Believathon 3 – The Mask of Aribella

I was lucky enough to receive a free copy of this in exchange for my thoughts on it. All views and opinions are my own.

The Mask of Aribella by Anna Hoghton

This was my choice for Believathon prompt The Chain – Read a book with a colourful cast of characters, and it was certainly an excellent choice for that prompt!

Our main character, Aribella, discovers she can shoot fire from her fingertips and, after narrowly escaping the Palace guards after they raid her home and arrest her dad, finds herself taken in by fellow Caannovaccis – masked Venetians who protect the city using their special powers – speaking to animals, walking through walls, reading minds and/or stars and moving or creating objects with their minds…and more. So, yes, colourful!

Honestly, I was a little uncertain going into this. I thought it might be a bit superhero heavy for me, but it wasn’t at all. There’s enough to hook a superhero fan but it doesn’t feel like a typical superhero story.

Instead it’s more of a mystery with a dash of history and a dollop of magic and fantasy thrown in for good measure. And that is right up my street!

The setting of Venice is wonderful. In a serendipitous turn of events, I started this just as I was coming to the end of Katherine Woodfine’s Villains in Venice, which had already seen me captivated by the city, but it was here that I was truly transported there and enamoured by it.

Anna Hoghton’s writing is rich in detail and steeped in the history of the place and its culture and customs. I couldn’t get enough; I was ready to jump straight on a plane!

The characters themselves are likeable and their powers bring a good mix of the light-hearted and the dramatic. There’s some unfortunate sleepwalking mishaps, singed tablecloths and uncommunicative cats, but there’s also a strong message of believing in yourself and some tense and exciting saving of the day.

The mystery element of the book is perfectly plotted and paced too. There’s plenty of intrigue, secrets and uncertainty along with creeping doubts and wariness about just which characters to trust and what was really going on.

As an adult who’s familiar with the genre, I did figure out a fair bit of it, but even so there were things I didn’t see coming and I really liked the way the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ and ‘whos’ were gradually revealed.

A thoroughly enjoyable mystery adventure, with an exciting and original slant in its masked protectors, this has strong messages of friendship, courage and being yourself and embracing your differences.

Peapod’s Picks – Mouse and Bear

We are still reading A Pipkin of Pepper, and The Tiger Who Came to Tea has made a reappearance in our bedroom reads, but two new books in the post have also edged their way into Peapod’s oh-so-slow-to-change bedtime book basket!

One of these is Ross Collins’ There’s a Mouse in My House, which we were delighted to see picks up where There’s a Bear on My Chair leaves off and we’ve been reading them back to back each evening.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the first book, we’ll start there. ‘There’s a Bear on My Chair’ sees an increasingly frustrated mouse desperately trying to get Bear off his chair.

Peapod especially loves seeing Mouse up the ladder giving Bear his nastiest glare (mostly because he loves a ladder..!) and when Mouse calls him a “stinky bear” which he finds hilarious.

In the end, our exasperated rodent gives up and leaves. Bear, clearly feeling smug to have won the battle of wills, also decides he can now get up and head home, only to find that perhaps he’s not won after all..

We rejoin this pair as an outraged Bear tries to boot out his unwanted lodger. I loved how some of the scenarios reflect some of those in the first book to an extent but are different enough to not feel like a repeat (important when you’re reading one after the other night after night!)

The ending is just what you’d want and is definitely Peapod’s favourite part of the book (along with the leaky bath and “cheerio” which he delights in joining in with!)

It’s a wonderfully warm and joyful way to leave this troubled twosome, referring back to the very start of book one in such a pleasing way.

These books are a brilliant example of what a really enjoyable picture book should be. It’s such a seemingly simple concept, but it works so well – bouncing, rhyming text, great characters (and a great relationship between them) and expressive illustrations all combine to create a lively, funny read with enough humour for the adults reading it to appreciate too, and buckets of visual humour too of course.

It’s a classic case of the picture being worth a thousand words telling, as the way Bear and Mouse are feeling towards each other is so clear throughout and we clearly see their exasperation building as we read towards the showdown(s)!

