sacrifice and serving others. And once they've read it, get them to think about how clever the title is.

'The Life and Time of Lonny Quicke' will be published on 6th May 2021

Sunday, 14 February 2021

Book Review: 'Front Desk' by Kelly Yang

'Front Desk' by Kelly Yang has already done its thing in the US, and now the excellent folk at Knights Of have brought it to the UK. As such it's already been reviewed plenty of times and has racked up 18,000 ratings on goodreads.com, averaging at 4.41 - all entirely deserved.

'Front Desk', a middle grade novel based partially on the author's own real life experiences as a child pairs the scariness of the immigrant experience with the optimism of a child. In parts the events are very bleak as systemic inequalities are exposed, albeit through the eyes of a young teenager who still has the power to hope for more. Indeed, Mia does more than just hope and this is a story of proactivity and camaraderie, one which celebrates the power and necessity of diversity.

Despite gut-punch moments - when Mia's parents receive the hospital bill after her mum is robbed and beaten, for example - 'Front Desk' is a joyful story, the reader always buoyed by Mia's resilience and fortitude. Her work ethic and ability to problem-solve are inspiring and, although tough to read, children will cheer Mia along through every adversity that she overcomes.

It is true, however, that some of Mia's solutions rely on dishonesty, and this should be discussed openly with young readers of the book. But, more important should be conversations around the harsh treatment of migrant workers, not only in the US but in the UK also. As well as an enjoyable read, this book could also serve as a call to action for children to find out more about the difficulties that people face when they move to a new country in search of employment. Mia and her family, as well as the 'weeklies' (the almost permanent residents of the motel), put a human face to the issue which will help children to understand and empathise with people in a similar position to that of Mia's family.

'Front Desk' is also a loud celebration of how working together, regardless of ethnicity, financial circumstances or age, should be, could be, the driving force behind society. In a world where so much of the media seems to be divisive and reductive in its messaging, it is a breath of fresh air to read something that gets it so right: with a little kindness, understanding and collaboration, things get done! And with a surprise ending that I didn't see coming, I'm all ready to read the next book 'Three Keys' which Knights Of have published simultaneously.

'Front Desk' is available on bookshop.org and is featured on my Stories From America booklist: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-stories-from-america

Saturday, 13 February 2021

Book Review: 'The Graveyard Riddle' by Lisa Thompson

Ever since reading Lisa Thompson's first book 'The Goldfish Boy' I've been a fan of her ability to draw humour, mystery and real life together into something that children absolutely can't wait to get their hands on. In fact, in our house, she is one of only a few authors who the majority of us have read: Lisa is up there with JK Rowling in terms of how many of us have read her books!

'The Graveyard Riddle' picks up where 'The Goldfish Boy' left off, this time focusing a little more on Melody Bird as the main character. Again, Lisa deftly includes details of life's difficulties as the backdrop to the story: Matthew is still going to therapy for OCD, Melody's parents are splitting up due to a secret her dad has been keeping from them and the house has to be sold, meaning that Melody has to leave her home. Jake is being bullied by their neighbour and teacher and he is struggling with his behaviour at school - elsewhere in the book quite serious mental health issues are tackled too, as well as neglect of children. 

Although this all seems quite heavy, you'll know if you've read her previous books, that the author treats each issue carefully, sensitively, and in a way that children can relate to. In fact, if children have experienced similar things I think they would be comforted by seeing themselves in a book, and children who haven't experienced these things will have the chance to develop empathy for others who have.

But 'The Graveyard Riddle' isn't at all just a vehicle to tackle the above. Over and above that it is just a cracking mystery story, and one which really gets the reader guessing and then second-guessing themselves.

Melody meets Hal hiding out in an old plague house in a part of the graveyard that she's never visited before. Hal brings Melody into his mission: to apprehend the dangerous criminal, Martin Stone, and together they solve riddles and stake out the graveyard, spying on him as he visits. However, when Melody has to let Matthew and Jake in on what's going on, doubts are raised: is Hal really who he says he is? What is he really doing in the plague house?

'The Graveyard Riddle' is a great read for children and adults alike: Lisa is skilled at writing that dual-layer narrative that Disney does so well, ensuring that there is plenty to appeal to all. In fact, one great angle to this story is the interplay between adults and children: something which isn't always present when children are the protagonists.

Full of heart and warmth, this middle grade mystery is an easy and compelling read, perfect for children in Key Stage 2 and certainly not at all unsuitable for Key Stage 3 children either. And if you're a parent looking for a good read aloud, or a teacher wanting to stay in touch with children's literature, then 'The Graveyard Riddle' is the perfect title for you.

The Graveyard Riddle by Lisa Thompson is available on bookshop.org and features on my Read By My UKS2 Daughter list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/read-by-my-uks2-daughter

Saturday, 30 January 2021

Book Review: A Vanishing of Griffins by S.A. Patrick

I have a habit of reading several books at the same time. Each of the books that I'm reading simultaneously are of a different genre so there is no confusing of plots - in fact, most of the time I only have one fiction book on the go. I think it is a very good habit. It allows me to pick and choose a book that suits my mood and, more importantly the time time of day: if I read heavy non-fiction before bed then my sleep is very disrupted, for example.

