Sunday 24 January 2021

New release: Darwin's Dragons by Lindsay Galvin


Link to publisher

Published: 7th January 2021, Chicken House


Despite studying history at university and reading lots of adult historical fiction, when it comes to historical novels for children I don't feel like I've covered a lot of ground. There's the wonderful novels by Emma Carroll, The Valley of Lost Secrets by Lesley Parr, The Water's Daughter by Michelle Lovric and The Vanishing Trick by Jenni Spangler but this is definitely a genre I'd like to read more of with my little readers.

Cue Darwin's Dragons, a stunning middle grade novel, where these mythical creatures are woven into the fabric of real historical fact. This is a history and a science lesson with an extraordinary magical twist- where imagination takes flight in the form of golden, fire-breathing creatures and where the reader can walk in the footprints of one of the most famous scientists ever known.

When Syms Covington, assistant to Charles Darwin, falls overboard in a storm around the Galapagos, he is washed ashore on an unexplored volcanic island. There he lays eyes on a species no one knows exists. Soon, it's not only Covington's survival that hangs in the balance but how far will he go to keep these creatures safe?

This tale is a rich tapestry of storytelling. It sews fact and fiction together in a seamlessly written plot that involves volcanic eruptions, dragon's eggs, a fiddle and Queen Victoria. Covington and Darwin are strong and likeable characters with an interesting master/servant dynamic but, for me, it is the lizard, Farthing, that steals the show in terms of character. Sharply intelligent, lively and adorable, she is definitely the teacher of this lesson- allowing the reader and Covington to uncover surprise after surprise and to discover more and more about this magical species.

Despite being grounded in fact, this story was highly unpredictable, with a brilliant twist. It followed the journey and the work of Charles Darwin more closely than I'd anticipated, giving it a feeling of deep authenticity. There are strong themes of ecology, friendship, loyalty balanced with the exploration of right and wrong. I particularly loved what Queen Victoria brought to the plot and it was lovely to see her in her younger years. 

The ending, although leaving much to the imagination, was satisfying and moving. Covington's motivations and decisions shone as brightly as Farthing's eyes and the dragon's scales. So many aspects of this tale are fascinating that it will no doubt encourage readers, young and old, to want to find out more about the history, the science or the people of this time. Highly original and cleverly constructed, this novel is thrilling, adventurous, dangerous, compelling and truly beautiful.

Tuesday 19 January 2021

UPCOMING RELEASE: Crater Lake Evolution by Jennifer Killick


                                                                  Link to publisher

                                                     Published by Firefly Press: 20th May 2021


The bugs are back! And whilst that is SERIOUSLY not good for Lance and co, it's fabulous news for every reader who enjoyed Crater Lake last year. The 2020 middle grade release, written by Jennifer Killick and published by Firefly Press, seemed to create more impact than the meteor that not only made the crater at Crater Lake Activity Centre but brought alien spores with it. And it's not surprising that the first book went down a storm - it had been on the edge of my seat and, most importantly, kept me wide awake! But now it seems the bugs were not defeated after all...

Five months after the year six school trip of nightmares, Lance and his friends are no longer a tight -knit group. Struggling with the transition into high school, things have got tense. But nothing reunites a friendship like the threat of an alien take-over and some seriously strange things are happening in the group's hometown of Straybridge. 

After an odd explosion at the university, the town is put under a precautionary curfew. But Lance's mum is acting weird and he's certain the bugs are back. Now it's down to him to heal the rifts that have cracked his crew apart so together they can battle to save their loved ones, their home...and the world. 

Just like the first book, this brilliant sequel kicks off with spine-tingling action, a fast pace and bags of sharp banter. Killick has the uncanny ability to nail dialogue between twelve year olds and it is the interaction between Lance's loveable, but humorously dysfunctional group that make these novels such a fab read. Every character brings their own distinct personality, their own very relatable issues and, in the case of the sequel, their own axe to grind. The group has fallen apart and yet it is their deep bond and their ability to overcome the challenges that face them that makes them so loveable...and, in fact, so highly functional at battling the enemy. This is a group whose strength is equal to those in Stranger Things and The Goonies. Furthermore, as an adult fan of The Walking Dead, the whole group ethics and plot was right up my street. 

