Tuesday 26 April 2022

Marvellous New Middle-grade: A round-up of some fantastic spring releases

The kids are back at school, there's sunshine and warmth in the air and it's been a relaxing two weeks of reading. So what better way to get going again than to round-up all the brilliant new middle-grade novels I devoured in the holidays. Middle-grade is on fire at the moment and with my fondness for fantasy, I really have been spoilt with the selection below:

The Thief Who Sang Storms by Sophie Anderson, illustrated by Joanna Lisowiec

Link to publisher

Published by: Usborne, March 2022


The Thief who Sang Storms is the fourth book from Sophie Anderson, author of The House With Chicken Legs, and is as beautiful and lyrical as her other stories. Based on Slavic folklore, this tells the tale of Linnet and her battle for unity on her island home. 

The island of Morovia is shaped like a broken heart, with humans living on one side and alkonosts -bird-people-on the other. Linnet is desperate to reunite the two halves - if only she had her singing magic! But when her father is captured, Linnet realises she must emerge from her banishment in the swamps and find another way to heal the hurts and right the wrongs of her homeland.

This is a gently told tale with a hard-hitting message. The themes of division and persecution that run through the book have, sadly, never felt more relevant and yet echo throughout history. The setting and characters are extraordinary, the world-building is exquisite and the storytelling will make you smile, cry and, most importantly, think.

Although there is a magical element to the novel, which adds an extra sparkle to the story, I found the exploration of the actual magic interesting. Linnet is desperate to get her singing magic and yet magic becomes a source of manipulation in the novel. I love how Sophie Anderson explores the viewpoints of both the alkonosts and the humans in the story, culminating in a resolution that we would surely all hope for in the real world. 

Despite the serious nature of the novel, there are some wonderful moments woven throughout. Lumpy and Whiskers are a particular highlight as are the friendships between the characters. There are several stories within the story, which adds an extra beauty and depth to the narrative, and the setting is both unique and memorable. There's a lovely appearance from a familiar character and I was left with a similar haunting feeling to when I read The House With Chicken Legs, which still remains one of the best novels I've ever read.

The Sky Over Rebecca by Matthew Fox

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Published by: Hachette, April 2022


The themes of division and persecution are as vivid in this novel as in The Thief Who Sang Songs, and yet, this time, are firmly based on actual events. Winner of the Bath Children's Novel Award 2019, The Sky Over Rebecca explores the consequences that World War II has on two young children, told through a time-travelling story that will give you goose pimples.

When ten-year-old Kara from Stockholm spots mysterious footprints in the snow, she sets out to discover who made them. But when they lead her to Rebecca and Samuel, two refugees from another time and place, she becomes desperate to help them stay safe and find their way home. 

This is a simply told, hauntingly brilliant novel with an utterly compelling voice. It had me so hooked from the first page that I couldn't stop reading until I'd finished it. Told in a fresh and original way, it tells the tale of both Kara, a girl from Sweden who gets caught up in a timeslip, and Rebecca and Samuel, a brother and sister who are in hiding in World War II. I have since questioned whether Rebecca and Samuel's story alone would have been just as powerful a novel. Yet weaving together the two stories has allowed Matthew Fox to create something truly special, poignant and unique with both a heart-breaking and heart-melting resolution. 

Despite Kara being 10, steering this towards the younger end of middle grade, the challenging content of the novel feels more suited to the older end of middle grade, but obviously depends on the individual. The hard-hitting truth of history combined with to-and-fro leaps through time and place is beautifully portrayed but uncomfortable at times. Balancing this out is Kara's heart-warming relationship with her grandad and the sprinkling of magic which dusts the story like snow. And, with the current state of the world and the sense of history repeating itself, this novels feels like a well-timed warning - one that is relevant to readers of all ages in the here and now. 

Dreadwood by Jennifer Killick

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Published by: Farshore, March 2022


Offering a bit of light relief and a fear-factor of a very different kind, Dreadwood, the first book in a new series by Jennifer Killick, is full of chills, thrills and laugh-out-loud gags. Following the movements of a group of four secondary pupils trapped in a school on a Saturday, you really wouldn't want to be one of them. 

When Angelo, Hallie, Naira and Gustav are summoned to school detention on a Saturday, things take a terrifying turn when their teacher is dragged underground. Coupled with the creepy caretakers humming the tunes to 'Incy Wincy Spider' , it's not long before they realise that something is out to get them. Something big, something scary and something that isn't going to let them escape...

Perfect for fans of Stranger Things and Jennifer's previous novels Crater Lake and Crater Lake: Evolution, this is not for the faint-hearted reader. Yet again, though, Jennifer Killick provides the perfect balance of fear and humour, making me snort with laughter of one page and then making me pull the blanket over my head on the next. The creepy use of a popular nursery rhyme is a genius twist and, judging by the sneak preview of the second book which you can find at the back, is something which is going to run throughout the entire series. 

Not only does the book offer a spine-tingling, edge of your seat plot, the characters (as in Crater Lake) are brilliant. Each one has their own internal struggles to overcome, their own backstory and their own distinct personality and yet, together, they make such a great team, you just want to spend time hanging out with them. Their banter is edgy, hilarious and spot-on the age-group and highlights the fact that you don't necessarily have to have things in common to form connections with others...apart from the obvious fact that something wants you all dead.

This novel plays on our natural fears to bring us a nail-biting, page-turner of a story. Thank goodness for the light nights because you may not want to read this in the dark...

The Eternity Engine by Struan Murray, illustrated by Manuel Sumberac

Link to publisher
Published by: Penguin, March 2022


Previous reviews: Orphans of the TideShipwreck Island

Easily one of the most gripping trilogies I've read in children's fiction, the final instalment of the Orphans of the Tide series doesn't disappoint. Winner of the Bath Children's Novel Award and the Branford Boase, The Eternity Engine brings about the climax of Anna's battle with the enemy in a deliciously dark tale of strength and betrayal. 

After forcing Seth to part the seas, Kate and her army are marching northwards towards the Enemy's City. Now it's up to Ellie Lancaster and her friends to stop the brewing war. 

But the parting of the seas has also uncovered The Eternity Engine - a machine with the power to destroy or remake the world. But who will be able to control it and can the enemy ever be defeated?

This is fantasy at its best; dark, gritty and utterly absorbing. Struan Murray's plotting and world-building is 'singularly brilliant', as it states on the cover, and also highly original. There's a great synergy in this book as the characters from book one and book two merge together, each of them getting their chance to shine, and of course Ellie's battle with the enemy continues - the enemy again, for me, stealing centre stage in every scene it appears in. 

Again, this isn't a novel for the faint-hearted. The themes are challenging and as with The Thief who Sang Songs and The Sky Over Rebecca there are echoes of our history written across the pages. I was particularly moved (and distressed) by the young boys being made to fight in the war and yet the difficult exploration of rich versus poor, good versus evil and the abuse of power are balanced with the warmth of unity, friendship and loyalty. I don't want to give away any spoilers so I'll stop here but it's epic, ambitious and I absolutely loved it!

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