Whilst reading 'A Vanishing of Griffins' I was also reading 'Prisoners of Geography' by Tim Marshall and here's where there are further benefits of reading multiple books concurrently: Tim Marshall's book had caused my mind to think geopolitically, and so, when I picked up a children's magical fantasy book which is ostensibly rooted in a fairy tale, I saw things I wouldn't have otherwise seen.

Indeed, I noticed things about the whole fantasy genre which I'd not really stopped to consider before. Despite knowing, for example, that JRR Tolkien based much of his Middle Earth on Anglo-Saxon Britain (a time when geopolitics were surely everything, that and religiopolitics of course) I hadn't really considered how the wider genre might also represent other examples of geopolitical stories.

'A Vanishing of Griffins' is the second in the Songs of Magic series, the first being 'A Darkness of Dragons'. S.A. Patrick's latest book picks up where the story left off, and thankfully it features a recap of what has happened so far. Patch (a piper who can play magical songs), Barver (a dracogriff) and Wren (a girl cursed into the form of a rat) are in pursuit of the terrible Piper of Hamelyn who is bent on world domination, and will go to any lengths to get it. But the plot, unlike some stories aimed at the Middle Grade age group, is a little more complicated than that.

In fact, there are sub-plots a-plenty, ones which mainly revolve around mysteries that must be solved, people that must be helped and things that must be found in order for the Piper of Hamelyn to finally be found and vanquished. Reminiscent of classics of the genre - The Wizard of Earthsea, Eragon - this is an adventure quest where solutions do not come easily to the protagonists. In fact, they come up against bureaucracy and red tape as often as real-life peace-keeping missions probably do. As they travel through a world caught in the constant flux of war and peace, where power struggles are rife and political and military allegiances can change with the wind, their good vs. evil quest is a perilous and arduous one.

Whilst the backdrop may be political, the strongest theme is true friendship: the sacrifice, the willingness to go to great lengths to help loved ones, the kindness and commitment to anyone who finds themselves in need, particularly the oppressed. Wrapped up in a world of dragons, pirates and magic is an example to all children who, in reality, are growing up in a world just like the one portrayed in 'A Vanishing of Griffins'. Sure, they might not be able to call on magic to save the day, but they should be able to call on friendship.

If you are up for joining the gang on a journey that takes in being fed to a monster by a pirate king, discovering magical texts in a secret underground vault, rescuing the inhabitants of a town under fire, discovering lost relatives and fighting battles against dark forces, then this book is for you. Although, I would strongly recommend that you get hold of book 1 first to really benefit from the whole story (it can be found on my Children's Fiction - Fantasy & Magic list on bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-fantasy-magic).

A Vanishing of Griffins by S.A. Patrick is available on bookshop.org and features on my MG Fiction Books January 2021 list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/mg-fiction-books-january-2021

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Book Review: 'The Perfect Parent Project' by Stewart Foster

I keep wondering whether I should stop reviewing children's books at all - it is time-consuming and sometimes the desire to wax lyrical about something that has been lovingly crafted by a real writer just doesn't present itself. However, since my blog gets a respectable number of hits, and people do read my reviews,  I suppose I feel duty-bound to continue writing them. The urge to actually read the books in the first place rarely deserts me, and hardly do I ever choose to read one which disappoints. In fact, most of the time the books I read really are worth talking about. 

So here I am, ready to enter into another year of reviewing children's books, and kicking things off with the latest book from, I will admit, a favourite children's author of mine: Stewart Foster with his 'The Perfect Parent Project'.

'The Perfect Parent Project' is in the vein of Stewart's previous books in that it centres on a character who represents a potentially marginalised group of children. Sam is a foster kid, and although he loves his support worker, Rock Star Steve, he dreads the day when he'll bring the news that he is moving on from his current foster carers. Avid readers of Foster will have come to expect an absolute spot-on rendition of the child's voice, and this one is no exception: the reader is put well and truly in the shoes of Sam as he searches beyond his current foster family for his perfect parents.

And the heartache feels real. Sam plots with his friend Leah to find his perfect parents, not realising how well things are going with Reilly and his mum and dad. After spying his perfect parents and contriving to get to know them, Sam finds himself spinning a web of lies that eventually ensnare him. Unable to keep up the pretense Sam jeopardises all his closest relationships in his bid to make new ones. Readers, adults and children alike, will recognise that Sam's happiness really lies closer to home than he thinks; the downward spiral Sam creates for himself is sure to generate a sadness in readers of all ages.

