Wednesday 30 August 2023

NEW RELEASE: In the Shadow of the Wolf Queen

Published by: Hachette, 31st August 2023
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Anything that Kiran Millwood Hargrave writes goes straight onto our TBR pile and so, when the opportunity to review the first in her new fantasy series came up via NetGalley, I couldn't resist. Following on from The Girl of Ink and Stars and The Way Past Winter, this is a fantasy adventure centred around a journey through unknown lands...

Ysolda lives in a forest that borders the Wolf Queen's territory - a tyrannical ruler whose reputation precedes her. But when the safe haven of the forest is shattered by an earthquake and Ysolda realises the queen's ryders have taken her beloved sister, she sets out on a quest to save her. But nothing is ever that simple! Soon Ysolda finds herself forced to make a deal with the Wolf Queen herself, accompanying her on her quest for a terrifying and unimaginable power.

Packed full of lyrical and beautifully descriptive language, Kiran Millwood Hargrave weaves a captivating story with strong ecological themes, driven by sisterly love.  For the most part, Ysolda is a solo protagonist, comforted by the presence of her loyal sea hawk, Nara, although the power of the earth feels like a character in itself. From mountains to forests to coastal caves and ancient islands, the storytelling feels as timeless as the landscape, each chapter reverberating with a deep, rumbling power which both soothes and disturbs and which leaves an echoing impact long after you've finished reading. 

Aside from Ysolda, however, there's some great characters that give the story its heart and depth; tender Hari, heart-wrenching Sami, the mysterious general, bold and mischievous Eira and Seren, the ruthless Wolf Queen. I loved that we saw the Wolf Queen up close from early on in the novel - a strong, intriguing presence rather than a distant threat who reminded me of a more complex White Witch. Her relationship with the sea wolves, who I absolutely loved, raises a lot of questions about her character, drawing the reader under her spell. Then there's the brutal Thane Boreal, who provides some of the harder-hitting scenes of the novel. This is not an adventure for the faint-hearted!

Kiran Millwood Hargrave builds a lot of suspense and intrigue in this first instalment, setting the tone for the future books in the series. There's some seeding of the geomancer concept and murmurings of an ancient power, with the unspoken promise that the full darkness of this world is still yet to unfold. Then there's the lies Ysolda has spun to stay alive and to ensure her sister's safety. This feels like the beginning of something intoxicating and enthralling...and I am already enchanted. 

A big thanks to NetGalley and Hachette for allowing me a review copy. In the Shadow of the Wolf Queen is released tomorrow, August 31st 2023. 

Monday 21 August 2023

UPCOMING RELEASE: Peanut Jones and The End of the Rainbow

 


Published by: Pan Macmillan, 28th September 2023
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Draw With Rob may have kept us entertained through lockdown but we were quite late to his highly successful lower MG series: Peanut Jones. Beginning book one, Peanut Jones and the Illustrated City, in 
January 2023, we quickly realised that we'd been missing out and galloped through book two, Peanut Jones and the Twelve Portals, just in time for my daughter to decide to dress up as Peanut for World Book Day. Not wanting to wait until September for the final instalment, we then jumped at the chance to read an early copy of Peanut Jones and the End of the Rainbow, courtesy of Pan Macmillan and NetGalley...

When Peanut Jones, her sister, Little-Bit and her sort-of-friend, Rockwell, create a portal into an illustrated city with an unusual pencil, little do they know that they're about to embark on an incredible adventure. The city of Chroma is the source of all artistic creativity but does it have anything to do with why her dad has up and left the family home?

Peanut soon discovers that Chroma is in terrible danger. A villain called Mr. White has taken over the city and is trying to destroy it. Not only that, but the pencil Peanut has in her possession seems to be the key to stopping Mr. White. Can Peanut keep it out of his possession, join the resistance and find out where her dad is? Time is running out! Her mum has been kidnapped and Mr. White may not be quite who he seems. Does he have the upper hand after all? The fight for Chroma may come down to the luck of the draw...

The first thing to say is that these books are physically stunning. Having read the first two books in hardback, they are a feast for the senses; highly illustrated, full of tonal colours and incredibly satisfying to hold. Yet, woven through the beautiful aesthetics, is a story as bright and vivid as a rainbow. The world-building is incredible, Rob Biddulph's imagination jumps off the page and the characters - from Peanut to Little-Bit to Jonathan Higginbottom to Table Guy - are all highly memorable and lovable. The twists and turns are quirky and unpredictable enough to keep readers on their toes. But then, what do you expect from a world where anything you draw becomes real?