Ross is a big favourite in our house and this newest outing is no exception. Lots of fun.

Peapod’s Picks – Too Much Stuff

We are still reading A Pipkin of Pepper, and The Tiger Who Came to Tea has made a reappearance in our bedroom reads, but two new books in the post have also edged their way into Peapod’s oh-so-slow-to-change bedtime book basket!

The first of these is ‘Too Much Stuff’ by Emily Gravett, who I’m such a big fan of.

We’ve written before about Tidy which we love and Too Much Stuff returns to the woods with some familiar faces (I love Badger’s cameo in this!) but this time our main characters are Meg and Ash, a pair of magpies building a nest and preparing for their eggs to hatch.

In a move that will have parents everywhere smiling (they don’t call it nesting for nothing!), our pair start to fret about what their hatchling will need, each finding more and more ‘stuff’ their chicks just can’t do without, until their nest is lost under it all and one final addition might just be a step too far…

Just as Badger’s battle to balance his love of order and cleanliness with his natural wild surroundings saw us reminded – subtly and gently – about our impact and reliance the world around us, Too Much Stuff just as gently reminds us of quite literally that – the amount if stuff we buy, use and importantly throw away.

It’s a call to consider before we consume, and to reuse, recycle or pass on what we’re done with.

Of course, it’s also just a very funny story with a wonderful cast of characters! Reminiscent (but essentially very different from) Oliver Jeffers’ Stuck, it’s a hilariously daft scenario filled with warmth and such a pleasing resolution.

The addition of the vintage style magazine adverts in the end papers is glorious – funny and astute and perfectly delivering the message of the book.

They’ll raise a smile with adult readers and would be absolutely brilliant to focus on and use alongside the book in schools too, especially as a way of bringing picture books to slightly older readers.

It has everything you want in a story – drama, excitement, humour, warmth, friendship, a message that’s carefully woven into it and the gorgeous illustrations you’d expect from Emily Gravett.

Fairytale Revolution

I was lucky enough to request and receive copies of these free from the publishers in exchange for an honest review.

There are, let’s be honest, a plethora of fairytale retelling, reimaginings and reworks out and coming out at the moment.

But I was instantly drawn to these thanks to their gorgeous artwork and design. All but one – Cinderella Liberator (which uses carefully selected classic Arthur Rackham images) – are illustrated beautifully by Laura Barrett.

They all use a minimal colour palette and silhouette style to great effect. It really gives them that classic fairytale feel, even when depicting more modern scenes and activities, as in Blackman’s Blueblood.

They really complement the stories well, bringing a rustic charm to Duckling, humour and environmental contrast to Hansel and Greta and a fresh, contemporary feel to Blueblood.

The use of the silhouette style also ties them in beautifully with the traditional illustrations used in Cinderella Liberator, which I adore.

I really loved reading about how the illustrations used were carefully selected from Rackham’s originals too to reflect the inclusive, empowering messages of this retelling.

All have a polished finish and stylish design that give them that special quality you want in books to gift or treasure.

The tales are all twists in the originsls to greater or lesser degrees. I was intrigued to see what these authors more used to writing for adults (with the exception of Blackman) would do as they turned their hand to children’s tales.

Interestingly, it was Malorie Blackman’s Blueblood that felt the ‘oldest’ of the collection; a take on the dark take of Blackbeard and his locked room of dead wives, here we see Nia taking vengeance on known bullies, abusers and misogynists by marrying them and forbidding them access to her study. Of course, their controlling natures mean it’s only a matter of time before they venture down there…

This definitely has the darkest themes of the four, being more suited to older children who will better grasp its message and ideas.

It cleverly addresses some complex, important and challenging subjects – domestic violence, misogyny and murder and questions. The moral dilemma it poses of the victim taking revenge becoming the wrongdoer, for example – can this be excused? Where are the lines drawn?

I certainly loved this aspect of it, though I have to be honest Blackman’s writing is rarely my cup of tea (I know! I’m in the minority!) and this is quintessentially her, so if you’re a fan of her books you’ll love it and as a take on fairytales that teens can also get their teeth into this is perfect.

