When the World Was Ours

I was lucky enough to request and receive a copy of this from the publishers in exchange for an honest review. All views and opinions are my own.

When the World Was Ours by Liz Kessler, cover art by unknown, published by Simon and Schuster

Although it can feel a popular topic and a crowded market at times, I’m always interested to see a new book set during wartime; it’s one of my favourite themes for children’s literature.

So I was really excited to be sent a copy of this.

Set during World War Two and written from the alternating viewpoints of three best friends – Leo, Elsa and Max – we follow their stories from pre-wartime through to the end of the war.

I really loved the use of the three different narratives and the way we joined each of them at the same points in time really helped emphasise how their lives were changing both in themselves and changing compared to each other’s.

I think everyone reading will feel one story speaks to them more strongly than the others, although all are compelling and incredibly moving. For me, it was Max’s.

I don’t really want to write too much more about that for fear of spoilers, but I found his character and situation so complex – frustrating and heartbreaking; his was the story that I desperately wanted to change and the story which felt the easiest to slip into.

If any of the book is a cautionary tale for today (and let me assure you, it subtly but emphatically is) against against complacency, against ignorance, against following the herd and believing the hype, against keeping your head down, against each man for himself…it is Max’s.

But Leo and Elsa’s stories are equally important, emotional and tough. While this may not be as graphic or hard-hitting in some ways as other books about the Holocaust, it has a quiet, haunting ability to stay with you long after reading.

And this has much to do with the relationships, memories, hopes and resilience of our main characters. It is these human connections that are central to the novel and in turn our connection to it.

A story of family, friendship, love and hope in the bleakest of times. This is a poignant story with an important message not only to remember, but to prevent anything like it happening again.

The Girl Who Became a Tree

I was lucky enough to request and receive a free copy of this from Bounce. All views and opinions are my own.

The Girl Who Became a Tree by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Kate Milner

Those of you who’ve been around the blog for a while will know I’m a sucker for a novel in verse (incidentally, is it just me that thinks these seem to be popping up more and more? Next big trend? You heard it here first 😉) Anyway, I love ’em! So I was thrilled when the lovely Louise at Bounce sent me a copy.

Between the verse factor, the brilliantly fairytale-ish title and that ⬆️⬆️ cover art, I was pretty much sold on this before I’d even opened it! And reading it only cemented this!

Through a series of poems, we meet Daphne as she struggles to cope with the loss of her dad. Increasingly withdrawn and escaping into her phone and her local library, strange things occur when one is lost within the other. In journeying to find her phone, can Daphne find herself again too?

This is a wonderful collection of poems. And first and foremost, that is what it is. I’m finding it hard to articulate this (and let me say now when I write this – I love both, this is in no way a criticism of either) but some verse novels feel like they’re told through very deliberate, sparse chapters of narrative, all in the same style rather than a collection of poems as such. Others, rarer I find, feel like a collection poems with a story, theme or common thread running through them, and this landed firmly in the second camp.

Collectively and in sequence these poems come together to tell a very well-crafted and multi-layered story, but so many of these would read just as well picked up, opened and read at random as stand alone poems.

As such, there are many styles and sorts of poems here, and as with the best poetry collections some will bowl you over and leave you speechless, speaking straight to your heart, with others meaning more to other people – each reader having their own favourites and personal connections with different ones.

For me, A Mother’s Love reminded me so much of my own mum and me, while the word play in The Librarian really touched on my own mental health struggles.

I also liked best those with no rhyme, those dealing with nature, and those that really brought the mythical, fantastical elements of the story to life, like You Cannot Go which really grabbed me.

We see Daphne following her namesake’s path and venturing into woodland through a hole in the library, meeting a monster, becoming a tree and it was these poems, and those that told the original myth (which I was unfamiliar with) that I really loved.

The use of the natural world, and of trees in particular, in the imagery, history and characters is phenomenal. Who knew trees could be written in such versatile and emotive ways? In the same vein the use of imagery, symbolism and recurring themes throughout is so strong and effective.

It’s amazing the way technology is fused with nature in the book and I really felt immersed in this world where the two meet; bringing together that feeling of old magic, of ancient times, of tricksters and monsters and of nature’s hand in it all with iPhones and consoles and modern connections and wires and cables .

And finally, a word on the illustrations which are stunning and absolutely made this book for me. It’s an emotional, magical thing without them but with them it’s just something else. I could pore over them for hours; I love the details, the textures, the feelings, the depth.