For a younger MG novel, the vocabulary is quite challenging in places. However, combined with the short chapter lengths and the extensive illustrations, this proved to be a positive thing, giving my nine year old the determination to persist and improving her reading level. I don't think I've seen her devour a series like this before and I believe that, as a rather reluctant reader, she was inspired by the whole package: the engaging story, the world and the very visual depictions of what was happening at each point. 

The third instalment proved to be very satisfying. There were some great twists and turns and drama right until the very end. Although, this is a deeply thought-out world and plot, the overall tone is light, with an emphasis on the sheer joy of art and creating. In all three books and, indeed, through the very place names of the world he has created, Rob Biddulph pays homage to famous artists and to the history and importance of art in our culture and personal lives.  The end-papers help to inspire and educate and, to our delight, it appears that this might not quite be the end of the end, even if we never return to Chroma. Watch this empty space...

This is a very special middle-grade fantasy series that is so utterly unique, I can't actually think of any comparison texts. What I do know is that is a celebration of the good stuff: of art, creativity, family, friendships and magical worlds. Of adventure and superheroes and joy. We really recommend you don't miss out. 

A big thanks to NetGalley and Pan MacMillan for allowing us a review copy. Peanut Jones and the End of the Rainbow is now available to pre-order. 


Monday 14 August 2023

Short Story Gems from Barrington Stoke Books


Some of the best stories we've read this year have been published by Barrington Stoke Books. Dylexia-friendly and perfect for a reluctant reader, these books are much shorter than your average middle-grade novel but still contain the same engaging and age-related content. They also have an accessible layout and font, making them super-readable, and are usually written by already established authors.
 
Thanks to NetGalley, we always jump at the chance to review these books. The lower word count makes the stories faster-paced than others and ensures they have a tight and gripping story arc. There's a wide range of different genres on offer, ensuring there is something for every reader. However, there isn't one we haven't enjoyed yet...

Bertie and the Alien Chicken by Jenny Pearson, illustrated by Alexsei Bitskoff


Published by: Barrington Stoke, 5th January 2023

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This has to be one of the most funny, insightful and poignant books we've read. We're already a huge fan of Jenny Pearson but this is writing at its most brilliant. Set on his uncle's farm, Bertie's view of the world is about to be challenged in the wackiest way possible...

Bertie does not want to spend his summer on Long Bottom Farm. But his stay takes an unexpected turn when he meets Nugget, an alien chicken. Nugget has been charged with finding Earth's most valuable resource so he can transport it back to Nurgle 7. But if Nugget can't work out what that is, Earth will be destroyed. Can Bertie help the chicken to find answers before it's too late?

This is a dialogue-fuelled text that's full of hilarious banter. And yet, who'd have thought that a story about a boy and an alien chicken could tackle the biggest questions of life? Just what is Earth's most valuable resource and is it something that Nugget can steal? The ensuing discussions between Bertie and Nugget are laugh-out-loud and thought-provoking, providing the perfect balance of humour and heart. This is a text I would encourage everyone to read and which I would take into as many classrooms as possible


Budgie by Joseph Coelho and Dave Barrow


Link to Waterstones

Published by: Barrington Stoke, 6th April 2023

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This is a gorgeous short story about community, connecting with neighbours and grief. Joseph Coelho is another favourite author of ours because he evokes emotion in everything he writes. 

Miles is fed up of his neighbour, Mr. Buxton, always telling him off for climbing trees and having fun. But when Miles finds an escaped budgie, he also unexpectedly finds a way to connect with his cantankerous neighbour.

Budgie instantly took me back to the time my grandparents had a budgie, filling me with a childhood nostalgia and memories of climbing trees, grumpy neighbours and friendship. 

The connection between Mr. Buxton and Miles is not only touching but encourages those intergenerational friendships which seem to be so undervalued in society. As the elderly are forgotten, so are their stories. Yet Mr. Buxton reminds us that we can learn so much from older people and their experiences and that they need connection too. 


Nightjar by Katya Balen, illustrated by Richard Johnson

Published by: Barrington Stoke, 1st June 2023
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Katya Balen novels are always exquisitely written, warm and insightful and Nightjar is no exception. In this wonderful story, every page is jam-packed with emotion, heart and beauty.
 
Noah's dad lives in America. They rarely see each other and barely get on because they don't understand each other. But when Noah's dad visits and the pair find an injured nightjar, Noah is determined to help it. Can his nurturing of the nightjar also set the broken relationship he has with his dad  on a path of healing? 