Yet, this isn't purely a sad book. Again, Foster's writing is full of humour - a perfect antidote to the emotion of the main storyline. Sam remains upbeat for the majority of the story and his optimism carries the reader onward: although I knew what ending I wanted, I genuinely wasn't sure if I was going to get it. Given that this is a story that contains no real dramatic set-piece moments, it is full of drama, and as a result is extremely compelling - the desire for Sam to stop digging himself into deeper holes hooks the reader in.

As well as being an enjoyable story, this is one of those books that should get children thinking. Orphaned children are a staple of stories for children - many Disney movies, for example, rely on children having no parents so that they can get up to all sorts of mischief. But here we have a much more realistic interpretation of what it is like not to know one's birth parents, and to be seeking a loving home. Here we have a window into a world that, for many children, will be one that they have no experience of. And perhaps, for some children, this will be the opportunity to see something of themselves represented in story form. Either way, it feels right to have this experience acknowledged rather than fantastically exploited.

 Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children's UK (January 21, 2021)

'The Perfect Parent Project' is available on my Children's Fiction 2021 book list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-2021

Friday, 4 December 2020

22 Great Middle Grade Books From 2020 (Part 2)

Turns out that before lockdown (v1), and during much of it, I was pretty disciplined in my reading and reviewing of books. Many of the titles on this list were given a full review and so, I will quote myself a fair bit in this second part of my 22 Great Middle Grade Books From 2020 list. 

If you missed part one, then you may want to give that a read too: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/12/20-great-middle-grade-books-from-2020.html

Here goes with the second part of my list:
 
Talking To The Moon by S.E. Durrant (Nosy Crow)


I love S.E. Durrant's books - I am a massive fan of Little Bits of Sky so I jumped at the chance to read and review her latest: 'A mystery novel for children who don't like mystery novels. Usually, children's books which centre around some sort of mystery to be solved are full of high adventure and often verge on being scary - not for everyone. But 'Talking To The Moon' is different: it takes a family drama, one which many children will relate to and adds a dash of the unknown, enough to keep any reader pondering throughout the book.' (Read the rest of the review here: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/03/book-review-talking-to-moon-by-se.html)

Talking To The Moon can be found on my Children's Fiction - Reading For Empathy bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-reading-for-empathy

DustRoad by Tom Huddleston (Nosy Crow)


DustRoad is one of those books that you don't really ever forget - it's cinematic scenes are etched into my memory as if I had been there as the events unfolded. I wrote similar things at the time of reading it: 'This book is so cinematic I ate popcorn as I read it, I kid you not. Every page sees the reader's retinas seared with images so lucid, if not a little hazy from desert dust, that it is impossible not to feel like you are living the action. And in 'DustRoad', action there is a-plenty.' (Click here for the full review: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/04/book-review-dustroad-by-tom-huddleston.html). And if you haven't read it's predecessor, then you'd better get hold of a copy of FloodWorld too.

FloodWorld and DustRoad can be found on my Children's Fiction - Dystopia & Sci-Fi bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-dystopia-sci-fi

Viper's Daughter by Michelle Paver (Zephyr)


I'd never read any of Michelle Paver's Wolf Brother books before but when this one dropped through my letter box I was more than willing to give them ago. I was immediately drawn into a prehistoric world where magic might just be real, and long-since extinct creatures certainly are. With an exploration of the arctic circle and tribalism, the story had a wonderful conclusion, which I just can't spoil for you but the awe and wonder check box was well and truly ticked. I've yet to return to the earlier books in the series, but I certainly intend to. Here's my full review of the Viper's Daughter: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/04/book-review-vipers-daughter-by-michelle.html

Viper's Daughter can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-historical-fiction

Wink by Rob Harrell (Hot Key Books)


From my full review of Wink: 

'Wink' by Rob Harrell tells the story of a pre-teen boy who is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, one which has attacked the gland that produces tears. It is a book that made me both laugh and cry in equal measure and it deserves a huge audience. Imagine if you will, a less saccharine version of RJ Palacio's hit MG novel 'Wonder' - that's what this is. It's all very real and very raw which is not surprising since it is semi-autobiographical in a sense: the author was inspired to write the book after suffering the exact same cancer as the book describes, albeit when he was 37 and not 11. Here's the link to read the rest: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/04/book-review-wink-by-rob-harrell.html

Wink can be found on my Humorous Children's Fiction bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/humorous-children-s-fiction

Do You Know Me? by Libby Scott and Rebecca Westcott (Scholastic)


Can You See Me? was a massive hit in our house so we were all excited when the follow-up Do You Know Me? was published. It continues the story of autistic Tilly, and given that it is co-written by Libby Scott, a young autistic girl, it gave me a huge insight into what home and school life can be like for autistic children. As a father of a girl on the waiting list for an assessment I actually found both books to be quite difficult to read as so many of Tilly's characteristics are reflected in one of my daughters. However, the fact that much of the story felt close to home meant that I found the book immensely enlightening, both as a parent and a teacher.

