Tuesday 31 August 2021

Summer Reads: Middle grade round-up

There have been so many superb middle grade releases this summer, it's been really hard to keep up. I've tried hard to stay on top of my 'to be read' pile but the truth is, it's now taller than me!

What I have been spoilt by, however, is the return of some absolute favourites. Sequels that I just haven't been able to resist because the worlds are just so magical and enchanting. And they certainly haven't disappointed! From vengeful fairies to vanishing rooms on a ship to mysterious jinnis in a desert, these books are pure escapism...

The Battle for Roar by Jenny McLachlan, illustrated by Ben Mantle

Link to publisher

Published by: Farshore Books, July 2021


This is the book I wanted to read as a child. It's the world I wanted to go to and its the adventures I wanted to have. Jenny McLachlan's imagination has everything a fantasy reader could want: paradise islands, a ninja wizard who can conjure marshmallows, flying dragons, a mermaid best friend and a playground island built by fairies... Just don't expect everything to be quite as it seems.

Rose and Arthur are returning to Roar! This time they're sailing past The End with Win and Mitch on an expedition of a lifetime. But Arthur is uneasy. Crowky appears to have gone for good... but has he really?

Everything seems fine until a mysterious and magical storm descends on the ship. Soon, the crew have more to worry about Crowky. Someone's out for vengeance and they won't stop until Roar is destroyed...

This series, for me, has always had strong echoes of Peter Pan. Its childhood innocence and the celebration of all things joyous is both delightful and magical to read. And yet lurking in the shadows are all the quirky things that a young child finds scary: Crowky, Bendy Joan, an enormous cat..., all of which give the story a creepy and unsettling edge. The plot is unpredictable and inventive and the new settings keep the story fresh and exciting. 

With only Rose, Arthur, Win and Mitch at the core of the action this time, Jenny McLachlan creates a fabulous and tight dynamic between the four, punctuated with sharp dialogue and humour. Most of my favourite lines were between Win and Mitch and the ninja wizard really steals the show in this book. As a result, the overall mood of the novel is kept fun and light-hearted, even through the darkest parts of the adventure. That doesn't mean that there isn't plenty of drama and seriously high-stakes though, because there is. The question is, will Roar survive?

Woven through the plot are themes of friendship, teamwork, survival and right and wrong. There's lost girls, a ninjabread army (utterly brilliant!), dragons, fairies and mermaid hot tubs. The description of the food is mouth-watering, the weather delightful and the illustrations by Ben Mantle simply a joy. On top of all that, the end is as twisty and turny as the tide, but whether it's a happy one for Arthur, Rose and Roar, I couldn't possibly say...

The Secrets of the Stars (The Ship of Shadows-Book 2) by Maria Kuzniar

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Published by: Puffin, July 2021


This magical series about a band of female pirates is rich, intoxicating storytelling at its best. Join the pirates as they travel across the globe on The Ship of Shadows, a vessel steeped in secrets, shadows and sorcery...

The race is on to find the second piece of the map that Captain Quint so desperately craves. But crucial pieces of the puzzle are alluding Aleja, leaving her frustrated and confused. 

When she starts having strange visions, Aleja becomes convinced that somebody is trying to tell her something. But tensions are running high and time is running out. Can Aleja lead the crew to the map and prove she's a worthy pirate?

Reading this sequel was like returning to a family and a much-loved home. The descriptions of the ship are so vivid you can almost smell the salty sea air and hear the deck creaking. There's a deep sense of magic and mystery lurking below deck but also a playfulness, with its appearing and vanishing rooms (I loved the pub!). Most of all though, Maria Kuzniar makes the pirate ship feel like the comforting, safe haven we all crave.

There's a real grown-up edge to this book. Unlike Rose and Arthur in The Battle for Roar, who are returning to the imaginary land of their early childhood, Aleja finds herself in a deadly world of pirates and assassins, about to undertake a secret quest of epic proportions. There's battles and weapons, storms and heists and, as Aleja discovers, absolutely no room for error. Yet again, Kuzniar makes this cut-throat crew feel like family. There's a wonderful, funny and touching dynamic between Aleja and Frances, romance and relationships, pets and pet shadows and, of course, the ever-present and comforting presence of cake!

The danger, however, is real. With tigers, hot-air balloons, icy lakes and a ruthless enemy, these pirates live on the edge of survival. If you like your magic edgy and combined with ocean voyages and adrenaline-fuelled action, then this is the book for you. It sits at the more confident end of middle-grade readership but is completely encapsulating. Every single sense is engaged as you read and the layers of the plot are meticulously planned. Here's hoping that, with two more pieces of the map to find, the journey isn't over just yet...

Moonchild: City of the Sun by Aisha Busby, illustrated by Rachael Dean

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Published by: Farshore Books, April 2021


Moonchild: The Voyage of Lost and Found grabbed me in 2020 with its rich imagery, intriguing story and highly distinctive narrative voice. Told out of sync and peppered with fables and stories within stories, this is high-concept storytelling that works.

