Belinda Murrell’s time-slip adventures have always been thrilling and captivating and this new one does not fail to do the same.
Sophie is feeling a little down. Though she loves her English grandmother dearly, she’s a little bored with her extended stay while her mum and younger brother are in Oxford at Archie’s camp for super-smart kids. Sophie has far too much time to think about her problems with bullying Indigo, back at her Sydney school, and her struggles with dyslexia, always feeling a failure, and aside from all that the English summer is very wet – as is usual – and so pretty dull in all senses. Dull that is, until she’s out walking in the muddy fields and follows a very disreputable looking cat into a mysterious cave, which turns out to be an old Roman ruin. In less time than a cat takes for a quick groom of its whiskers, Sophie has stumbled into a strange but beautiful land and finds herself almost accidentally saving the life of a little girl from a rampaging wild boar. And so, Sophie finds herself caught up in the Tuscian world and embroiled in a complicated family situation, where she is the only one who can help siblings Isabella and little Bia escape the horrible plans of their stepmother – a truly wicked stepmother, in the very best fairy tale tradition. In this mysterious world full of beauty and magic such as talking cats, flying horses and funny little mischief-makers, the muzzamurelli, Sophie discovers within herself a strength and resilience she had no idea she possessed as well discovering a very special secret.
Drawing on Italian folktales and motifs of traditional stories, Belinda Murrell has also been inspired by the history of Renaissance noble families and the daughters who were raised to be skilled, intelligent, well-educated, and influential as well as by music, art, architecture, and culture. Thus, this beautifully exciting narrative becomes more than just a fantasy-adventure but a delightful excursion into a fascinating, though often cruel, historical period.
When I say I had to force myself to stop reading over the past few nights because the story was so completely engrossing, I guess you can safely assume that I give this my highest recommendation for your readers from around 10 years upwards. I know I will have many young readers in my own library who will be leaping for this first-rate magical adventure.
Earlier in the year I reviewed what I have said was my read of the year – The Constant Rabbit – and while I knew of Jasper Fforde and the huge impact he’s made along with the rave reviews particularly from my Welsh friend, that book was my introduction to this author’s delightfully absurdist fantasy style. So naturally, his other titles promptly went on my TBR list.
The first is this, Fforde’s debut novel, which was in our library collection and I have just spent my compos mentis bedtime reading enjoying every word and phrase for the past week.
Set in an alternative UK, 1985, where the Crimean War still rages, extinct species are cloned as domestic pets and Wales is a fiercely independent and closed republic, the reader meets Thursday Next and a cast of wonderfully bizarre characters most of whom are heavily involved in either pursuing the criminals intent on making money from the lucrative literary market but also those intent on milking it. Specifically, one Acheron Hades, a strange and shadowy figure who is totally committed to evil for its own sake is bent on disrupting the entire canon of classic English literature by kidnapping fictional characters for ransom and altering plots.
It is totally bonkers, hilarious, at times poignant and ultimately a thoroughly satisfying adventure of epic proportions. You can read more about Thursday and Spec Ops on Jasper’s website. I, for one, now am on the trail of my next Fforde read.
If you want something completely different (thanks Python!) why not try out some of Jasper Fforde’s writing as a NY resolution!
Stacy Gregg’s horse stories have constantly been some of the most popular loans in my libraries, mostly primary but I also have several lower secondary girls who just love these books. This new stand-alone novel introduces readers to talented young artist Maisie, who has always loved horses and drawing them. In fact, her teacher finds it very frustrating that all Maisie seems to do is draw horses and calls the girl’s father in for a discussion. Contrary to the teacher’s intention, Maisie’s dad is pretty indignant that his daughter’s talent is perceived as a problem rather than a talent to be nurtured. Taking matters into his own hands he applies on his daughter’s behalf to a prestigious Parisian art school for a term’s scholarship and soon Maisie finds herself in the City of Lights staying with her very kind and welcoming patron.
What seems to be a golden opportunity is soon a terrible disappointment to Maisie when she finds her tutor to be both scornful and supremely critical of her art. She has no idea how she is going to find the heart to finish the scholarship until she discovers in a secret cache the long-lost diary of her patron’s ancestor – the famous horse artist Rose Bonifait. As the separate stories of the two young girls, both passionate about their art and horses, unfolds secrets, tragedies but also hope and warmth are revealed.
Maisie takes her courage and determination from Rose’s history and gradually her artwork finally begins to please her tutor technically but it is her attachment to a horse name Claude that breathes the life and emotion into her painting.
Like her other books, this will appeal to both the ‘horsey’ girls but also the ones who love adventure and mystery stories. Recommended highly for readers from around 8 years upwards.
This series is so utterly charming and original that it has been such pleasure to read and review each of them. Tilly and Oskar continue their adventures with the ongoing quest to thwart the horrible Underwoods who have usurped the British Underlibrary. Book wandering has been prohibited and stories at large are under very real threat of being lost for all time.