Crater Lake Evolution doesn't offer quite the same spooky setting as Crater Lake. However, with the threat being so close to home-or even inside Lance's home-the stakes are at an all-time high. Not only are their own lives at risk but the lives of everyone they hold dear are under threat. I loved that the bugs had evolved and I also loved the clever way the spores were being transmitted- it not only made sense but made the plot fresh and unpredictable. The only brilliantly predictable things was Don't. Ever. Fall. Asleep. 

As with the first book, this is not for the faint-hearted. Your palms will be sweaty and your heart will be thumping but, again, Killick keeps the action within the boundary of age appropriateness as long as horror is your genre. You may not want to read it under cover of darkness but rest assured, if you do, you'll feel like part of the group. 

Overall, this is another cracking read which not only delivers a creepy, blood-pumping plot but which explores the difficult realities of transitioning into high school, the pressures young people face, the strength and beautiful nature of friendship and the power of teamwork and unity. It is as heart-warming as it is chilling, as funny as it is scary and I guarantee you are in now danger of falling asleep whilst reading it. 

A massive thanks to Firefly Press and Netgalley for allowing me to review an early copy. Crater Lake Evolution is now available to pre-order. 

Monday 11 January 2021

UPCOMING RELEASE: The Last Bear by Hannah Gold and Levi Pinfold

Link to publisher

Published: 18th February 2021


Everyone is talking about this upcoming release. The cover is stunning and Michael Morpurgo has labelled it 'unforgettable'. Therefore, when a review copy was posted on Netgalley, I clicked to request it without a second thought.

I'm so glad I did. In three words this book is raw, wild and all about connection; connection with the planet, with the elements and April's connection with her majestic Bear.

    When April's father lands a job recording temperatures on Bear Island, the pair travel north for a solitary six months in a snowy wilderness. With the ice-caps around the island having melted, polar bears can no longer reach it and the island is practically deserted.

    But April is certain there is one polar bear still living on the island...and when she is proved right, her life changes forever. Never before has she experienced such depth of friendship. With Bear stranded and struggling to survive, can April find a solution to save him before she has to say goodbye?

This is exactly the type of book I have been hoping to share with my seven-year-old reluctant reader. Despite it's icy setting, this story will warm the cockles of your heart as well as filling it with sorrow. The poignant themes of loss and grief-something both April and Bear have experienced-are beautifully woven into the story and Hannah Gold explores them with depth and sensitivity. As much as I loved April's deep connection with Bear-which is a two-hander for most of the story-I also loved the exploration of April's difficult relationship with her father. April's dad is flawed through pain and grief and his realisation of how he has neglected his daughter is truly moving.

The character of Bear is simply glorious. Sadly, his story carries a grim ecological message to humankind and yet Gold writes it in a way that is raw and impactful but not didactic. She captures the beauty of our planet with awe-inspiring descriptions that capture the true power of nature. The writing is sensory and you can literally smell the ice and snow of Bear Island, the freezing salt of the sea and the wilderness of the mountains. I also adored all the descriptions of the food. Yum!

For a story with few characters and with many scenes featuring just April and Bear, the plot felt pacey, fresh and compelling. The story didn't end as I predicted but instead rose to a shocking and daring climax that literally had me gasping in shock. April is a wonderful protagonist; determined and strong-minded with a heart of gold and you root for her and her cause more and more with every page-turn. 

The Last Bear is a magnificent fictional story grounded in fact and truth. It carries a moving and inspirational message that every reader, young and old, will benefit from reading. However, for our next generation this story is vital. It has a heart as big as April's and Bear's and it would be wonderful to see it being used widely by teachers in the school curriculum. 

The Last Bear is available to pre-order from online bookshops and will be released on 18th February 2021. A big thankyou to HarperCollins and Netgalley for granting me a review copy.