Can You See Me? and Do You Know Me? can be found on my Children's Fiction - Reading For Empathy bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-reading-for-empathy

Mohinder's War by Bali Rai (Bloomsbury)


'Mohinder's War follows the story of Joelle, a French/British girl living in France during the Nazi occupation. She, her family and their friends are a part of the resistance and when a downed RAF pilot needs hiding, he is taken into the home of the Bretons and concealed in their cellar. The pilot is Mohinder Singh, a character based on a real life RAF pilot who flew in the Second World War. He and Joelle strike up a friendship - Joelle keeping him company and sharing her local knowledge, and Mohinder teaching her about his homeland and Sikh faith and opening her eyes to philosophies regarding life.' Read my full review before choosing to give it a child as there are some warnings: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/05/book-review-mohinders-war-by-bali-rai.html

Mohinder's War can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - World Wars bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-historical-fiction-world-wars

The Infinite by Patience Agbabi (Canongate)


The Infinite is an intriguing sci-fi adventure centering on time travel. Once you've got your head around the concepts that the book is based on, you are taken on a completely unique adventure, the likes of which I've never encountered before neither in film or in children's literature. Here's my full review of the book: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/08/book-review-infinite-by-patience-agbabi.html

The Infinite can be found on my Children's Fiction - Dystopia & Sci-Fi bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-dystopia-sci-fi

The Highland Falcon Thief by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman (Pan Macmillan)


The first of two books in 2020 from the duo's Adventures on Trains, The Highland Falcon Thief had that Agatha Christie vibe that was oh-so-missing from the MG market. To be honest, they had me at 'Adventures on Trains' and I wasn't disappointed. There a plenty of train-y facts and details and the constraints that are placed on the narrative by the fact that the action has to take place (largely) on a train make for a really cleverly-written story. In fact, a story that I enjoyed so much that I was more than ready for the follow-up...

The Highland Falcon Thief can be found on my Children's Fiction - Mystery & Detective Stories bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-mystery-detective-stories

Kidnap on the California Comet by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman (Pan Macmillan)


Everyone knows that American railways are very different from British ones, so a hop across the Atlantic made immediately for an almost entirely different story, except for there are still trains and there is still a crime to solve. Tension is ramped up (sorry, I know that has been one of the absolute worse phrases of 2020) by the fact that this time a child's life is in peril. As with the first book, the reader is kept guessing (even adult ones) in true crime mystery style. An absolute romp of a book with a brilliant cast of potential criminals to suspect of dastardly deeds.

The Highland Falcon Thief can be found on my Children's Fiction - Mystery & Detective Stories bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-mystery-detective-stories

Empire's End - A Roman Story by Leila Rasheed (Scholastic)


I read the whole Voices series in 2020 and have nothing but high praise for them. This one is set in one of my favourite historical periods, and in one of my favourite places: Roman Britain. It's rooted in true history and in this respect is very eye-opening: 'The gripping and fast-paced story is all carefully interwoven with historical fact: a Roman emperor from Libya did live and die in York, archaeological research has shown that those with black African heritage did live in Britain during the Roman period and that people from all over the Roman provinces ended up marrying each other and having children. In 'Empire's End' Rasheed imagines how one such character may have ended up in Britain, despite having been born in North Africa.'

Empire's End can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-historical-fiction

Where The World Turns Wild by Nicola Penfold (Stripes)

This is one of those books that you finish and immediately decide there needs to be a sequel. By the end of the story the reader is fully satisfied by the outcome but so invested in the characters and the world that they have no choice but to be left wanting more. Close to the bone for 2020, this story features a virus which has been deliberately released by environmentalists, a blight which wipes out half of the world's population in a bid to re-wild a concrete planet (this was certainly one of the conspiracy theories circulating back at the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak). Nicola Penfold does a great job of navigating the ethics in this dystopian novel, celebrating both human life and the preservation of environment. I think this was one of my absolute favourites of the year.

Where The World Turns Wild can be found on my Children's Fiction - Dystopia & Sci-Fi bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-dystopia-sci-fi

The Mask of Aribella by Anna Hoghton


I'm casting my mind back on this one as I read it at the back end of last year, however, it is still crystal clear in my mind. Set in Venice and featuring a gondola-load of menace and peril, this story as an absolute magical belter. Check out my review of the book (here: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/01/mask-of-aribella-anna-hoghton.html) and Anna's guest post about masks (here: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/01/world-of-masks-anna-hoghton-aribella.html). Here's a reminder of one my most pretentious attempts at metaphor in a book review ever: 'The story skims along at a cracking pace, yet, just as with the wooden piles on which Venice is built, there are foundations that run deep - the power of friendship and family, trust and responsibility provide a solid base for this dark tale of good versus evil.'

The Mask of Aribella can be found on my Simon Smith's Favourite Longer Reads For Children 2020 bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/simon-smith-s-favourite-longer-reads-for-children-2020

Finally, if you've got this far, I'd love to hear your recommendations as to which other 2020 MG books are worth a read. Drop me a comment on the blog or on Twitter: https://twitter.com/thatboycanteach

Wednesday, 2 December 2020

22 Great Middle Grade Books From 2020 (Part 1)

I feel like this year I've read far fewer of the newly released middle grade books - I think I've read more grown-up books this year, particularly more adult non-fiction, and I've read a few older children's books too. 