Jeanette Winterson’s take on Hansel and Gretel by contrast probably felt the youngest of the four, with much pantomime caricaturing, silliness and word play. With its fast-pace, humour and bordering-on-the-ridiculous, almost spoof-like baddies, I can see this going down a treat with young fans of Pamela Butchart or similar big, bold early chapter books.

Gretel here is Greta, with more than a nod to Greta Thunberg as the tale takes us on an environmental tour de force looking at deforestation, plastic waste, consumerism and our love of processed/fast/sugary foods over the planet.

The witch is, of course, not the villain we expect and there’s a dose of Helen Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread in her tale, which I enjoyed.

Overall, while I liked elements of this and the idea behind it, I didn’t love it. However, I suspect a younger reader would!

Kamila Shamsie’s Duckling is probably the tale that stays truest to its original form. Rather than huge changes, twists and reworking, this is all about emphasis and viewpoint.

While the original Ugly Duckling focuses on fitting it (or not), on ‘finding your crowd’ as it were, Shamsie’s take on it is instead about being different, being proud of it, accepting it – and accepting others who are. It is less about being around those who accept you for looking the same (or vice versa) but finding a place among those who accept you as you are, for you.

The stork, the Grand Old Duck and the Mother Duck are excellent, thought-provoking characters bringing depth and subtly raising themes of being an outsider, peer pressure and standing up for what’s right even when that’s hard to do.

I love that this story does not shy away from how gruelling and difficult Duckling’s life is made because of her difference and her unwillingness to bend; she is kind, she she is helpful, she is friendly, but she is not a push over. She is herself and stays true to this even when deserted, bullied and alone.

This is a story of hope and ultimately of togetherness, and a retelling I felt worked really well.

Rebecca Solnit’s take on Cinderella – Cinderella Liberator – was definitely my favourite of the series. I loved it.

It keeps the essence of the original brilliantly but brings it up to date – getting rid of the outdated royal marriage and focusing instead on finding friendship, creative outlets and ways to be our best or truest selves.

The writing style is wonderful and there were SO many passages I loved, that felt important and moving and poignant and empowering for any reader – on love, on self, on beauty, on help, on kindness…on dresses with big pockets.

And it’s this realism and humour that prevents it being preachy, saccharine or twee. There’s a lightness of touch and a perfect blend of magic, the familiar and observant humour that all comes together to create a thoroughly enjoyable tale.

At the end of the book (indeed at the end of all the books) is a piece by each author on their inspiration, on how and why they wrote these tales the way they did and I found Rebecca’s fascinating, giving a weight and context to the tale that made me love it even more.

Overall, this is a great new series of beautiful books, each of which will appeal to different readers in different ways. My favourite was undoubtedly Cinderella Liberator, but the beauty of this range is that each author brings something different so there really is something for everyone!

Believathon 3 – Orphans of the Tide

I was lucky enough to receive a free copy of this in exchange for my thoughts on it. All views and opinions are my own.

This was my choice for Believathon prompt The Dagger – Read a book with a dangerous setting. With hindsight, I’m not sure I’d choose this for that prompt, but it fits a couple of other rooms too, notably The Footprints – read a book with a prominent villain.

Orphans of the Tide by Struan Murray, illustrated by Manuel Sumberac, published by Puffin

I’d heard a lot about how great this was but knew very little about the story itself, but you can’t fail to be pulled straight in when a book begins with a whale ‘beached’ on a rooftop with a boy emerging from its stomach, with only a young inventor brave and quick-witted enough to go up there and help him.

I was hooked immediately.

Ellie (our young inventor) is a typically great female lead – clever, loyal, determined, a little impulsive and with a mind that’s always whirring. I really loved the descriptions of her chaotic workshop; they painted a perfect picture of her and I wanted to spend hours in there looking at all her drawings, half-hatched plans, interesting finds and unfinished creations.

Ellie lives and works in The City – the last city on earth, jutting precariously over the sea, everywhere else destroyed by The Enemy in The Great Drowning that saw the other cities and islands wiped out.

The Enemy returns sporadically, each time claiming a new Vessel to work through and each time claiming more lives.