Saturday 9 January 2021

The Monsters of Rookhaven by Padraig Kenny and Edward Bettison


Link to publisher

Published: September 2020


One of the main reasons why I enjoy writing book recommendations is because, once upon a time, probably 90% of the books I read were recommended to me. Even now, over 50% of the books we read in our house still come through recommendations (with the rest sourced from authors we have already come to love through...yes, you've guessed it, recommendations).

The Monsters of Rookhaven was no exception. Even after spending tons of time on social media and online bookshops, this author was shamefully not on my radar until I received a recommendation a couple of weeks ago. I bought it second hand and dived right in, this is a truly stunning narrative and one of the most haunting, compelling and unique reads I have come across in a long time. 

Mirabelle knows she is a monster - part of the 'family' that resides at the hidden and protected Rookhaven estate. But when the glamour that offers that protection is torn, two unexpected visitors arrive and Mirabelle discovers that friendship can come from the outside world. But not all in the outside is good. Evil is lurking and the family are in terrible danger- from a monster that is hiding in plain sight. Will Mirabelle lose everything she holds dear and even her own life?

This is a challenging, upper middle grade read and not for the faint-hearted. It has a dark, ethereal feel and is shrouded in shadow and mystery and intrigue from the get go. The set-up is unique, the writing is stunning and the characters are some of the best I've ever met. Mirabelle is strong, compassionate and unyielding, Uncle Bertram is funny and endearing and Piglet simply left me speechless. I had huge compassion for Freddie and Jem and Tom and I loved the emotional rawness that accompanied each and everyone of them.

The themes run deep in this novel but it is my no means all doom and gloom. Padraig Kenny injects some brilliant humour through the character of Uncle Bertram and through Mirabelle's dealings with Daisy and Dotty, making this story, in many ways, a parallel of the Adaams Family. Family is a key theme all through the novel as is the impact of grief and loss and cruelty. Mirabelle doesn't know who she is but, as she begins to find out, she becomes more aware of these harsh aspects of life -something Jem and Tom and Freddie are already dealing with.

I loved that the novel was set during the war without being specifically about the war. Through his depictions of the village people, Kenny managed to convey the crippling sadness and devastation that crushed communities after the extensive loss of loved ones. Piglet's extraordinary passages insightfully presented the truth to the reader like a dagger to the heart - leaving a unbelievably poignant impact.

I could talk about this book all day. The Malice is both terrifying and brilliantly written but Piglet for me, remains the star of this book, and maybe of all literary characters. I didn't find the plot particularly fast-paced but yet it is completely compelling. I think the joy of this book is literally spending time with the characters and, in the words of the publisher, this book "explores difference and empathy through the eyes of characters you won't want to let go."

Kenny explores the concept of monsters in such an interesting and relevant way in this book. In our society, people we label as 'monsters' or people we are scared of because they are 'different' are often anything but monsters. Yet real monsters walk amongst us in plain sight, undetected but wrecking havoc through lies, manipulation or evil deeds. This is the crux of The Monsters of Rookhaven; to develop empathy for the so-called monsters, whilst learning to identify the real ones. It is a text essential for the curriculum and I can't quite stop thinking about it.

January releases: Picture Books full of hope, belief and the power of the imagination...

Hooray for January 7th! Not only was the day wonderfully sunny but it also marked a whole host of new children's books being released into the world - a bright array of picture books, chapter books, middle grade and young adult destined to lift our spirits in these difficult times. 

Some of these books we've already had the pleasure of reviewing. The Boy Who Met a Whale by Nizrana Farook offers up a thrilling Sri Lankan adventure whilst The Valley of Lost Secrets by Lesley Parr takes us deep into the Welsh countryside, alongside evacuees Jimmy and Ronnie, in a enthralling story that is bound to be a future classic. Meanwhile, story godmother Amy Sparkes has conjured a spectacular magical fantasy with The House at the Edge of Magic, beautifully illustrated by Ben Mantle. These are just a few recommendations from a brilliant selection of new offerings, many of which we still have to read. 

It was a double whammy for Amy Sparkes on Thursday, as she also released her picture book, The Secret of Me, published by Studio Press and illustrated by Sandra de la Prada. 