However, I've read a decent number of really great books released for children in 2020 - enough to share a few in a round-up blog post. Now obviously, because I've not read all the books published in 2020, I can't call this a 'best of' list, so instead it is just a list of really great new books to add to your shelves or put under someone's Christmas tree.

In no particular order, here are the first 10:

The Midnight Guardians by Ross Montgomery (Walker)

twitter.com/mossmontmomery

A historical, magical tale which sits so comfortably in a long tradition of children's literature and makes for an original but familiar-feeling read. Readers will feel the warm homeliness of such classics as the Narnia stories and The Wind in the Willows whilst recognising the gritty realities and family drama of war that they've read of in Goodnight Mr. Tom and Carrie's War. The Midnight Guardians brings together two worlds at war, weaving folklore, magic and oh-so accurate historical fact together into a truly engaging race-against-time tale of dark versus light.

The Midnight Guardians can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - Fantasy and Magic bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-fantasy-magic

The Night Bus Hero by Onjali Q Rauf (Hachette)


After the huge success of The Boy At The Back Of The Class, and it's follow-up The Star Outside My Window, Onjali Rauf was back in 2020 with another modern tale of derring-do. Interestingly, this time it's the turn of a school bully to take the role of protagonist. As in all good children's stories, his transformation slowly takes place as he begins to understand more about the plight of homeless people: a bid to impress his mates with his unkindness leads to him both witnessing, and helping to solve, a crime. This modern mystery story is certainly a page-turner, and just like it's predecessors is a celebration of the difference children can make in the world.

The Night Bus Hero can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - Mystery & Detective Stories bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-mystery-detective-stories

Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu (Old Barn Books)

twitter.com/a_reflective

Quite a few books have been published in recent years which portray the plight of refugees. Boy, Everywhere sits nicely between books aimed at older children, such as Boy 87 and Illegal (which have a slightly more graphic portrayal of the harsh realities involved in seeking refuge in another country) and The Boy At The Back of The Class and The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle (which don't go into as much detail but rather focus on the realities of life after making the often hazardous journey). Boy, Everywhere provides the modern parallel to books about World War 2 refugees such as The Silver Sword and Number The Stars, providing a realistic picture (which has been praised by people who have experienced similar circumstances to those portrayed in the book) without some of the more distressing, potentially age-inappropriate details that sadly are the experience of some refugees. A very compelling read.

Boy, Everywhere can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - Refugee Stories bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-refugee-stories

Noor-Un-Nissa Inayat Khan by Sufiya Ahmed (Scholastic)

twitter.com/sufiyaahmed

Just before hearing about this book I had discovered Noor Inayat Khan during some research for a year 6 topic focusing on the role of women and children in the world wars, so when I did discover this I was very keen to read it. I was really pleased then to win a copy in a competition from charity Making Herstory. Sufiya Ahmed does a cracking job of retelling a well-researched, child-friendly version of the key events in spy Inayat Khan's life. As a woman of Indian descent and the first female radio operator sent to Nazi-occupied France by the British SOE, it is an incredibly important story to be told, one which exemplifies how people of many ethnicities played a part in World War 2. Great for children to read alone but equally suitable as a curriculum-linked read aloud.

Noor-Un-Nissa Inayat Khan can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - World Wars bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-historical-fiction-world-wars

The House of Clouds by Lisa Thompson (Barrington Stoke)

twitter.com/lthompsonwrites

A short story this time from Lisa Thompson for the ever-excellent Barrington Stoke (who specialise in books designed specifically for dyslexic readers). In this story of loss and hope, grief and guilt, Lisa blurs the lines between dreams and reality and ultimately leaves the reader questioning but willing to believe that there actually is just a little bit of magic present in this world. Tackling the difficult subject of losing a family member and the regret of not appreciating them enough in their lifetime, this story follows a girl's journey of discovery as she investigates the links between her grandad and a mysterious artist. A brilliant little tale for those who need a grown-up feeling book but don't always find reading the easiest thing to do.

The House of Clouds can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - Short Reads bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-short-reads

The Invasion of Crooked Oak by Dan Smith (Barrington Stoke)

twitter.com/DanSmithAuthor

Chris King's cover illustration says it all, really. Bikes, supersoakers and an undead army is exactly what you get in Dan Smith's excellent short reader for Barrington Stoke. Opening up a market for books inspired by 80s movies that the kids of today probably haven't even seen but would love if they watched them, The Invasion of Crooked Oak will certainly appeal to adults of a certain age as well as children who just want an awesome, spooky, mystery adventure (and this is what plenty of children want). If you haven't got this for your class bookshelf, then do, and prepare for the next installment coming next year.