This is a collection of poetry filled with loss, loneliness, mythology and memories which combine with layered, atmospheric imagery to create a truly modern fairytale where nature and technology collide. Brilliant.

The Lost Soul Atlas

I was lucky enough to request and be approved to read an early copy of this on netgalley in exchange for an honest review. All views and opinions are my own.

The Lost Soul Atlas by Zana Fraillon, cover art by ?

I’ll preface this review with a warning that it’s one of my long, rambling ones in which I try and fail to explain why I love a book so much. If you don’t have time for that, I’ll give you the short version – this book is wonderful. Go and buy it.

I was a huge fan of Zana Fraillon’s first two books – The Bone Sparrow and The Ones That Disappeared – so I was beyond excited to see she had a new book due and then to be approved to read it.

In both her previous novels, Zana uses stories and friendship to shine a light on some very difficult and important subjects (child refugees in The Bone Sparrow and child slavery and trafficking in The Ones That Disappeared).

Whilst The Lost Soul Atlas is aimed perhaps slightly younger, it too uses the power of story, imagination and friendship to tell a story of homelessness, specifically homeless children, and the corrupt system and blinkered society which fails them. And it too is absolutely brilliant.

Perhaps a little less gritty and graphic than her previous books, the book nevertheless paints a bleak picture of the dangerous world which some children are forced to live in; it tells of a hopeless situation in which these children are somehow finding hope, positivity and possibility.

Cleverly written, there is humour, joy, creativity and optimism amongst these children, but at no point is their situation treated lightly – this is no jolly survival adventure – it is quite clear how hard life is as their cynicism, mistrust and defensive behaviours demonstrate.

This book is also slightly more fantastical than the previous two. Rather than a hint at the fantastic or the simple telling of stories, here we move between reality, memories and an incredibly well-crafted fantasy world – the Afterlife to be specific.

Twig is dead. The Gods have ensured that the dead forget, living out their afterlife (so to speak) in blissful ignorance with yoga and games of bridge. But Twig doesn’t want to forget. He wants to remember, and so he strays into The Gatherer’s path and is entrusted with the task of opening the crossings between worlds once more and freeing the memories the Gods are keeping for themselves.

With an atlas, a key, a bundle of bones, a Guardian in the form of a skeletal raven and a small army of ‘stick people’ Meeples, Twig sets out on his quest and as he does we see how it was he arrived there through his unfolding memories of life and events before.

Twig and his da had lived a poor but relatively happy life sharing stories in a cramped, shared flat, but with a roof over their heads at least. Until one day, Twig goes out to see where his Da goes at night and things go wrong.

Without his Da, Twig is lucky to be taken under Flea’s wing as he joins their group of street children, The Beasts, in their makeshift shelters in The Boneyard.

Switching between the two, the book is at once an immersive fantasy quest and a tense tale of life on the streets, in which it is easy to see how strong emotions, impossible hopes, naivety and desperation can make you most vulnerable to exploitation and being drawn involuntarily but irrevocably into a dark world of corruption.

There is so much to love about this book I hardly know where to begin – from the clever use of humour (and some truly awful, so-bad-they’re-good jokes) to balance the darker side of things to Flea’s hilarious insults and Kkruk’s begrudging sidekick stance; from the use and imagery of the maps and stories (“because stories are the maps for how we can be”) to the riddles, magic and characters Twig meets on his quest; from the friendships and loyalties both strengthened and challenged to the energy and life of good times in spite of the bad; from the nod to Alice in Wonderland to the distinct feel of Pratchett, especially in the Gods, to the way folklore and family tales are threaded throughout… and so much more besides.

The characters are brilliant. Kkruk the Sentries and the librarians really put the life into The Afterlife and Twig is a very likeable main character, who your heart goes out to as he grapples with strange new worlds.

But it was Flea (and their friendship with Twig) who I loved best. Creative, caring and ever hopeful but street-wise and uncompromising in their morals and actions they were an utterly fantastic character who I’d love to have been friends with myself!

I was also pleased to see Flea’s gender questioned, commented on and left unknown without becoming an issue or having any bearing on the story.

‘So, are you a boy?’
Flea shrugs. ‘Sometimes. And sometimes I’m a girl.
And sometimes I’m both at the same time or neither.
Mostly I’m just somewhere in between. Anyway…”

The other characters were just as good. The rest of Twig’s Blood Family, for example, give away shades and hints of their back stories – enough to give them depth and difference and individual traits, and enough to see how various children can end up in such a bleak situation, but not so much that it bogs down the story.