Through this story, Balen speaks to any reader who has experience of challenging relationships, evoking hope and possibility that these relationships can change and evolve. There are also some interesting themes around nature, wildlife and whether it is okay to help and intervene. I particularly enjoyed the fact that both Noah and his dad had to compromise and challenge their flaws in order to move forward with their relationship. There is something beautifully delicate about the story and it's a text I will return to again and again. Inspiringly excellent.


Crow by Nicola Skinner, illustrated by Rebecca Bagley

Published: 6th July 2023
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The front cover sold this story to us before we'd even read the blurb. Spooky and slightly sinister without being too scary, Crow is a great tale about the difficulties of new beginnings.

When Hattie starts a new school, she quickly decides that she doesn't fit in. To protect herself and her secret den, she builds a scarecrow and orders him to guard them. 

Crow loves watching the other children have fun but orders are orders and he has to take them seriously. But as his behaviour gets scarier, Hattie finds herself becoming more and more isolated. Has she made a terrible mistake?

This is an entertaining tale about fitting in. Although Hattie, at times, comes across as unlikeable, Nicola Skinner keeps the reader connected to her by making her inner thoughts and feelings relatable. In contrast to Hattie's gruffness, we found Crow totally endearing, even when he was at his scariest. This was because we knew he wanted to be something different, and because of the brilliant way Rebecca Bagley brought Crow to life in the illustrations. 

This is a fun story full of atmosphere and tension, perfect for the start of a new school year or for anyone struggling to make friends. We didn't want to say goodbye to Crow and thought there was masses of potential for further stories...


Calling the Whales by Jasbinder Bilan, illustrated by Skylar White


Published: 6th July 2023, Barrington Stoke

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Perfect for fans of Hannah Gold's The Lost Whale, Jasbinder Bilan has penned a dramatic and touching story with a strong ecological message. Set in Scotland, it is a race against time to see if Tulsi and Satchen can save a whale caught up in fishing gear. 

When Tulsi and Satchen set off in a boat to their favourite remote island, they soon find themselves embroiled in a desperate rescue mission. A whale is ensnared in the shallows and, with no way of calling for help, it's up to them to save it. 

But when a vicious storm hits, it's not long before Tulsi and Satchen realise that they are the ones in serious danger. But is it too late for anyone to help them?

This is a lovely, gentle story about nature and friendship and about the bonds humans can forge with animals. Tulsi and Satchen demonstrate the level of love and care we should all have for the planet's wildlife, albeit in the most hair-raising way possible. Jasbinder Bilan doesn't let this slide, however, by showing us the dangers of the elements. 

There's some beautiful descriptions of the setting throughout the book and we particularly loved Tulsi and Satchen's friendship. There are also some tender family issues for the characters to deal with, which adds an extra layer to the story. If you're looking for something powerful and enchanting, then this could be one for you.


The Storm and the Minotaur by Lucy Strange, illustrated by Pam Smy

Lucy Strange combines history with myth in this heart-stopping story about a young boy who works in a coal mine. 

George's dad is super proud that his son is about to join him in the coal mine. But George doesn't want to work in the mine that was responsible for his death of his uncle.

Stuck in the dank, darkness that comes with being underground, George begins to see a strange figure. And when everyone is placed in sudden and desperate peril, George must make a quick decision. Should he put his trust in the creature or not?

This is an enthralling story based on both Theseus and the Minotaur and a true-life mining event which Lucy Strange writes about at the back of the book. For me, reading this information only made the story more powerful and poignant, as we step back in time and experience what it was like to be a young miner. 

Merging fact and fiction felt very clever. It gave the story a magical feel, full of atmosphere and intrigue, which made it easier to digest the uncomfortable reality of George's daily life. It also reignited my respect and empathy for people in the past; honest, hard-working people who grafted everyday in difficult conditions. 

This is a double history lesson in one and we highly recommend it. 

A big thanks to NetGalley and Barrington Stoke for allowing us review copies of the above books


Thursday 10 August 2023

Two Middle Grade sequels to get excited about...

 Crookhaven: The Forgotten Maze by J.J. Arcanjo

Link to publisher

Published by: Hachette, 17th August 2023

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Crookhaven: School For Thieves got 2023 off to a cracking start. Now, after eagerly reading the second book in the series, which is due to be released next week, I have only one word to describe it: seamless - rather like the crooks themselves.

