Friday, 18 September 2020

UPCOMING RELEASE: The House At The Edge of Magic by Amy Sparkes and Ben Mantle

 

Published: Jan 7th 2021 by Walker Books
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Heads up everyone! There is magical middle grade and then there is magical, MAGICAL middle grade! And, if you like a generous helping of humour and quirkiness sprinkled in amongst that magic then this is the book for you. In fact, this book is so magical that it should come with a warning:
Don't pick up if you don't believe in magic - for it will change your whole life.

Nine is desperate to escape her life as a pickpocket. Forced to steal in exchange for shelter, she has nothing she can call her own. But, when a tiny ornament falls from a lady's purse, Nine steps into a whole new world of impossibility.
As the ornament transfigures into a cursed house, full of magic and mystery, Nine is offered a deal. If she breaks the curse that has entrapped the strange and rather ridiculous residents inside, then she will receive a reward that will buy her freedom. But someone is watching! And, if Nine does break the curse, can she walk away from the house at the edge of magic?
 
This book is a magical Oliver Twist, full of characters that are as memorable and as loveable as the Dickens classic. That is where the similarity ends, however, for this read is far more magical than your average novel set in the nineteenth century. Crackling with spark and intrigue and humour, it is guaranteed to make you laugh your socks off and bust away those January blues. I mean, the cover says it all!

The characters are fabulous! From the moment Nine, a down and out, lonely and defensive protagonist, steps into the house, she finds herself in the company of a housekeeping troll, a rather incompetent wizard and a fierce Scottish spoon with a sword. The dynamics between all of them are simply hilarious and the pacey and hugely entertaining plot brings out the absolute best in all of them. I particularly loved the tea-cupboard scenes which shows off the extent of Amy Sparkes' fantastic imagination.

There's more! As well as a deliciously sinister and mischievous villain, there are puzzles to solve and a ticking clock. And just when you think the author can't possible pack anymore in, a skeleton falls out of the closet. But with family secrets piling up, can Nine uncover the truth about the curse?

The humour and quirkiness in this novel is balanced beautifully with warmth and heart. I adored the relationship between Nine and Eric whilst Flabberghast and the witch, with their entertaining but edgy banter, are akin to Merlin and Madam Mim from Disney's Sword in the Stone. Nine will resonate with readers as being a character who thinks she knows exactly what she wants, but who really needs a whole dose of love and it is her emotional journey that steals your heart at the end. 

For a middle grade, this is an easily accessible novel. It's slightly shorter length is perfect for reluctant readers but never fear- it is packed full of potency. There's literally not a dull moment in the tale. The storytelling is as captivating as a spell and by the time the sequel comes around, it will be like going back to have tea with old friends. 

To sum up in three words; this is a comfy, quirky, fantabulous read. It's the novel I wanted to read as a child and I have no doubt that my children are going to love it!

The House At The Edge of Magic is released on 7th January 2021 and is available to pre-order. A massive thanks to Amy Sparkes and Walker Books for allowing me to read the proof. 

Friday, 11 September 2020

The Leaf Thief by Alice Hemming and Nicola Slater

 

Link to publisher

Published by: Scholastic, September 2020

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Everyone who knows our family is aware of how much we love the change in season from Summer to Autumn. Hot chocolates, marshmallows, golden, crunchy walks and cosy stories are all on the agenda and this new seasonal release has to be one of our favourite picture books this year. 

Someone is stealing Squirrel's leaves! As he wakes up every morning to find more and more missing, his anger gets the better of him. Who is the culprit? Is it mouse? Woodpecker? Bird? Or is it someone or something rather more expected for the time of year? 

There's nothing not to like about this story. Squirrel makes for a great and amusing main character, brimming with personality. Bird's calm but waning patience provides the perfect antidote to Squirrel's panic and the glinting, copper-leaf cover and illustrations by Nicola Slater are visually stunning. 

With a lot of recent releases being in rhyme, it felt refreshing to read a book in that is not only written in prose but is mainly dialogue. Don't get me wrong, we LOVE rhyme in our family, particularly my autistic daughter who prefers memorising a text over the struggle of reading. However, it reminded us how great it is to have a balance and so much character is delivered through this dialogue that it is, without doubt, a book you will want to read again and again. My daughter certainly does!

This is a cleverly written autumnal story- perfect for teachers, toddlers and even tweens. It is as definitely as popular here with the adults of the house as with the kids. This is crying out to be read with cosy covers, a log fire and a creamy drink. Happy Autumn everyone!

Tamarind and the Star of Ishta by Jasbinder Bilan

 

Link to publisher

Published by: Chicken House Books, September 2020

👍👍👍👍👍

I nearly didn't get past the front cover of this novel. It has to be the most stunning book cover of 2020, right? And, it's even more beautiful in the flesh. Even after finishing the story, I'm still staring at it.

I'm ashamed to say that Jasbinder Bilan's debut novel Asha and the Spirit Bird is still sitting on my TBR pile. However, after the opening of this novel was published on the Chicken House website, I knew I wanted to dive straight into this one. And, trust me when I say that the story inside is as beautiful as the cover. 