The Invasion of Crooked Oak can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - Supernatural & Spooky Tales bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-supernatural-spooky-tales

The Monsters of Rookhaven by Padraig Kenny (Pan Macmillan)

twitter.com/padraig_kenny

More spookiness now in this Adamms Family-esque thriller. A strange assortment of otherworldly beings are confined to the grounds and house of Rookhaven, supplied and kept secret by the local villagers. Two siblings, a brother and sister, stumble through a tear in the magic veil and find themselves involved in a cruel plot to rid the world of the kinds of people who call Rookhaven their home. With amazing black and white illustrations from Edward Bettison, this book feels like very few others I've read - darkness permeates the book, yet the more the reader becomes familiar with the family, the more they realise there is real light in them. A subtle call to respect and love those perceived as outsiders, this beautifully-written story should be widely read and loved. Read my review for more: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/08/book-review-monsters-of-rookhaven-by.html

The Monsters of Rookhaven can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - Supernatural & Spooky Tales bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-supernatural-spooky-tales

Eating Chips With Monkey by Mark Lowery (Piccadilly Press)


This was one of those books that you pick up in an idle moment, begin to read and then get totally hooked by. I loved the combination of serious subject matter and absolute hilarity - Mark Lowery takes sensitive content and treats it respectfully whilst allowing the reader to see the funny side of the events. After a traumatic accident, Daniel, an autistic 10-year-old, retreats into himself, only relating to his toy monkey and seemingly deaf to his family's attempts to help him. The narration alternates between Daniel (and the monkey) and his sister Megan as the family set off on a road trip to find the best fish and chip shops in the country in an attempt to help Daniel to recover. An uproarious read, one which one of my daughters has read cover-to-cover several times, which I would recommend to absolutely everyone!

Eating Chips With Monkey can be found on my Read By My LKS2 Daughter bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/read-by-my-lks2-daughter

After The War by Tom Palmer (Barrington Stoke)


Winning plaudits left, right and centre, Tom Palmer did it again this year with his portrayal of how children liberated from Nazi concentration camps learn to live again in the reviving surrounds of the Lake District. Based on careful research and focusing in on three friends Tom writes with such care and verve, bringing true events to life for a new, young audience. Back in March, just before we went into lockdown I reviewed the book and had this to say in summary: 'A tale of hope, friendship and altruism that is all too relevant in the current times we are living through.' Little did I know how those current times would turn out!

After the War can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - World Wars bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-historical-fiction-world-wars

Crater Lake by Jennifer Killick (Firefly Press)


Another spooky mystery story - it's been a good year for them! This one reads like a comedy horror movie aimed at children, taking the year 6 school residential as its inspiration. It's probably a good thing that residentials were cancelled this year as any 11-year-old who'd read this would probably have a few nightmares about going away for a couple of nights. It's enough to put off any teacher planning a residential too, especially since the book basically features a virus - albeit an alien-induced one - that rips through the participants and staff with great efficiency. Anyway, I raved about it in other ways in my review, so have a read of that if you need further convincing: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2020/03/book-review-crater-lake-by-jennifer.html

Crater Lake can be found on my Children's Historical Fiction - Supernatural & Spooky Tales bookshop.org list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-supernatural-spooky-tales

Thursday, 6 August 2020

Book Review: 'The Monsters of Rookhaven' by Pádraig Kenny

As a pair of down-on-their-luck siblings, Jem and Tom, stumble through a tear into the hidden grounds of an eerie manor house, the reader is drawn through the closed doors of Rookhaven and into a world of intrigue. In fact, the reader almost becomes Jem as the story focuses less on her and more on what she discovers as she spends more time with The Family.
With great skill Pádraig Kenny sets to work, in the subtlest of ways, weaving motifs and feelings seemingly drawn from classic and contemporary literature and film. The effect of this is highly successful - in an instant the reader will feel a comfortable discomfort as intertextual synapses spark reminiscences and remembrances of other stories they have experienced. The magic that Kenny weaves is all in the fact that despite the nods and references, 'The Monsters of Rookhaven' feels like a highly original piece of work - indeed, one that had me on the edge of my seat.

Perhaps the reason for this is that 'The Monsters of Rookhaven' turns some of the most common classic horror* tropes on their head. Like Shelley's Frankenstein, the 'monsters' are misunderstood and there is more to them than meets the eye. One particular character, Piglet, who is a key player in the events of the book, is a monster who, locked up for years, never seen even by the others in The Family, has a secret weapon and it is most certainly not what you think it is. And it is this secret weapon which brings the story to a beautiful, healing, albeit highly dramatic, conclusion.

The illustrations in this book more than warrant their own paragraph in this review: the black and white woodcut print-style illustrations of Edward Bettison are something else. The images lend real gravitas to the story, giving 'The Monsters of Rookhaven' a real classic feel and making the cover stand out from the current pack of more contemporary-looking children's books. The double page spreads are excellent, providing a feast for the eyes yet not revealing unnecessary details which are best left to the reader's mind's eye - this really is a masterclass in illustration for books aimed at this age range.