When Seth emerges from inside the whale (with no idea who or where he is), the other residents of The City are convinced he is The Vessel and set about trying to capture and kill him before The Enemy can use him to return.

Ellie, however, is determined to save him and so begins the darkest, most perilous game of Cat and Mouse you’ve ever seen as Ellie and Seth (aided begrudgingly by Ellie’s best friend Anna) attempt to hide from and outwit The City’s Inquisitors.

Everyone lives in fear of The Enemy and The Vessel and the sense of mass panic, hysteria and tension they create in The City is palpable and all too believable.

I have to confess that the way rumour, fear and alarm spreads through the residents, and the authoratitve, powerful nature of The Inquisitors in charge had me convinced this book was going to take a different path.

However, the route it actually took was brilliant and took me an embarrassing amount of time to cotton on to (I’d guessed at certain things but hadn’t put two and two together!)

And this is, of course, thanks in no small part to the excellent writing and the way it somehow manages to keep up a relentless pace and tension, but also to drip feed information and gradually unfold. The use of old diary entries especially was really effective.

Likewise, our characters feel like they never stop; always on the run, hiding or plotting and planning with wolves at the door. And yet, somehow we’re given time to really get to know them, to explore their back stories, their feelings and their relationships. They have both urgency and depth. And there is space to sensitively explore themes of grief, loss and friendship too.

The setting itself is perfect, managing to feel all at once like a historical town – all cobbles and towers and terraces and alleys, all markets and gossip and hangings; a remote coastal Isle in winter – all wind-swept, salt-sprayed, freezing cold edges; and a dark dystopian future.

It’s a perfect setting for the book, all dark corners, precarious heights, shadows and crashing waves. Matched with Manuel Sumberac’s atmospheric illustrations, the formidable Inquisitors and the absolutely terrific Enemy it all comes together to create a gloriously dark fantasy.

And I’ll leave with a word on The Enemy itself – What. A. Villain. Marvellously evil, it is brilliantly drawn.

Overall, this is a tense and twisting fantasy with a brilliantly dark setting and an even darker Enemy.

Peapod’s Picks – witches, skeletons, pumpkins and soup!

Can you guess I should have posted this a couple of weeks ago?! It’s been a few weeks since I managed to get a Peapod’s Picks up, and I don’t really know why, but that’s life sometimes!

Anyway, we’re back today with some books that you might have expected to see in a Halloween themed post. They’ve certainly found spots there before.

We’re still reading lots of these repeatedly at bedtime though, so I don’t feel too bad about posting them now.

Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

The popular tale of the “witch, cat, hat ginger plait” who gains several passengers on her broom until it “snap two!” as a dragon appears hungry for witch and chips – will her new friends come to the rescue?

I love this and read it EVERY year at Halloween for storytime at work and it’s always great fun. Obviously this year was a bit different, but I read it online instead and hopefully it was still enjoyed!

Peapod, for his part, is still doing his Room on the Broom jigsaw several times a day and has spent a good deal of time running round dropping his wand/hat and making us tie the ribbon back in his hair so it could fall out again – “down!!”

Funnybones books by Janet Alan Ahlberg and Andre Amstutz

The classic trip down a dark, dark staircase to a dark, dark cellar and the skeletons who live there who set off on a mission to frighten someone… and all the other adventures they have.

Peapod has loved these – he thinks it’s great when we sing the songs to put dog back together and loves seeing the animal skeletons too.

He loves skeleton crew because he’s been taken with pirates ever since we read Jeremy Worried About the Wind, and Mystery Tour because he is obsessed with cars!

And if we’re not reading them, he’s crawling behind our pillows pretending he’s going into the cellar!!

Winnie the Witch/Winnie’s Amazing Pumpkin by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul

We do have some other Winnie books too, but I haven’t got them down yet…i will be though!

Peapod has taken to loveable witch Winnie and her long-suffering, oft tripped over cat Wilbur, in no small part because of Korky Paul’s animated and humorous illustrations and Winnie’s propensity for tripping over Wilbur falling down the stairs which he thinks is very funny indeed.