The adventure continues with Farah's story. Since the Moonchildren unlocked the moon magic, the world has become dangerously unbalanced. With daytime disappearing completely, Farah and Amira travel deep into the desert to find the City of the Sun and the answers they seek...

Inspired by Arabian Nights, this is an intoxicating story of friendship and bravery. The storytelling brings the reader's senses to life and the visual imagery is stunning. The plot, to me, felt fresh and unique and I loved the relationship between the character's and their jinnis. 

The stakes are incredibly high in this sequel. Time is of the essence and that adds a real drive to the tale. Aisha Bushby showcases her imagination with brilliant settings and I adored the City of the Sun. It's the perfect length for the slightly younger end of middle-grade readership but for anyone struggling with the initial jumping around of the story, stick with it, it's totally worth it!

There's a lot of pearls of wisdom within the pages of this book and it does feel like a twist on a classic. The story is timeless and magical, beautifully told, with strong characters and I'm not sure we've seen the end of them yet...

Monday 30 August 2021



                                                                         Link to publisher

                                                   Published by: Hachette, 30th September 2021


It's been a little while since I came across a creepy, spine-tingling story aimed at lower middle readers, but this brand new series written by comedian and CITV presenter, Bec Hill, is the new Goosebumps. Perfect for readers that love a creepy story but who want to avoid anything too scary, the first book in the series, The Slime, is a funny, hair-raising tale with teeth...

Connie doesn't know what her talent is, so when she takes some slime into school and is nicknamed 'The Queen of Slime', Connie thinks she's found her identity. But when she has no choice but to make her own slime, things take a sinister turn. Emerging from the bin comes BIG, a super sweet slimy blob that wants nothing more than to be Connie's friend. But Big is growing at an alarming rate and so is his personality. Soon, he wants Connie all to himself and she's never needed the help of her friends more...

This story is easily accessible with lovely short chapters and a whole load of character. Big is a great, slow-build villain and the tension and creepiness escalates brilliantly through the story. I really related to Connie's feelings of inadequacy as she compared herself to her friends and her subsequent search for identity. 

The plot is simple but engaging and, as you would expect with a creepy tale, there are some great cliff-hanger endings to the chapters. Bec Hill captures the world of a late primary-schooler incredibly well and plays on the current popularity of slime to build a chilling story. There's a fair bit of toilet humour-which will be marmite for readers-and a very fun twist at the end. 

With books 2 and 3 due out in 2022, the premise for the series comes from the mysterious setting-a town dubbed Horror Heights. Each book will follow strange events which unfold on the same weekend and happen to children all from the same class. So which of Connie's classmates will be the next in line for a creepy encounter...? You'll have to wait until April to find out. 

A big thanks to Hachette for granting me a review copy. Horror Heights:The Slime is available to buy from 30th September. 

Saturday 28 August 2021

Summer Reads: Picture Book Round-Up

I can't believe I haven't posted a book review since the 10th June!!! The summer has flown and the kids have grown and even though most of our summer has been spent outdoors with our new family of rabbits, we've also been hopping happily through a host of new books: Picture books, chapter books, non-fiction and middle grade. 

The most satisfying thing for me this summer has been watching my children take independent steps in their reading journey. They jump on book post, they are excited about going to the library, they're asking me to read, asking questions about what I'm reading and reading to themselves or each other. They've watched TV adaptations, acted out stories in role-play and written their own stories. And no one more so than my eight-year-old reluctant reader who moaned and fussed incessantly about reading, deliberately interrupted her brother's bedtime stories and has now just devoured Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Tom Gates and numerous Rainbow Magic books as part of the library's summer reading challenge.

A total result! And yet all I've done is fill the house with books, show them that I read constantly and offered to read a story of their own choosing (with some suggestions) each day. There's no pressure on them to read to me, although I always encourage it. What always makes the real difference, however, is having an amazing array of exciting books to share with them. Books that are visually exciting, books that tap into their interests and imagination and books that make them laugh. 

Picture books are still as popular as ever. Even though my children are now 10, 8 and 6, I will never stop buying them and they have not stopped asking for them. This summer has seen some fantastic releases and, needless to say, our first trip to an actual bookshop in months nearly bankrupted me. 

So below is a round-up of our favourite picture books of the summer. 

I'm Not Cute, I'm Dangerous by Bruna de Luca and Benedetta Capriotti

Link to publisher

Published by: Maverick Books

Release: 27th August 2021


Brilliantly plotted, with a great twist, this picture book made us laugh out loud. It has a catchy repetitive twist and beautifully vivid illustrations. 

Fifi is furious! She looks far too cute for a crocodile and no matter how hard she tries she just doesn't look dangerous. But when she attracts a crowd of admirers, Fifi realises that being cute has its advantages...