This book sends a strong and inspiring message to young readers: Dream big and never put limits on what you can become. As we follow the children in the story, who are considering what they want to be when they are older, we are taken into the wildest realms of their imagination as they reach for the stars and explore the dreams that are special to them. 
From riding dragons to cartwheeling through stars to building homes for giants, these children harness their limitless imaginations to explore endless possibilities for their future. Each page turn offers hope and promise and sparkle-something our next generation needs to be filled with in abundance. There is a still a massive capacity for hope and aspiration and creativity and empathy in our world and it is never stronger than in little people. This book harnesses the power that children's imaginations hold beautifully; be who you want to be and never stop believing in possibilities. 
Amy Sparkes is donating 5% of author royalties from this book to Ickle Pickles - a charity which donates neonatal intensive care equipment to hospitals. 

Another picture book, released on January 7th, which harnesses the power of believing is the magical There's No Such Thing as Unicorns, written by Lucy May Rowland and illustrated by Katy Halford. As with The Secret of Me, this is a fabulously illustrated story that is written in simple but completely charming rhyme. 

When a little girl is told that there are no such things as unicorns, she sets out to prove that they exist. It's not long before her certainty starts to waver but she doesn't give up searching...was she right to believe all along?
This unicorntastic, colourful read instils a very similar message to the book above; believe in the impossible and don't let anyone tell you 'you can't' or that 'there's no such thing...' The strength of the little girl's belief has a big pay off on the final page and WOW! - what a dazzling illustration to finish on. 

Both of these stories have a lot in common. They are fun, light-hearted, imaginative, colourful, inspiring and hopeful. They are perfect for all readers who love unicorns, rainbows, magic and daydreaming...isn't that most of us? I'm hooked as much as my little ones are...

Monday 4 January 2021

UPCOMING RELEASE: The Boy Who Met a Whale by Nizrana Farook

Published by: Nosy Crow, 7th Jan 2021


Last year, Nizrana Farook's debut novel, The Girl Who Stole An Elephant , set on the Sri Lankan island of Serendib, won my heart with it's strong female lead, it's thrilling plot and beautiful setting. So much so that when my pre-order of The Boy Who Met a Whale dropped onto my doorstep a little bit early, I couldn't help but dive right in. 

When Razi discovers washed up stranger, Zheng, on the beach, he and his sister Shifa are plunged into an unexpected and dangerous adventure. Zheng, a boy full of incredible stories, claims he knows the whereabouts of a valuable, stolen dagger. But when he is captured by two unsavoury characters, who are also hot on the trail of the dagger, Razi and Shifa head out into the ocean to help. Very soon they run into trouble. Is there any creature out there who can save them?

This novel is a sizzle of sunshine in a currently dark world. As with The Girl Who Stole an Elephant, Nizrana Farook immerses the reader into a fast-paced adventure from the word go. In this story, the danger is palpable and there are barely any breaks in the tension as Razi, Shifa and Zheng lurch from one disaster to the next. From the very first page, the storytelling is enthralling and I loved how the high stakes are balanced with gorgeous descriptions of the whales, the turtle and the stunning coastal beauty of Serendib- all of which are play a crucial role in the adventure. 

Strong themes are explored in this story: the moral code of right and wrong, the concept of family, the challenge of facing fears and the impact of grief. Razi and Shifa are struggling to come to terms with the death of their father whilst Zheng is struggling to come to terms with the death of his beloved captain. This greatly affects the decisions they make throughout the novel and strengthens the special bond which forms between the three of them.

I found the villains, Marco and Cook, instantly aggressive and intimidating. This took me back to my childhood days of reading 'The Famous Five' and 'The Secret Seven' where the 'baddies' often took the form of surly, ruthless adults. In fact, with islets and boats and picnics and treasure maps, this whole adventure resonated warm echoes of these much loved tales, but with a truly glorious setting that will make you want to dive into turquoise seas and soak up the sun. 

The Boy Who Met a Whale is released on 7th January - a short, sharp, snappy, stunning read.

Our Latest Middle-Grade reads

Oof! It's been well over a month, if not two, since we last posted a review - sorry about that! But even when life gets busy (really bus...