One of the enjoyable aspects of this book is that it is just a brilliantly told adventure with just enough magic to be believable and exactly the right amount of elaboration to keep a reader guessing whilst feeling like they get it - I enjoyed reading a children's book that didn't appear to be moralising as I read it. However, once finished, I was left with an understanding: empathy is the enemy of division. I hadn't realised as I read that here was a tale of how communities can be divided, and how certain influential characters can use this division to their own ends, to the point where they provoke and stir up dissension - certainly a tale for our times. And I applaud Pádraig Kenny for this, his ability to leave the reader be as they read but to leave them with life-changing message.

*although this book is influenced by some classic horror and sci-fi it is not at all too scary for its intended audience of Middle Grade readers.

The Monsters of Rookhaven by Pádraig Kenny and Illustrated by Edward Bettison is out on 17 September 2020 (ISBN: 9781529031492)

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Book Review: Diver's Daughter by Patrice Lawrence

I've previously reviewed two other books from Scholastic's Voices series (here and here) and, after reading the first, I did not intend to stop there. 'Diver's Daughter' by Patrice Lawrence was next on the list.

Not exactly based on a true story, but involving one very real and pivotal character, this book is rooted in the true, often untold history of Black people in Tudor England. Having read the section in David Olusoga's Black and British that dealt with the Tudor period I had recently become more aware of the fact that there were hundreds of people from Africa or of African descent living in Britain in the 16th Century.

Eve is a Black Londoner, living, at the beginning of the story, a poor life in Southwark with her mother, a Mozambican by birth. Moving around, getting work where they can, they dream of a better life. Eve's mama is a diver and, faced with a chance to earn some real money in Portsmouth where the Mary Rose has sunk, they make a perilous journey in order to attempt to make their fortune, or at least in search of a better living. Along the way they are beset by illness, untrustworthy companions and ultimately, by their poor circumstances.

Upon arrival, things seem to look up for while, but not for long. The pair struggle to find work, and even the famous African diver Jacques Francis (historically significant not only as being lead salvage diver on the sunken Mary Rose, but also as the first Black person recorded to have given evidence in an English court) doesn't want to help them. They suffer the rejection of the townsfolk, betrayal by supposed friends before the racist viewpoints of the time lead to the kidnap of Eve's mama.

As well as being a thrilling, albeit sad, adventure, the book also evokes many other details of a time gone by - descriptions of living conditions, architecture and every day life as well as explanations of royal lineage and the tussle between religion and politics all ensure that young readers might even learn a thing or two as they read.

Providing, as I believe is the purpose of this range of stories, a way into Black British history for Key Stage 2-aged readers, this book is a great starting point for more learning around the ethnic diversity of Britain in Tudor times. Expertly written and exceedingly evocative, Patrice Lawrence's compelling narrative reveals, in a palatable way, the harsh realities of living in historical England as someone who is part of an ethnic minority group. A must for bookshelves at home, at school and in libraries.

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Book Review: 'The Infinite' by Patience Agbabi

'The Infinite' by Patience Agbabi felt like a very unique read. What made it unique, I asked myself as a I read it - it was clear right from the beginning that this was something else.

Well, perhaps, it is the fact that you are plunged headlong into a world which at first, you do not understand. And there are layers to this world.

Perhaps the one layer is to do with the fact that Elle lives with her Nigerian grandmother - beautiful snippets of Nigerian culture are scattered throughout the story. Obviously some readers will understand and identify with this, but for this White British reader it was a great opportunity to learn more. I was, however, able to identify with Elle's grandmother's strong Christian faith - another thread that runs through the book.

The next layer to the world that the reader enters upon opening up 'The Infinite' is that Elle has some un-named additional needs. Given that the story is told from a first person perspective, this comes into play a lot. As such, characterisation is strong: the reader really gets to know Elle. We know she needs to sit under tables in certain situations; we know sometimes she spends days without speaking as she deals with trauma. And in this way, understanding of the world Elle inhabits grows as progress is made through the book. It's not only the protagonist who is characterised well - Elle's first person narrative is open and honest - she speaks the truth about the people she encounters in the story meaning that the reader builds up a great picture of the diverse cast of Elle's friends and acquaintances.

And then there is the fact that Elle is a Leapling - one who is born on the 29th of February - who has The Gift - specifically, the gift of being able to time travel. It takes some time to adjust to what is actually a very well-thought-through concept of time travel, and it is this that will draw any curious reader further into this book. Essentially, this is crime fiction, but very much complicated by the fact that crime can happen across time if perpetrated by others with The Gift. The story concludes satisfyingly and logically - a testament to the fact that the parameters of Agbabi's concept of time travel are very well-communicated throughout the book.