The Hoblin meanwhile is brilliantly written as she manages to convey both real and fairytale evil and danger.

In short, I loved this book. It is, without doubt, in my top books of the year, and given that there’s still over five months to go, that’s no mean feat.

It helps of course that I love a map on a book so a whole story with maps woven through it was always going to appeal (can we please have an accompanying illustrated atlas with The Lost Soul Atlas (both book and painted), Flea’s tent maps and the rest in?!)

Punchy, unflinching and refusing to look away from the very real and heartbreaking situation on our streets, it is also a funny and wonderfully immersive fantasy. A magical tale of friendship, loyalty, suffering and hope, this is a story which will speak straight to your heart and to your imagination.

Scavengers

I requested and received a copy of this free from the publishers, in exchange for an honest review. All views are my own.

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Scavengers by Darren Simpson, illustrated by Tom Clohosy Cole

Landfill enjoys his life in the Hinterland – running free with dogs, foxes, goats and cats; swimming with turtles and chasing squirrels. He is happy in his wild, junk-yard home with old Babagoo taking care of him, as long as he follows the rules and sticks to the routine.

The rules are Babagoo’s way of keeping them safe from Outsiders. So is the wall inlaid with glass shards which must be checked for cracks, disrepair or infiltration every day. So is the need for cover whenever the Eye passes over. So is the fact that Landfill cannot yet accompany Babagoo to the Spit Pit to rummage for useful ‘treasures’ and catch gulls to eat.

And it is this last point, along with a couple of other seemingly, but emphatically not, insignificant events that plants a seed of doubt in Landfill’s mind about Babagoo’s rules and what he has always known to be true. And it is this seed of doubt combined with a chance meeting, that gradually triggers the events which will see Landfill and Babagoo’s world turned on its head.

The world-building in this is fantastic. While very much sticking to show not tell and avoiding being at all laboriously descriptive, Darren Simpson manages to describe in intricate detail this world made up of discarded, broken and ‘good for nothing’ objects in a way which has you clambering around it, climbing over it and chasing through it with Landfill.

The thick, sweet scent of rubbish and the acrid, sour smells of living unwashed, along with a multitude of others infiltrate the pages. The swarms of butterflies we see taking flight, the joy of splashing about in a sunlit pool of water (albeit, rather dirty water!), the absolute abandon with which Landfill lives as he lopes along on all fours with the dogs – all of it is described in a way which not only makes this place incredibly easy to picture,  but in a way which makes it easy to understand both how and why Landfill is so content in this place you couldn’t imagine being a home.

The use of a combination of altered, made up or old versions of words add to the sense of Landfill and Babagoo being a world apart, as do the scenes in the latter half of the book in which Landfill is slowly introduced to ‘Outside’ concepts, inventions and life. The way these are shown and described really hammer home how isolated from ‘normal’ life Landfill has been. Likewise, his innocence and naivety about the world only highlight his separation from it.

This is a coming of age story like no other. Landfill begin to question his world and rebel against Babagoo’s rules and ‘facts’. We see doubt creeping in and hurt, anger and confusion taking their turns. But ultimately, we see his love for Babagoo and his want, and need, to trust him and believe him.

However, as the reader, we are also able to see, or at least guess at, Babagoo’s dishonesty and his motives – there is no doubt he loves Landfill and wants to protect him, but his fear of Outsiders and the actions they cause may be pushing him away instead.

While part of me would have loved to know more about Babagoo’s backstory, I also liked that we were left to make up our own minds about Babagoo and his past – where do the lines of right and wrong blur, cross or meet? What should or shouldn’t he have done? Can we excuse him? What led him to his current life? Why does he do what he does? The book comes with discussion questions at the end (great for schools or children’s book groups) but there is so much to discuss from Babagoo’s character alone.

I thought the relationship between Landfill and Babagoo was incredibly well-written – the bickering and rows and the deception and disobedience juxtaposed with really tender moments where we clearly see how much they care for each other. The way this built over the book made the final chapters even more dramatic and emotive.

I did at times find the early chapters a bit slow, but the pace gradually quickens as events unfold, until the final chapters which are punchy and pacey, chaotic and tense, making this slow burning start very effective in the end. These final scenes are frenetic with panic, confusion, and desperation and a stark contrast to the contented tranquillity of their life at the start.

Again, this leaves us with questions that open up a wealth of discussion about personal vs. private lives and when we intervene and how, about mental health, homelessness and support (or lack of), about society, materialism and ‘the norm’.