Tamarind hopes that visiting her ancestral home in India will lead to answers about who her mother, Chinty, really was. But when she arrives, Chinty is shrouded in lost and hidden memories that no one will talk about. As Tamarind steps into a magical garden, she is guided towards a secret presence- a mysterious girl called Ishta. But who exactly is Ishta and why does she keep disappearing? In order to find the truth, Tamarind must follow a golden monkey, a glowing ring and unlock the hearts of her loved ones. 

This is a beautifully told story about grief, family tensions and hope that is laced with magic. It is set against the breath-taking wilderness of the Himalaya and is full of vivid imagery which brings every sense to life. It combines everyday family reality with the extraordinary - emeralds and stars, legends and spirits. It sears through the pain of grief and explores the raw emotions we feel when we lose a loved one and wish to remain close to them.

Tamarind is a fabulous character, full of questions and depth. Her desire to uncover the truth and identity of her mother overrides her nervousness at being left with family she's never met and makes her strong and fierce. Her difficulties with fitting in and adjusting to new foods is relatable and heart-warming and the book's other characters compliment her perfectly; Arjun allowing her to be soft and vulnerable and the shockingly aggressive Sufia bringing out the tiger within. 

Actually, Sufia and Nani are both great characters in their own right. Both show the complexities and deep impact that grief can have on an extended family. It reminded me very much of a similar, but less magical story, I read recently. Bauble, Me and the Family Tree by Jenny Moore, is also a story which explores the lasting effects of losing a family member. Set firmly in the UK, it reminded me that whatever country or culture we may belong to, families experience the same struggles all over the world and it's unity which essentially sees us through. 

The story and the setting are truly intoxicating. This is not a fast, dynamic read but a magical and enthralling meander through a garden and wilderness thronging with personal and mythical history. It's shorter length is perfect for a cosy, weekend read and it left me itching to read Asha and the Spirit Bird. 

*The Waterstones Exclusive offers an extra short story at the back of the book. 

Friday, 4 September 2020

UPCOMING RELEASE: The Ten Riddles of Eartha Quicksmith by Loris Owen


 Link to publisher

Published by: Firefly Press, 10th Sep 2020

👍👍👍👍👍

In my humble opinion, Firefly Press have turned out some of the best middle-grade books of 2020. So, when I got the opportunity to review The Ten Riddles of Eartha Quicksmith via Netgalley, I jumped at the chance. 

How glad I am that I did. This is everything that I would have wanted in a book as a young reader; mystery, adventure and...puzzles!

When squirl-drawing Pip Bramley is sent a cryptic invitation by a beetle drone, he doesn't realise that he'll soon be embarking on a new life at Quicksmiths School of Strange Energies. Soon, he and his new friends are embroiled in a race against time to solve the ten riddles of the legendary Eartha Quicksmith in order to locate the long hidden 'Ark of Ideas'. Pip desperately hopes that it may be the key to healing his mum. But there are others determined to beat him too it. 

Riddles may be hard to solve but they must be even harder to write and set-up. Loris Owen does an amazing job of keeping the characters and the readers on their toes with brilliantly seeded puzzles that are challenging, clever and unbelievably imaginative. The plot is pacey and completely immersive and I love how this book takes so many middle-grade classics -boarding school, friendship, long-hidden secrets- and turns them on their head to give a fresh, original feel. The boarding school teaches pupils about 'Strange Energies' - science not magic (although there is a definite magical quality to the story), the four friends are all gifted and talented, and their clever inventions places the historical aspect of the story hand in hand with the future. 

Pip is a great protagonist; likeable, easy-going but with a strong motivation to soak up everything he learns at Quicksmiths. His partnership with the amusing Albert works brilliantly and Leela and Timmi, along with Mowl and Pinky, complete the group nicely. Pip's past is sad, but in a slightly different way to those we have encountered in other MG stories, and his family history evokes a lot of emotion and investment in the story. Thag is the typical school bully, targeting Pip's group at every turn, but there's a good twist at the end. 

For me though, Eartha Quicksmith and her riddles are the star of the show here. The unravelling of the riddles is spectacular. With giant globes and secret studies, ominous clockwork knights and pirate ships shaped out of dust, it did remind me of the first Harry Potter book where the three main characters race to find the philosophers stone. 

There are a lot of awesome extras in this novel too, too numerous to mentions. Scaleface, the mysterious Prowler, doesn't feature much in the story but enough to create just the right amount of fear. Then there are the Skimmis, the curious teachers, the wormholes...it's just packed with excitement and imagination. I would have liked to read far more descriptions of the food, cooked by Chef Garibaldi, as what was mentioned sounded deliciously unusual. 

The set-up implies that there is probably more to come from this very talented author and welcome that with open arms. The standard of middle-grade this year has been astounding and this is right up there with the best. 

The Ten Riddles of Eartha Quicksmith is released on Spetember 10th 2020 and is available for pre-order. A big thanks to Firefly Press and Netgalley for giving me the chance to review. 