In Winnie’a first adventure she gets fed up of falling over Wilbur and tries some colour changing spells. Peapod has started joining in with “Abracadabra!” though it’s more like “Abadaba!” It’s lovely listening to him trying to get his tongue round it though!

Peapod loves Winnie’s Amazing Pumpkin because of all the veg in it (“I like carrots, I like peas…”) and seeing it all toppling off Winnie’s broom.

The Pumpkin Soup books by Helen Cooper

We’ve saved the best for last. Peapod absolutely LOVES, LOVES, LOVES these!

If you don’t know them, Cat, Duck and Squirrel live in the old white cabin and make pumpkin soup, each with their own part to play in making it “the best you’ve ever tasted”, until one day Duck decides he should stir…

Delicious sees them run out of pumpkins and having to find a new soup to cook, much to Duck’s chagrin. Peapod likes seeing Duck’s reactions to all the soups the best!

But his absolute, unquestionable favourite of the favourites is A Pipkin of Pepper.

He especially loves the police dogs (and the Hippo phoning them), the list of peppers at the pepper shop, and Duck “not hold[ing] on tight!”

We are reading this multiple times each evening and he has it down to act out pretty much all day on a loop too.

Our days now sound something like this, repeated from wake up to bedtime:

“No salt!”

“Lost! Lost my friends!”

“Pepper shop.”

“Ring ring. Hello police. Lost Duck situation (‘sedation!’)”

“There they are! Cat! Squirrel!”

Often with extra bits and always with actions.

We spent today calling for Cat and Squirrel as we walked round Dunham Massey, which did at least draw slightly fewer odd looks, than when we had to act it out on our way round tesco earlier in the week…

And that’s brought us pretty much up to date!

Did you read any picture books over Halloween? Are any of these, favourites in your house too?

Believathon 3 – A Clock of Stars: The Shadow Moth

I was lucky enough to receive a free copy of this in exchange for my thoughts on it. All views and opinions are my own.

This was my choice for Believathon prompt The Crown – Read a book set in an alternate world to our own, but it fits a couple of other rooms too, notably The Flash of Lightning – Read a book which incorporates folktales.

A Clock of Stars: The Shadow Moth by Francesca Gibbons, illustrated by Chris Riddell, published by Harper Collins

First things first – just look how gorgeous this book is! And it has all the added extras that make a physical book, especially a hardback one like this, feel really special – a map (have I mentioned before maybe just once or twice how much I LOVE a map in a book?!), an illustrated cast of characters and a gorgeous, classy cover under its equally appealing, magical jacket, not to mention the fantastic illustrations throughout.

When people moan about the price of physical books or buying hardbacks, it’s books like this one that highlight why its worth it. This is a beautiful object to hold and read, to keep, to return to and treasure, and you’re drawn into the story’s magic as soon as you see it.

Which is a wonderful thing, because let me tell you this story’s magic is truly something.

With echoes of Narnia (I know, everyone is saying that but I can’t help it – it’s true) and the traditional fairytales we all know, more than a sprinkling of the Slavic, plus a dose of modern life in our main characters, their sibling rivalries and their feelings towards mum’s new man, this is a fabulous start to a new fantasy MG series.

With dark forests inhabited by monstrous Skret, mysterious doors in trees, a soothsaying clock, moths as guides and keys, a lonely crown prince and a villainous queen-to-be…not to mention a wizened royal advisor, a brawny hunter (with more than a touch of Disney’s Gaston about him!), tall castle towers, quests, rivalries, a huge wooden dragon… and of course treasures, tricks, treason and traps – this is a book fizzing with fairytale know-how, characters and traditions that still somehow manages to be completely it’s own tale.

And what a tale.

Sisters Imogen and Marie follow a moth through a secret door in a tree deep in the gardens of Mrs Haberdash’s tea rooms (incidentally, how great is the name Mrs Haberdash?!)

Stepping out into another world they find themselves facing imminent danger from the shrieking beasts that are terrorising a city locked up from dusk, their houses covered in Skret bones and skulls in an effort to deter them.