I started reading this with echoes of Room or Our Endless Numbered Days, but it soon moved into its own, with its unique and detailed language and world-building to thank. There is a feel of David Almond to this, or at least there was for me, though I can’t quite place why, perhaps the coming of age narrative or the fact that the voice of this sits so well in that mid-ground between MG and YA, or perhaps for other reasons entirely! Whatever the reasons, I think if you like Almond, you’d enjoy this.

This book was a slow burner for me, but I’m glad I stuck with it. It’s incredibly moving, heart-breaking at times, and there is much to discuss, pick over and reflect on by the end.

 

No Fixed Address

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Can you ever feel at home when your ‘house’ is always on the move?

Felix and his mom Astrid have a secret: they are living in a van. Astrid promises it’s only til she finds a new job and begs Felix not to breathe a word. So when Felix starts a new school, he does his best to hide it, even though his home has some serious downsides, like no privacy, heating, space or bathroom.

But Felix has a plan to turn their lives around. All he needs is a little luck a lot of brain power…

This is another book, a bit like ‘The List of Real Things’ that straddles the MG/YA age range. Technically YA, it would be best suited to younger YA readers or more mature MG readers ready to start reading slightly older books. It tackles the serious, all-too relevant and sadly all-too prevalent issue of homelessness, but with humour, hope and a lot of luck involved, preventing it from becoming too weighty, serious or bleak.

It highlights in particular the ‘hidden homeless’ – a worryingly high number of people (hat is sadly only getting higher) who, for one reason or another (losing their jobs, finding their tenancies unexpectedly ended, illness etc.), find themselves without a fixed place to live: not (yet) sleeping rough, but for example on the couches of friends, in hostels, or in the case of Felix and his mum Astrid in the story, in cars or vans.

I thought Susin Nielsen did a wonderful job at highlighting the many challenges this throws up – both practically and emotionally – with a real lightness of touch and without it becoming a heavy, ‘preachy’ or depressing read. While your heart goes out to Felix as he tries to hide his home-life from people at school, including his friends, there is plenty of humour within the book, not least between him and his best friend Dylan to counteract it. Felix himself is an enormously likeable main character – determined, resilient and ever the optimist – and I thought his mum Astrid was well-written too.

The direction the book takes as Felix tries to find a way out of their desperate situation is somewhat whimsical and highly unlikely, but it works wonderfully within the context and feel of the rest of the book. Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch of the imagination (and if I’m honest, it all gets tied off a bit too neatly for me by the end) but it’s an enjoyable, easy to read book with an important message and a feel-good, optimistic heart.

The List of Real Things

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Grace knows the difference between what’s real and the strange ideas that float around in her little sister’s mind.

Their parents died – that’s real.

A secret hotel on the cliff-top where their parents are waiting – definitely NOT real.

So when grief strikes again, Grace is determined not to let her sister’s outlandish imagination spiral out of control. But the line between truth and fantasy is more complicated than it seems…

This was a quick read, but a thoroughly enjoyable one. A real one-sitting-somewhere-comfy-with-a-cup-of-coffee-and-cake sort of book.

Yes, some of what was likely to happen was easy to guess early on, but the how, where and why of it wasn’t. And, yes, the secondary characters felt like a slightly predictable assortment at times, but a wonderfully endearing assortment at that: a bit like when you get a box of chocs – you expect to find a caramel, a strawberry, a truffle, a praline etc. …there’s no real surprises, but that’s because it works and it’s what we want. It also gave the main characters and their very well-drawn and unique personalities chance to shine.

The story is told from Grace’s point of view: she’s 14 and since their parents died has been her little sister, Bee’s most loyal and caring protector. But as she starts to become interested in make-up, boys and popularity, she finds herself increasingly conflicted between her absolute love of and concern for Bee, and being embarrassed and annoyed by both Bee and her unconventional, not-especially-well-off family life.

It’s a testament to how well Grace was written that she drove me nuts at times: she’s a teenage girl starting to push away from her family and find her place, if she wasn’t frustrating and at times incredibly dislikeable, she wouldn’t have been at all believable.

I thought the challenges she was facing were very well written: trying to be the grown up one, looking out for her sister and taking on too much at times, whilst simultaneously struggling with all the usual teen issues too: belonging, friendships, fitting in and, of course, boys. I loved seeing her mature and find herself as the book progressed.