'The Infinite' is a really inventive, imaginative and innovative book - I've certainly never read anything quite like it. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Book Review: 'Spaghetti Hunters' by Morag Hood

Writing children's picture books that are loved by both adults and children can't be easy. But there is one avenue, open only to the most skillful of writers and illustrators, which, if nailed, is a sure-fire way to appeal to both parties in the pre-bedtime reading session: surreal comedy.

Morag Hood combines her bold illustrations with limited wry text to hilarious effect. From the zany story line (a duck has lost his spaghetti and is aided in its attempted retrieval by a character called Tiny Horse, who is, indeed, a tiny horse) to the seemingly-incidental props (duck lives in a teapot, Tiny Horse's lecture on the finding of 'the trickiest of all pastas', the peanut butter which forms part of their hunting equipment) every word, every image has been selected for humourous purposes. 'Spaghetti Hunters' is (age appropriate Reeves and Mortimer-style frivolity in picture book form. When this is featured on Cbeebies Bedtime Stories it would only be right for Noel Fielding, or someone of that ilk, to read it.

'Spaghetti Hunters' is a celebration of more traditional pastimes - reading books, going fishing and home cooking are all on the table here - and is a gentle challenge to children (and perhaps some adults) as to where our food comes from. And whereas many books for children of this age focus on a harmonious, friendly relationship, Duck and Tiny Horse's friendship is a little more strained. During the story Duck, although clearly agitated (the eyebrows give it away, and the mental image of a duck trying to stomp off) by Tiny Horse's seemingly-pointless antics, demonstrates the patience needed when your friend has different ideas to you.

Morag Hood more than understands the necessity for images to mesh seamlessly with the words - the greatest outcome of this in this book is that the characters are so well portrayed - you know Duck and you know Tiny Horse within a few pages and, by the end, despite Tiny Horse's misplaced enthusiasm and single-mindedness, you feel like they are your friends. The rich but uncluttered illustrations make re-reading an extra pleasure - why do they need matching hats for spaghetti hunting?!

A perfect launch pad for some back catalogue delving (I'd heartily recommend 'The Steves'), 'Spaghetti Hunters' is a great bit of fun and has been a hit in my household with children across the primary age range. Books that are supposed to be funny are easily come by, but books which genuinely are don't come along all that often: Morag Hood's quirky style shines again in this one - a necessary addition to your child's bookshelf, for sure.

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Book Review: 'The Dog Runner' by Bren MacDibble

The fact that I read this review copy just over a year of it being published is testatment to the fact that I loved Bren MacDibble's last book so much that I knew I had to keep this on my TBR&R (To Be Read and Reviewed) pile until I had the time to give it the attention I suspected it might deserve.

I'm glad I kept it there on the shelf, ready for such a moment: the moment being lockdown during a worldwide pandemic straight after I'd read Jack London's 'The Call of the Wild' (Goodreads review here). It's funny how things conspire together - I think I may have read this book very differently had we not been a couple of months into COVID-19 restrictions.

You see, 'The Dog Runner' is set in Australia in the near future following the spread of a fungus which has killed pretty much all plant life, but crops in particular. People in cities are struggling to survive and the best hope is out in the country where fewer people are competing for resources. Ella and her half-brother, Emery, head out on a treacherous journey in the hope of making it to Emery's mum's house. They leave behind their dad who is searching for Ella's mum after she was designated as a key worker and drafted who-knows-where to work for 8 months.

Picking up on key themes from 'How To Bee', MacDibble once again excels as she tells a tale laced with environmental and family themes. It is no mistake that readers of this will close the book with thoughts and questions in their heads: Should I begin to learn how to survive without all the things I currently take for granted? Do I need to learn how to grow my own food? What does family really mean? Who would I want to be with if I was in a similar situation?

If you've read post-apocalyptic or dystopian fiction before, or indeed films within these genres, then you'll have a pretty good idea of the kind of plot line you'll find in 'The Dog Runner'. Two kids on the run, fighting for survival against both the elements and potential enemies, placing all their hope and energies into reaching a place where they think they will be safe the the forseeable future. The Australian setting, the dog team, the nature of the disaster that has become the world and the family scenarios are the context in which the adventure unfolds.

But this certainly isn't a depressing book. It is full of light and beautiful moments between the characters, and between them and their dogs. Seeds of hope are sewn throughout the book - indeed, there are some positive plot twists where ordinarily you might expect events which plunge the protagonists further into the pit - and, ultimately it is not all doom and gloom in the end.

The real beauty of the book is that there is a message of hope for the reader - the events of the book are something that we can perhaps avoid, and if not, can be prepared for. It celebrates togetherness and collaboration and it encourages responsibility when it comes to food. On this second point, the story could germinate further exploration of where the food we rely on for life comes from and how it is produced, and what are alternatives might be if we want to live more sustainably.

All in all, a cracking adventure with plenty of tension and a novel setting for the action to take place. 'The Dog Runner' is an ideal introduction to a genre which is popular for teens and adults, but less so for younger readers. Suitable for children aged 10+.