Wednesday, 2 September 2020

My Name Is River by Emma Rea

 

Link to publisher

Published by: Firefly Press, 2020

👍👍👍👍👍

I have to admit that when I saw the front cover of this book, I massively misjudged it. Despite being set in one of my favourite settings, the Amazon, I thought I was in for an easy-going, rather light-hearted read. 

How wrong I was! Emma Rea tells a thrilling tale which doesn't pull any punches when it comes to high stakes, nail-biting tension, desperate danger and ruthless adults. What's more it tackles tough and very relevant issues about child poverty and the devastation humans can wreak on the world's precious, natural habitats.

Dylan is distraught when he discovers his beloved family farm is being sold to large, international pharmaceutical company, Bluebird. But when he discovers that Floyd, a boy from his school, has a close connection to Bluebird and needs help, a crazy plan starts to form. While the rest of their class go on a Geography trip, Dylan and Floyd secretly fly to Brazil to find answers. But their plan soon goes disastrously wrong when Floyd is kidnapped and Dylan finds himself lost and alone on the streets of a favela. Can street kid Lucia, with her puppy and thesaurus, help him pull off a rescue plan deep in the Amazon?

I loved the ambitiousness of this plot, which is mainly set in the fascinating jungle wilderness of South America. Dylan was a great main character who felt very real. His love and loyalty towards his family and home was endearing and gave him a motivation which was bursting with heart. It was refreshing that he didn't enjoy or do well at school but was a confident, head-strong boy who revelled in his love of the outdoors. I adored his unique ability to see what flowed through other character's veins, which gave him an uncanny insightfulness rather than magical qualities. 

However, as much as I loved Dylan, it was Lucia who truly stole my heart with her big heart, her quirky, humorous language (all thanks to her precious thesaurus) and her general exuberance for life despite having nothing and no one, except for her Great Dane puppy. To have a pair of characters so fired up with hope and determination and ambition made this story hugely unique and enjoyable - to the point that one night I found myself too enthralled to go to bed.

Miss. Crassy and her henchman, Anton, were the antipathy of Dylan's loving family and Mac; cruel, ruthless and powerful grown-ups who were prepared to go to shocking and rather brutal lengths to protect their vile secrets. Through them, the positive and empowering ambition of Dylan and Lucia was flipped on it's head to show how deadly it can be when coming from a place of greed not love. The protagonists' pure motivation meant we were rooting for them from the first to last page. 

I could probably spout on all day about this novel but if you are looking for a fantastically written, high impact tale which will challenge readers to think and feel all kinds of big emotions about issues that need to be thought about then this is it. It encourages all of us to speak up for what we are passionate about (although not perhaps by putting ourselves in such extreme danger as Dylan and Floyd) and I can see it being a fantastic novel for teachers to use in the classroom to enhance curriculum topics and initiate discussion. Simply a must read!

NEW RELEASE:The Littlest Yak by Lu Fraser and Kate Hindley

 

Link to publisher

Published by: Simon and Schuster 

Released: 3/9/2020

Stop press! The Yaks have arrived! This is yet another picture book which has been much anticipated in our house and the day my request to view it via @NetGalley was granted, our pre-ordered copy arrived. And, what a treat! For Gertie is every bit as adorable as we have been led to believe. 

This tale is perfect as we head into seasonal change and the colder, darker half of the year. The Yaks in their warm woolly get-up makes for a superbly eye-catching front cover, with Gertie stealing the show in the centre. However, she isn't too happy about being the smallest of the herd...

Although Gertie is great at being small, she dreams of being all-grown up and as big as the others. But despite doing everything in her power to grow, it just isn't happening fast enough and Gertie is down in the dumps. Everything changes, though, when she is asked to do something that no other Yak can do - something VERY important. Can Gertie manage to do a BIG thing, despite her smallness. 

Over the years we have read other stories about animals who wish they were bigger, braver, smarter or faster but NEVER about a yak. And who would have thought that yaks would make such brilliant picture book characters. Credit for this must be shared between debut author, Lu Fraser, for choosing such an unusual, stand-out creature and for making Gertie's story completely adorable, and Kate Hindley for bringing them to life in such a bold and unique way. The colour palette alone is as enticing as it is dreamy and, well, Gertie speaks for herself.

The plot is pacy and dramatic, with mountains of tension mixed with light-hearted fun. The scenery may be icy cold but it's sets the scene for a tale bursting with hearty warmth. The rhyming language is a delight and full of onomatopeia; pattering, clattering, plopping, springing. We particularly loved the opening line, "On the tip of the top of a mountain..."

The message, clear all the way through, is a classic but crucial one for little readers, most of who will have wished away their childhood at one time or another. You don't have to be big to do BIG things and while you're at it, don't wish the time away. Gertie's bravery and determination comes from within and that's what makes her special.

This is definitely a book to share together with a blanket, fire and a huge jug of hot chocolate and marshmallows. It evokes that wonderful cosy, satisfying feeling which is exactly what you need from a bedtime story. 

The Littlest Yak published tomorrow, Thursday 3rd September and is available to pre-order. 

A massive thank you to Simon and Schuster and Netgalley for allowing me the opportunity to read and review. 



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