Bee herself was a wonderfully quirky and loveable character. 6 going on 60, her best friends are her Grandfather and the eccentric old librarians the Misses Allen. Which perhaps explains her rather odd way of speaking, even odder mannerisms and the very strange ideas she has which may or may not be real…

…which leads us to the fantasy element of the book. This is by and large a contemporary piece of fiction, set in the everyday lives of Bee and Grace as they come to terms with deaths in the family. However, when Bee starts talking to the family dog, seeing ghosts and trying to find out about an old hotel that absolutely does not exist any more, what’s real and what’s not becomes increasingly blurred.

And this leads us in turn to my only sticking point with this book, which is the age it is aimed at. As an MG book I thought the fantasy element was very effective, both as part of the plot and as a way of tackling the more sensitive issues of loss and grief that the book covers. Similarly, the characters themselves and the way the issues the family are facing are touched on but not really delved into in great depth felt just right for MG readers, but Young Adults may be left wanting a bit more.

So, although it’s technically YA, but I would say it sits much more comfortably at the top end of MG or as a good bridge between the two. I don’t like to pigeon-hole books into age and this is an enjoyable regardless that I’m by no means writing off for older readers (I’m in my mid-30s so categorically not MG or YA!). But, I’m also conscious that a lot of teen readers expect certain things from contemporary YA fiction and a lot of young readers and their families can find it hard to know what to read as they start to want to move on from just MG books.

So, I mention the age thing as a guide and as something which struck me as I read it with my bookseller hat on. Whatever your age, it is a great read to settle in for and consume all t ones (a bit like those chocolates I mentioned earlier!) and I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s books to add to my TBR pile!

“The Day is Long, The World is Wide, You’re Young and Free.”

the colour of the sun

I’ll be honest, this sat on my TBR pile for quite some time before I finally picked it up (it even came back into work with me and went back on the pile there before I brought it home again). I was a late-comer to Skellig, probably David Almond’s most popular book, and while I enjoyed it I just didn’t love it the way everyone else seemed to. So, I just wasn’t sure about this initially…

…but this one I really did love. And the more I’ve thought about it since finishing it, the more it’s grown on me. It’s definitely claimed a space on The Bookshelf (reserved only for books I’ll read again/really loved/connected with in a particular way).

In the weeks following his father’s death, on one of those summer holiday mornings full of potential and full of nothing all at once, Davie leaves the house to wander aimlessly, taking with him his mother’s bara brith and his father’s old rucksack containing mementoes of his own childhood – animal masks, crayons and a sketch book. Amidst the gossip and gathering crowds as local boy Jimmy Killen is declared murdered, he heads off into the hills away from the excitement; his journey now part-wander, part-search for the boy he thinks is responsible.

And it’s this journey that absolutely makes this book what it is. Rich in the details of  summer day anywhere – local pie shops and pubs; children creating chalk drawings on the pavement; rough, no-go areas of town where fires burn and welcomes are less than friendly; the peace and solitude of hills, poppy fields and overlooking the town – aside from everything else, this book makes the perfect read for sitting outside with on a sunny day.

As Davie walks on, he meets a host of different people – young girls, a gardener who knew his dad, members of rival families, local one-legged oddity Wilf Pew with his fluffy wine gums – all of whom have a tale or two to tell. And it’s through these tales that Davie really journeys, each of them providing a question, a story – an idea to be pondered and considered.

What I loved best about many of the characters he meets (notably Oliver Henderson, Fernando and another who I won’t mention here so as not to spoil too much!) are the contradictions they present us with. It’s a journey of growing up, of accepting loss, of finding and also questioning our place in the world.

It’s not a magical journey as such, it’s rooted very firmly in real places and their real inhabitants. But it’s not quite real either. Dream-like I think is the word. If Alice had gone down the rabbit hole in Tyneside, I suspect she’d have met some of the same characters Davie did. And like Alice, on coming back at the end of his search, Davie has not changed at all, but is he the same Davie he was that morning?

“I think this book expresses much about who I am, what I’m learning as a person and as a writer. It explores what excites and mystifies me about the nature of being young, and dramatizes the joys and excitements of growing up…it embodies my constant astonishment at being alive in this beautiful, weird, extraordinary world.”

So says David Almond himself, and really it’s hard to put it better than that. This is a book where the real and imaginary collide; where the strange and familiar come together; where nostalgia for what’s gone before and excitement at the possibility of what’s to come swirl into one; and where the detail and beauty of the world shines.

I received an advanced copy of this to review, thanks to Hachette Children’s.