Gabriel Avery is returning to Crookhaven for his second year. But with an impossible break-in to negotiate and a forgotten maze to conquer, the challenges facing him and his crew appear insurmountable. 

But one thing Gabriel has is confidence. If anyone can do it, surely they can? But perhaps Gabriel needs to be wary of attracting too much attention...

Building on the first novel, J.J. Arcanjo weaves an hypnotic and enthralling storytelling web with criss-crossing strands that all intersect brilliantly. Ensnaring the reader with a cast of loveable characters and a razor-sharp plot which is hard to put down, there's banter, danger, mystery, deception and some seriously epic teamwork. I loved the loyalty of Gabriel, the softness of Amira and the hilarity of the Crim Brothers, which is completed by the gruff but vulnerable genius that is Penelope. There's also a great cast of teachers and various other adult characters that bring either an extra layer danger or warmth. 

Crookhaven is an edgy, familiar-yet-unique take on a boarding school set-up. Great for fans of Harry Potter or Skandar, it is also a great choice for those that love villainy and the darker side of adventure. Yet, the Robin Hood concept also gives the book a moral slant and offers up a great point for discussion: is doing wrong justified when you're trying to put things right? 

I'm certainly counting down the months until the next instalment in this quest for justice.

A big thanks to NetGalley and Hachette for allowing us a review copy. Crookhaven: The Forgotten Maze is released on 17th August 2023. 


Ember Shadows and the Lost Deserts of Time by Rebecca King

Link to publisher

Published by: Hachette, 17th August 2023

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After reviewing Rebecca King's debut novel last year, the sequel to Ember Shadows and the Fates of Mount Never was one I was particularly looking forward to. A fantastic fantasy for perhaps the lower end of middle grade, I was taken aback by Rebecca King's fantastic world-building, her fun Wizard of Oz type characters and her incredibly clever concept centred around Fate. Building on that was surely going to be tough...

But, apparently not! Ember Shadows and the Lost Desert of Time is a breathtaking journey through a parallel world which stunned me with its imagination. As Rebecca King moves us away from Mount Never, we are introduced to a recognisable but different world; one which is full of ingenuity, wondrous magic and delightful detail. I particularly loved The Tremoring Tropics and Emocean, which showcases Rebecca King's incredible talent for wordplay - or should I say worldplay? I also found, as with the first novel, that even though the concept is a very thought-provoking and serious one, every page oozes with energy and joy, as though the author has enjoyed every second of creating and writing this series. 

And yet, don't be fooled. The concept of Fate is a tricky one and Rebecca King has left no stone unturned in her brilliant exploration of the subject. I particularly love that in this novel, Ember is struggling with the consequences of her actions in Book One and is forced to question the morality of her decisions. This offers up so many opportunities for young readers to engage in interesting discussions on what is a deep and complex topic.

As well as the favourites from the first novel, also prepare to meet some great new characters. Nick is particularly fun whereas Lacey made the hairs on my arms prickle. This is an author who knows and loves every inch of the incredible world she has created - maybe it was that and not Lacey which actually gave me goosepimples. 

A big thanks to NetGalley and Hachette for allowing me a review copy. Ember Shadows and The Lost Desert of Time is released on 17th August. 

Tuesday 8 August 2023

Sticky Pines: The Series Finale

 

Published by: Future Human Ltd, 3rd August 2023

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It feels forever ago that we reviewed the first two books in this fantastic, fun and very kooky sci-fi series. Perfect for fans of Stranger Thingsthe third book was one of last year's summer highlights and now, just in time for the holidays, the fourth instalment is finally upon us. Needless to say, it shot straight to the top of our TBR pile and kept us entertained from beginning to end. This is probably one of our most favourite middle grade series EVER...

Lucy Sladan knows the world is in serious trouble. Her friend, Milo, has fallen inside a huge and mysterious blob, Milo's dad is doing everything he can to destroy the alien species that has been living alongside them and now an alien rescue mission is on its way - threatening to end the human race once and for all. After investing so much time and energy into exposing the Truth, can Lucy handle the consequences of it getting out and can she save the planet by finding a way for her fellow humans to ever accept it?

With vivid world-building and a retro feel, this clever twist on an alien invasion is tightly-plotted, funny and explores themes and observations which are razor sharp. Set in small town America, it offers a searing insight into the flaws of humanity whilst also delivering a warm and witty hope. Lucy Sladan may not always be a likeable character but, softened by Milo, her dogged determination combined with her love for her family is endearing. Mr. Fisher plays the ultimate arrogant AND ignorant imbecile you just want to - well - catapult into space and Tex and the rest of Lucy's crew bring the humour. 