Tilly has some clues gathered from story friends and others which she strongly believes might provide a sort of map to the Archivists – the legendary protectors of all stories and imagination. With her mother’s help Tilly and Oskar are off to America to meet up with Orlando and Jorge, her mum’s old friends and the best lead for the first signpost in Tilly’s possession. But the plan goes quickly awry when the pair find that even in America the Underwoods’ influence is infiltrating every layer of story.
It takes all their resourcefulness and courage to navigate their way through the intricate maze that their clues reveal but Tilly and Oskar are determined to not only save the world of stories but their very dear fictional friends. They are not unused to danger but this adventure, with its meandering journey, ultimately presents them with their biggest challenge yet. Can these two intrepid bookwanderers save story and imagination from complete annilhilation?
As with the first two books there are moments of real humour woven into the tension of the plot and readers will particularly find the appearance and help of William Shakespeare himself to be highly amusing.
I absolutely adore this series and have recommended it to many young readers who have all enjoyed it equally. If you’re late to the party I’d suggest you put all three on your orders list for the new year.
Highly recommended for readers from around 8 years upwards.
Well-known globally for her adventure series The Mapmaker Chronicles and The Ateban Cipher, A. L. Tait brings another entertaining and engaging series to middle years readers with the introduction of Maven and Reeve.
Maven, youngest daughter of an impoverished and dispossessed noble family, is companion and maid to Lady Cassandra who has been betrothed, unwillingly, to Sir Garrick, highly regarded warrior knight. Reeve, also from a noble family, and without any family support, has been sent as squire to the famous knight. The whole marriage hinges on the possession of the fabled jewel, the Fire Star, passed down through many generations to Lady Cassandra. Airl Buckthorn, Cassandra’s uncle, is liege lord over them all and strongly desires the jewel to be in the hands of his unpleasant and wayward daughter, Anice – and therefore, to all intents and purposes, his own hands.
When the jewel goes missing, Maven and Reeve find themselves thrown together to solve the mystery. Much hinges on their success including their own personal fates. In a kingdom rife with corruption and unrest, there are undercurrents of treason, intrigues and dark deeds on all sides.
This is an adventure/mystery that will immediately capture the imaginations of middle grade readers with immensely likeable heroes as well as thoroughly unpleasant villains.
Maven and Reeve make a terrific pairing as both bring their own backgrounds, upbringing and personal standards to a narrative that is fast-paced and full of excitement.
Highly recommended for readers from around ten years upwards.
Read an excerpt here and you can check out A. L. Tait’s website here.
Huzzah! It has finally arrived! We’ve all been waiting with great impatience but at last the next instalment is here. And what a corker it is! Not only is it gripping and full of new revelations but has most uncanny parallels to our current parlous circumstances.
Morrigan is looking forward to her new studies at Wunsoc and the delicious anticipation of her second Christmas in Nevermoor as well as many other delights but there is a dread development overtaking her adopted home.
As Morrigan is introduced to deeper studies as part of her Wondersmith training by virtue of insights into long-gone but carefully preserved lessons, a bizarre and deadly illness is infecting Nevermoor’s Wunimals. Normally peaceable and productive members of society, the affected Wunimals are becoming wild and vicious unnimals attacking without reason anything and anyone in their path and eventually succumbing into a sort of ‘hollow’ torpor losing all traces of their unique ‘wunimal-ness’.
As the mystery virus takes hold with more and more Wunimals becoming infected and causing grievous bodily harm and even deaths, the residents of Nevermoor become violently divided in their reactions. Some vociferous in their protests that the Wunimals one and all are a menace to society, some in complete denial that the illness exists while others work as hard as possible to find a cure and save all lives – sound familiar?
Morrigan begins to see that it is going to be up to her to find a cure for the Hollowpox but doesn’t quite bargain on her arch-enemy Ezra, the disgraced and feared Wondersmith, being the one who will lead her to it – though by very convoluted and mysterious ways.
As the young Wondersmith grows in her mastery of the Wretched Arts she is able to see more, do more, achieve more and manipulate the world around her more and while she still faces dire challenges and dangers, as she weaves her wundrous way through each new obstacle until she attains success, she is able to attain success, despite all odds.
This is not simply a new adventure filled with thrilling and and tense episodes but a very revealing insight into human nature and an ‘en pointe’ comparison to much of the disparate, and often extreme, responses we have all witnessed in recent times.
Fans, young and old, will relish this latest in the lives and events of Nevermoor and Morrigan and, like me, will be unable to put it down until they are done. And immediately, we will all be waiting with bated breath until we are able to re-visit Nevermoor, Morrigan, Jupiter and Fen – along with all the other marvellous and rich characters we have all grown to love so much.