What a setting to step into! It felt steeped in history and you just knew it had a tale or two to tell. I loved the description (and visual depiction!) of the bone clad buildings locked and silent – slightly chilling, suggestive of strange customs and traditions and ultimately very atmospheric and mysterious.

Luckily – as bells chime ominously for night fall, beasts bay and with not a soul in sight – the girls are whisked into the safety of the castle by Miroslav, the lonely prince who lives there with his uncle, who has reined since Miro’s parents were killed. He agrees to help them find their way home but of course this is easier said than done…

What follows is a tale of two halves (well, more really…even though that’s impossible) We see Imogen and Marie desperately trying to find a way home, with hot-headed, bossy, big sister Imogen reflecting on her relationship with Marie and with their mum as she does, and growing so much as a person too.

But we also see Miro’s story. Miro himself is a great character. At first seeming obvious and straightforward, we realise there’s a complexity to him and his story over time (likewise his uncle who is nowhere near as likeable but proves that there’s more to people than the traditional storybook good and evil).

As the children enlist the help of hunters, avoid royal guards and befriend ckockmakers and as they journey deep into the forest to face the Skret, we also find out the story of his town, Yaroslav, and the nearby forest, its divisions and troubles.

We hear about the forest-dwelling Skret, the way they turned on the town and the way monsters aren’t always those who at first appear monstrous. We’re told the fable of Sertze Hora – the heart of the mountain – sacred to them and to the balance of life in the forest. We see the disparity between the city’s ‘native’ mesto and the lesni who have fled the forest that was their home (I loved the tree houses!) as its now longer safe and sought sanctuary in the city, only to find it prejudiced against them.

All of these are bound together in the children’s quest bringing depth to the tale and questions, thoughts and observations on human nature, togetherness and society that are just as relevant to us in the here and now as in a make-believe, storybook town.

Meanwhile, there’s also a witch’s prophecy and a spectacularly despicable ‘spare mother’ to consider (including a brilliant Snow White-esque scene).

Anneshka is a character and a half and I loved to hate her. She is the perfect wicked villain of the piece with the hapless King’s ear and beauty on her side (of course). She is utterly brilliant and I loved how her tale ended here (I can’t say anymore for fear of spoilers!)

And I can’t possibly leave out the one-eyed clock maker and his mysterious clock and other creation. SO GOOD! He may only be on the sidelines, but I’d put money on us seeing more from him in future books… If The Miniaturist made clocks in children’s books…

And in all of this, there’s a humour and an energy and a sense of adventure and exploration and a heart that keeps everything from feeling too dark dangerous, that brings a moth-like glimmer of hope to the doom and gloom and despair, that reassures us of the glorious small comforts of home despite the homesickness and new-found freedoms.

It keeps us grinning and has our hearts in our mouths as the children swoop off on velecours (giant birds), and race toboggan-style helter-skelter down an icy mountain path. It reminds us of the joy and warmth of home and family and friendship.

In short, I loved this. It was imaginative and real. It drew heavily on fairytale and folkloric tradition and created something unique and exciting. It was a story of courage, both bold and public, and quiet and personal.

It was exciting and adventurous and I absolutely cannot wait for book two!

Believathon 3 – Storm

I was lucky enough to receive a free copy of this in exchange for my thoughts on it. All views and opinions are my own.

This was my choice for Believathon prompts The Torn Page – Read a book with supernatural elements and The Spilled Ink – Read a book with ghosts in it, though it fits the prompts for a couple of other rooms too.

Storm by Nicola Skinner, illustrated by Flavia Sorrentino, published by Harper Collins

Firstly, if you’re not sold on that striking cover, then allow me to share with you the even more gorgeous end papers and cover-beneath-the-cover (which I only found when Peapod started reading this. He hates dust jackets!)

Simply stunning. And they set the bar pretty high for the book.

But let me tell you, it more than does them justice.

I had no idea what this was about; it was a total surprise and not at all what I expected from that cover but something I was excited about – it felt really DIFFERENT!

And it was.

Frankie has just woken up. One hundred years after she died in an unforeseen tsunami that hit her village. And she’s as angry now as she was when she was alive.