The plot is wacky and outlandish but in an utterly brilliant way: think Bigfoot and shapeshifters and slime and intergalactic lizard-type creatures. Plus, for those who have followed the series from the beginning, there is an hilarious revelation in the final chapter. The language and dialogue is on the money for pre-teens and the vibe of each novel buzzes with a coolness that is hard to define. 

This is storytelling at its most unique and awesome. It's like stepping back into my 1980's childhood and yet it's not like anything we've read before. Spooky, atmospheric and nostalgic, it's one supernatural series you're not going to forget. 

A big thanks to Dashe Roberts and Future Human Ltd for offering me a review copy. The Wrath of the Blob is available to buy now.

Thursday 3 August 2023

The House Trap by Emma Read

 

Link to publisher

Published by: Chicken House,6th July 2023

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By Ebony, age 10

My first summer read was The House Trap. I chose the book because the front cover looked like it had an adventurous and amazing story behind it. Another reason I chose it was because the blurb made The House Trap sound like every turn of the book's pages would be exciting. The book is an outstanding, page-turning story with puzzles the characters have to solve to defeat the game! Throughout reading the book, I felt curious about what would happen next and sometimes it was quite spooky but overall I absolutely loved it and I would 100% recommend it.

Wednesday 2 August 2023

New chapter book releases from Julie Sykes: Woodland Magic and Princess Katie's Kittens

Julie Sykes is one of our favourite chapter book writers, penning exciting series such as Unicorn Academy and Mermaid Academy. After previously reviewing her newer series, Woodland Magic and the re-release of Princess Katie's Kittens, we jumped at the chance to review the latest releases courtesy of NetGalley.

Woodland Magic: Operation Owl

Published by: Piccadilly Press, 17th August 2023                           👍👍👍👍👍                                                                                                                                                                                            With autumn hovering on the horizon and the summer weather turning wet, book four in the Woodland Magic series felt like a great big woolly jumper hug. With tons of educational content regarding nature, wildlife and the environment, this charming story is probably the most heart-thumping and action-packed yet.                                                                                                                                                Cora and Jax are now fully-fledged Keepers but when they find an owl tangled up in wire, their skills and wits are put firmly to the test. To predatory owls, Keepers would make a scrummy meal. Can Cora and Jax try and find a way to help the creature without becoming dinner?                                                                                                                                                                                                                Each book in this series follows a cosy, familiar and comforting format and yet every story feels fresh. As Cora, Jax and their friends Trix and Nis grow in experience, the scenarios they encounter become more thrilling and dramatic. The owl is the first animal the Keepers help who is a direct predator. And, with the presence of Ruffins always lurking in the background, the stakes are high!

Aside from the drama, the world-building and setting is charm personified. There's gorgeous, tummy-rumbling descriptions of food and lots of lovely craft and community activities for the Keepers to become involved with. The theme of teamwork is strong and we particularly loved the emphasis in this book that everyone has different skills to offer. As a result, the characters all feel unique and there's a lovely subplot in Operation Owl where Cora attempts to understand her the motivations of her nemesis more. 

Once again, this is perfect for young eco-warriors, nature-lovers and those who love fairy-type stories. The books are perfectly-formed packages with so much to offer. We absolutely love them!


Princess Katie's Kittens: Bella at the Ball

Published by: Templar Publishing, July 2023

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The second book in this re-released series focuses on Bella, one of the five kittens that Princess Katie found in book one. With each book centring around a different kitten, Julie Skyes has created a great opportunity to show off the kittens different personalities...

Bella is up to mischief. Fed up of being stuck in the boot room with her brothers and sisters, she escapes and explores the palace. But everyone is busy preparing for a super important ball and it's not long before Bella's antics threaten to ruin the whole event. Can Katie catch the kitten before disaster strikes and how will she keep Bella entertained?

Unusually for a chapter book, the story flits between both Katie and Bella's viewpoints. This is a clever twist which definitely adds to its fun factor and which makes it the perfect read for cat-lovers and for those who are fans of princess stories. Katie is quite a traditional princess, expected to dress prettily and perform for her parents, but it is her love of the kittens which gives her an unique edge and the story a clear USP. The plot is light-hearted and pacey and offers pure joy and escapism for readers. We're excited to find out which kitten will be the start of the next book.

A big thanks to NetGalley, Piccadilly Press and Templar for allowing us review copies. Both books are now available to order or pre-order. 


 

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