Naturally it needs no recommendation – most of those I know have had their copy on pre-order forever!!
What a double bonus for me! First to be part of the Book Blog Tour to launch Rebel Gods – the gripping conclusion of Will Kostakis’ Monuments series. Second to be able to introduce you all to an amazing young woman, Tiarna Georghiou – Year 12 student, blogger, reporter, talented performer, passionate reader and, I’m proud to say, one of my students! You can treat yourself to Tiarna’s reviews at her blog The Book Mermaids as well as finding her on other social media platforms but in the meantime here is her thoughtful review of Rebel Gods and her Q&A with Will.
Rebel Gods, the final instalment of The Monuments series by Will Kostakis is an exciting new middle-grade / young adult novel. The novel follows the lives of three teenagers; Connor, Sally and Locky who are learning how to lead their parallel lives as newbie Gods, and ordinary teenagers. It is up to the adventurous trio to stop the rebel gods from reducing the world to ruin, however, they don’t know where to start. The three ‘newbie gods’ are faced with many challenges and difficult questions such as; who should decide the fate of the world? This novel is gripping and exciting, while still being heartfelt and emotionally driven at times.
I was drawn in to the story from the very first page, and was swept up in the writing style and the beautiful descriptions. The novel is told from a very authentic YA voice, which many children and young adults will be able to identify with. The book features a diverse cast of characters who are all humorous and fun. The book was adventure filled, and action packed, but still had lots of romance and friendships for the readers to invest in! I recommend this book for everyone who loves adventure stories, and wants to read a fun and exciting story!
Q1) You were extremely young when you started writing novels, what childhood experiences led to you discovering your love of writing?
My pappou (grandfather) wanted us to be avid readers and writers, because he struggled with both, so he would wait outside newsagencies before they opened to buy exercise books and watch us fill them as kids. He instilled in me a love of reading and writing, and I carry that with me to this day.
Q2) What does the Monuments series mean to you personally?
I launched into the Monuments duology after writing my heaviest contemporary novel, The Sidekicks, which was an intensely personal reflection on the death of a friend in high school. That took an emotional toll on me, so I needed to write something fun and light – I didn’t realise just how much I needed to until I wrote it. Monuments was my escape, and writing Rebel Gods to escape Hellscape 2020 … So the books will always mean a lot to the author side of me.
But I wrote Monuments for that fifteen-year-old version of me who loved fantasy novels, but wished there were more than unfolded in his city, and that featured people like him as their heroes. I centred a gay, Greek protagonist, and instead of giving him identity angst, I let him be the star of a laugh-a-minute adventure.
Q3) What do you hope your writing to achieve?
Firstly, I hope my writing entertains. Secondly, I hope my books show their teen readers that there’s a place in the world for them, whoever they are, and that they are remarkable, just as they are.
Q4) Where do you get the inspiration for your books?
I draw from my life, the media I consume, and my surroundings. So, the Monuments series was equal parts inspired by my evolving relationship with my friends and family, and the media I loved as a teen – videogames like The Legend of Zelda and TV shows like Alias.
Q5) Who are your favourite authors?
I have way too many to list, but the ones who never let me down are Terry Pratchett (a childhood favourite I still revisit, and am still surprised by), Barry Jonsberg (he really kickstarted my love of contemporary YA), Ellie Marney (Australia’s queen of YA crime writing – her latest None Shall Sleep is so creepily wonderful), Melina Marchetta (her YA and adult books are so honest and real), Lili Wilkinson (I’m jealous of everything she writes – her latest is The Erasure Initiative), and John Corey Whaley (the final scene of his Where Things Come Back is a masterclass in writing).
Q6) What is your process for writing books? Do you plan them all before you begin, or do you just let the creativity flow?
I usually start with an opening scene that illustrates what a character wants, or establishes what the key theme is (in The First Third, the family breaking apart set the scene for a story involving the protagonist bringing it back together). I like to have five or six key scenes established and a clear end point before writing a book, so there’s room to experiment as I write, and let the creativity flow as you say, but I’ve realised I work best with some guard rails to keep the story moving in the right direction. My second draft is when I get very strict with structure, and if a scene or character doesn’t add to where the story is ultimately going, they get the chop. Then it’s a matter of fleshing scenes out and refining the book until it’s ready for release.
While it’s always sad when something wonderful, like this magical series, comes to an end it’s also exciting when the conclusion is so supremely satisfying. Just as she did with the magnificent How to Train Your Dragon series, Cressida Cowell has combined exciting magic, with dangerous and thrilling adventure and a very healthy dose of laugh-out-loud humour with quirky and loveable characters.
Xar and Wish, those misfits in their respective families and very different worlds, are in the final chapter of their self-appointed mission to rid both Wizards and Warriors of the dreadful and destructive Witches. They must destroy the long-imprisoned Witch King and save their people, the magical creatures and, indeed, the Wildwoods and the world from total annihilation.