Frankie’s always had a temper. And now she’s dead, there’s even more to get angry about.

I could not figure out how this would work or where it would go, but oh my goodness it is SUPERB.

How anyone can take family and friendship issues, a poltergeist and supporting cast of ghosts, a villainous ghost hunter and his downtrodden ghost-seeing son, throw in some astute, wry and thought-provoking social commentary and come up with a children’s book that isn’t ridiculous or farcical and doesn’t find itself pulling too far in one direction or another is unbelievable.

Or it would be if Nicola Skinner hadn’t pulled it off masterfully here.

This is quite simply one of the best children’s books I’ve read in recent years. And from someone who doesn’t really read contemporary or funny books, I don’t say that lightly.

I loved so much about this – the blend of real life and supernatural happenings; tough issues and gross, funny or spooky goings on; heartache and humour. The balance in it all was spot on.

It takes some really hard topics and emotions and addresses them brilliantly. It feels more blunt than many books, but that’s not to say it lacks sensitivity, it just doesn’t shy away from death or the often ugly nature of the human condition. Yes, it’s dark at times, it pulls no punches, but it’s also full of heart and incredibly moving.

And Frankie’s voice feels perfect too. Anger, guilt, sorrow, frustration, anxiety, confusion, uncertainty, and moments of happiness, warmth and fond memories – she runs the gamut of emotions, and always with a cracking sense of humour, realism and poignancy.

Honestly, I can’t tell you how much I rated this. It feels so fresh, so unique, so utterly original and written in such an engaging, observant and understanding way.

I can’t wait to go back and read Bloom and to see what Nicola has in store for us next.

Believathon 3 – When Life Gives You Mangoes

I was lucky enough to receive a free copy of this in exchange for my thoughts on it. All views and opinions are my own.

This was my choice for Believathon prompt The Fingerprints – Read a book by an author from a different culture than you, thiugh it also fits the prompts for a couple of other rooms too.

When Life Gives You Mangoes by Kereen Getten, cover art by Bex Glendening, published by Pushkin

Clara can’t remember anything about last summer and best friend Gaynah is constantly picking at the fact. Their friendship is under strain as Gaynah acts less and less like a best friend should.

When new girl Rudy arrives, Clara begins to spend time with her – playing, exploring and even venturing to Clara’s estranged uncle’s old house through the banana groves, where all is gradually revealed.

I’ll be honest, contemporary (as many of you know well!) is not my usual thing. But this has me hooked – it’s a real ‘all in one sitting’ of a book!

Kereen Getten’s author bio at the back of the book says:

And this real life experience – “Her town is where I was born. The game ‘pick leaf’ is a game I played” – and the fondness with which it is drawn on here, is the biggest thing that makes this book so special.

It has left me yearning to read more about Sycamore, its inhabitants and their way of life. Or, if not there precisely, then somewhere else that draws on Kereen’s Jamaican background, as this small community is depicted vividly and warmly.

I was completely drawn in and it all feels so real. I could feel the sweat from the baking hot sun and hear grumpy Ms Gee hollering. It was a world apart from anything I know – as Rudy’s arrival and her mother’s questioning of Clara’s walk home alone attested to – but I felt like I knew it.

I loved the way we saw the laid back, close-knit village community contrasted with the hustle and bustle, traffic and heavy air of the city as well as with Rudy and her mum’s experiences of England.

The way this unfamiliar setting and different way of life was carefully balanced with the universal truths of friendships, fallings out and adolescent moods (at least in the first half of the book) was spot on. Any child reading this, anywhere in the world, could easily relate to Clara’s feelings of hurt, anger and betrayal as she struggles with her friendship with best friend Gaynah.

Likewise, the game of Pick Leaf might be unknown to us; a dip in the sea or river might be uncommon to most; banana groves, forts and overgrown hills may not be the usual location for pretend play. BUT what child (and adult) can’t relate to a game of racing, finding, competing, running, winning. Or to splashing, swimming and playing in water. Or to games of make believe and adventure.

This is a glorious depiction of childhood in all its energy, joy, injustices, and heartache. The emotions and uncertainties, the highs and lows, the complexities of it all are portrayed perfectly.