This is a simple, short and snappy story with a bite at the end. Fifi makes for a strong and memorable picture book character and is distinctive in both appearance and personality. The story has fluffiness and cuteness in abundance which runs alongside a poweful cautionary message: Don't be fooled by appearances. The famous song says 'Never Smile at a Crocodile' but maybe the danger is being smiled at by a crocodile.

'I'm not cute, I'm dangerous,' is available to buy from today.

The Viking Who Liked Icing by Lu Fraser and Mark McKinley

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Published by: Bloomsbury, 5th August


Following on from the brilliant success of Lu Fraser's debut, The Littlest Yak, The Viking Who Liked Icing offers readers a completely different but equally fabulous story with a similar message: Celebrate who you are. The fantastically vibrant front cover gives us the perfect taste of what's to come inside the pages - a fun and energetic Viking story full of yummy deliciousness.

Nut is completely different to his sister, Leaf the Brave and all the other vikings. He likes baking not sports and makes the best icing EVER! So when Viking Sports Day arrives, Nut is dreading taking part. But can things ever go badly when you're armed with cake?

This story has all the ingredients to be another roaring success; great characters, an historical setting, action and pace. But the icing on the cake is...well...the icing itself. Alongside that, there is a lovely portrayal of siblings and when it comes to sibling rivalry, Leaf and Nut have it cracked: It's okay for them to be different and they love each other for who they are.

Making the story even more enjoyable, is the fact its told, once again, in marvellous bouncy rhyme. There's some great page turns and a rather delicious ending. The illustrations make this book leap off the shelf and little ones are sure to want to read this story again and again. Just make sure you have some cake at hand...or a recipe book!

How to Grow a Unicorn by Rachel Morrisroe and Steven Lenton

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Published by: Penguin, June 2021


I'd heard great things about this upcoming debut and it certainly doesn't disappoint. The title is intriguing and the story delivers. Told in gorgeous rhyme, this is fantasy at its best. I mean, what child wouldn't want to grow a unicorn?

When Sarah visits Mr. Pottifer's Parlous of Plants to find a birthday gift for her grandmother, she enters a magical and mysterious world. Here there are plants and seeds of a wondrous kind, including seeds for growing unicorns. 

But when Sarah gets carried away, the consequences are chaotic. Can she solve her rather large unicorn problem? And has she ruined her gran's birthday?

My son and daughter (8 and 6) both loved this book. The delight that grew on my son's face as he watched the plants grow page by page was a picture and he loved seeing the funny consequence of Sarah's actions. The pictures by Steven Lenton literally mesmerised him and every page is like stepping into a magical world - a feast for the senses! The story rattles along with a galloping pace and the characters, particularly Mr. Pottifer, are ingenious.

Due to its length and wordiness, this is a perfect story for the older end of the picture book market, although I can't imagine any reader not being wowed by the visuals and the imagination of this story. What's even more exciting is that I've heard this might just be the start of a series. We certainly hope so!

I Spy Island by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet

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Published by: Simon and Schuster, July 2021


I Spy with my little eye something beginning with S...yes, that's right, you've guessed it...a Successful Series!

The champions of inanimate objects have done it again! Following on from the success of Supertato and many other humorous tales such as Cake and I Need a Wee, comes the first book of a brand new series...'I Spy Island'.

When a happy island and its friends start playing I-Spy, they spot something unusual washed up on the sand. What is it doing there? Why has it come? Their attempts to get to know the new arrival leads to lots of fun and games and...storms. Can they possibly find a happy end to their story?

Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet have done what they do best here-created yet another group of highly original, fun and memorable characters and combined them with an upbeat, sunshiney setting. Island, Glove, Banana, Bottle and Bird are deliciously silly but most importantly of all, they are friends. 

The theme of friendship runs all the way through this book, making it something truly heart-warming and special. The ending has a brilliant twist and is incredibly thought-provoking but, as always, is executed in a wonderfully humorous and light-hearted way. This whole book is simply drenched in 'S's: sunshine, silliness, slapstick comedy, smiles, sand and sea...it really does have 'Successful Series' written all over it. 

Meet the Oceans by Caryl Hart and Bethan Woollvin

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Published by: Bloomsbury, March 2021


Following on from Meet the Planets comes Meet the Oceans, a rhyming narrative non-fiction book that's perfect for every bookshelf and classroom. 

Hop onto the submarine and travel through the mysterious worlds of our planet's oceans and seas. There's plenty of creatures waiting to greet you and lots of interesting facts too...

Underwater really is a wonder to behold.

These books are both fun and educational and have been particularly brilliant for my daughter with special needs who learns very well through the medium of rhythm and rhyme. Enabling her to embed facts into her memory, she can now name the planets and oceans, as can my other children.

By journeying through unknown waters with two characters on a submarine, there's a real sense of exploration and discovery to these books, which make them exciting. They link in fantastically well with the primary curriculum and could easily be used to kickstart a whole host of learning activities. Not only are all the oceans covered in this book, but some seas too. We really hope the series continues- there's still lots we can learn!