They have found the Spell-to-get-rid-of-Witches and now they have to track down the Cup of Second Chances, rescue poor little Squeezjoos as well as navigate the heinous Mine of Happiness, defeat the dread Tatzelwerm, deal with their irate parents, protect their companions, find their way to the Lake of the Lost – and a whole lot more.
How exciting for all the fans of this series that the film option has already been picked up by Dreamworks and given the success of the How toTrain Your Dragon franchise we can all expect this to be transformed as excitingly in their hands.
Of course it’s not just the magic and adventure that makes this such a wonderful read of a series. The themes of loyalty, diversity of characters, overcoming difficulties, resilience and ultimately the acceptance of differences are all very much a part of what makes this series such a stand-out.
If your readers have not yet caught onto this series, my best advice is start talking it up and do at least a ‘First Chapter’ read-aloud to hook them. They will be hungry for more without doubt!
My highest recommendation for another of the current Waterstones’ Children’s Laureate’s amazing creations that will capture the hearts of readers from around Upper Primary upwards.
In my opinion it’s a rare middle-age novel that can transcend reading interests, age groups and genders but this is most definitely one that can. Certainly your middle grade readers will love it but it is just as appealing for older readers, including adults, as well as competent younger readers with its blend of whimsy and fantasy, strong conservation theme, friendship and family, humour and adventure.
Kate’s wealthy estranged uncle is considered ridiculously eccentric and irresponsible by her parents and really she knows very little about him. Certainly when she writes to him on a whim and asks for a birthday present she doesn’t expect to receive one. She definitely doesn’t expect the gift of a full-sized steam locomotive which appears in her back garden.
While her parents wrangle over what to do with such an unwanted and cumbersome gift, Kate and her younger brother Tom ignore parental doubts and distrust and board the engine in the middle of the night. The journey that ensues is both a revelation and a test of the children’s resilience, initiative and bravery.
To their complete astonishment the locomotive takes off through the night and guided by the engine’s own ‘voice’ they soon arrive at a station where a curious assortment of animal passengers wait patiently with valid tickets to board. The children do not take long to realise that their job is to ensure that each of these creatures, endangered due to various impacts on their natural habitats, are safely delivered to new homes where they can have some certainty of survival of their species. From the sweetest baby pangolin to a very cantankerous porcupine, a beautiful mamba to a sad and lost half-starved polar bear, the Silver Arrow has a mission – one that is filled with moments of danger and near-misses but ultimately the trip of a lifetime for all.
Readers will be thrilled by the excitement of the adventure and adore the laughs to be had but will also learn a great deal about the plight of many of the world’s most threatened animals. Like Kate and Tom, one might hope that they will also take action to do what they can to preserve and conserve the wonders of nature against loss of habitat, introduced invasive species and of course, humans.
I cannot recommend this highly enough for your readers from around 7 or 8 years upwards. It is both a joy and an inspiration and, in my opinion, destined to become a modern classic.
Elizabeth Wein continues her stellar historical novel series with another look at a fascinating aspect of World War II, this time weaving a wonderful tale around the famous Enigma code.
This exciting story revolves around three very diverse main characters: Louisa, orphan of a mixed marriage (English and Jamaican) who is habitually judged unfairly due to her race and culture, despite the fact that she has raised in a very ‘English’ manner; also subject to prejudice is Ellen McEwan, a Traveller, who is working as a driver for the RAF at the nearby airfield and Jamie Beaufort-Stuart, young pilot in the locally stationed squadron.
Louisa’s loss of both her parents in rapid succession means she needs to find work – not easy for a girl of colour – but is hired by the owner of a pub in Windyedge, Scotland, to be carer for an elderly aunt, herself a colourful and feisty character of German descent. It is in the small village, most notable for the airfield close by, that Louisa encounters Jamie and Ellen, who have known each other for years.
All three are desperate to fight back against the enemy and when the trio find themselves in possession of the mysterious Enigma code machine by means of an even more mysterious German flier, they use the machine to the advantage of Jamie’s squadron to inflict as much damage as possible on the relentless German assault by air.
It’s a deadly and dangerous course for the young people but they are all made of stern stuff and are determined to wreak havoc on the despised Germans.
The interaction between all the characters, both primary and secondary, is fascinating and eminently engaging and for young readers this is a superb way to ‘learn history’ that might otherwise be quite dull while also reflecting on attitudes and intolerances, sadly still all too prevalent today.
This was a gripping read which I thoroughly enjoyed and I truly warmed to these young characters, each so very different yet united in their unwavering determination and strength of character.
I highly recommend it for young readers from around upper primary onwards and would be certainly advocating it for a ‘read around your topic’ program.