And then there was the twist. OH. MY. GOD. THE TWIST.

I did not see that coming in a million years. I can’t say anything else for fear of spoiling it, but it was genius.

And it took this beyond childhood gripes and turned it into a book about community and family and what that really means. It gently looked at loss and grief and all the difficult emotions that are part of that, both for us and those around us. It made this something really special.

A moving, clever and compelling surprise of a story. More please!

The Midnight Guardians

I was lucky enough to receive a copy of this from the publishers. All views and opinions are my own.

I received this at work as it’s our Children’s Book of the Month for November, and I can’t help but feel a bit gutted that it’s not going to get the push it really deserves with us being shut.

Yes, there’s our online message, and word of mouth, and of course the wonderful world of book twitter, but this is one that is both timely and brilliant and one which I’d have been pressing into palms left, right and centre.

I will just have to do the best I can here and shout about it all the more when we reopen!

Put simply, this is one of the best World War 2 books I’ve read in a long time.

Always a hot topic in children’s literature, there’s a plethora of war themed books already, all with a different slant and many of which are favourites of mine.

So to choose a theme so well-mined already and come up with something so unique, so well pitched, so historically accurate and still so relevant today, not to mention so entertaining, magical and hopeful too, is really something and a huge credit to Ross Montgomery’s engaging writing style, meticulous research and understanding of his audience.

Col has been evacuated to live with his Aunt Claire after his dad dies during the war. His sister, Rose, has stayed behind in London to help the war effort but they have agreed to spend Christmas together. When Christmas comes but Rose doesn’t, Col sets off to find her.

Stopping at the cottage they always spent Christmas at, he finds his childhood imaginary friends come very much to life, having returned to protect him from The Midwinter King who has taken control of the Spirit World and has devastating plans for this one too.

I went into this a little hesitantly, expecting a mix of Narnia (which I loved as a child), Land of Roar (which – sorry! – I wasn’t a huge fan of) and some sort of war story. I didn’t really know how it would, or indeed could, work. But, oh it does!

The balance struck between fantasy, history and personal drama is perfect. Likewise, the blend of humour and more serious and emotive messages is just right.

The characters themselves are brilliant, and all with their own unique personalities, strengths and flaws.

The relationship between Mr Noakes (Badger in a waistcoat) and King of Rogues (faithful knight in shining armour) is such a great one, with brilliant bickering and superb sniping between these two friends.

Likewise, the relationship between King of Rogues and newcomer to the group, Ruth, is wonderful. The way their mistrust of each other, and her confident exterior proving a match for his self-importance is great fun to read, and it’s equally lovely to see them gradually accept each other as the story develops.

Ruth was definitely my favourite character in the book and I loved the way her inclusion helped bring another aspect of the war (the persecution of Jewish people and the Kindertransport) to the book. Her story really adds extra depth and breadth to the book, and the role her celebration of Chanukah plays in delivering the message of hope the book carries is very effective too.

I thought the way the historical elements of the book were brought in were excellent too, and the use of real newspaper articles was brilliant. This has clearly been extremely closely and keenly researched, with many little details and lesser known facts really bringing this into its own, as well as adding to the humorous aspects of the book (Mock Banana I’m looking at you!)

It also does a great job at making the war relevant today in its messages about power, dark times, hope and togetherness.

The fantastical elements were brilliant too. We meet talking trees (who will have you in stitches), squabbling giants and easily distracted fairy folk, not to mention the formidable Midwinter King and Green Man themselves. There is a huge array of fantasy folk and magic places, but the story never loses its very human heart.

(And for Labyrinth fans, there’s an absolute gem of a showdown you’ll love!)

This is a book with truly broad appeal. It’s wartime setting will price popular with children at home, aswell as in school libraries, class reads and as a stimulus for wartime topic work.

With themes of family, friendship, loss and hope it is both sensitive and moving, whilst its magical and humorous elements bring levity and a touch of fantasy.

It is a book which draws on much of what has gone before and makes it absolutely and completely it’s own. One of a kind.