Mini Monday: 7/1/19

Kicking off 2019 with three snowy books (maybe it will bring the actual snow!)*

*The last of these reviews is a tweaked and slightly expanded version of one from WWW Wednesday last week – you can always skip it if you saw it first time round!

First up…

There’s a Yeti in the Playground by Pamela Butchart

Illustrated by Thomas Flintham

It’s snowing and Izzy and friends are hoping they’ll all be sent home early. But then they hear weird noises in the playground, and find a big footprint in the snow… And that’s when they know! There’s a YETI in the playground and it’s HUNGRY!

The young readers in work LOVE these books and it’s easy to see why with plots, plans and action aplenty – not to mention huge dollops of humour that adults will love too.

As a former infant teacher, so much of this made me properly laugh out loud – both supremely silly and totally believable at the same time! Anyone who’s ever been in a school will find plenty of familiar faces, recognisable rules and everyday events here, but bigger, bolder and funnier!

Snow, survival skills and being stuck in school – not to mention a seriously stinky scent! This is observational humour at its best – larger than life and laugh out loud!

Thanks to Nosy Crow for my copy.

The Missing Barbegazi by H. S. Norup

Cover design by Anna Morrison

Tessa knows that the Barbegazi exist because her beloved grandfather told her about them. So she sets out to prove to her family and friends that her grandfather wasn’t just a confused old man. But Tessa realises that uncovering the truth carries great responsibilities.

This was set on the ski slopes of Austria and is a great example of an author really knowing and loving their setting. It’s clearly well-loved territory, fondly described with little touches of the familiar that help to paint the picture for those of us who have never touched a ski!

Likewise, I enjoyed the fact that it was written from both Tessa and Gawion’s perspectives and the addition of the pages from the guide to Alpine elves was a really interesting and unusual way to add background information and detail.

With themes of friendship, loss and trust as well as protecting the environment and knowing when to keep a secret, this is a story of unlikely allegiances, cunning plots to foil the bad guy, wintry landscapes and daring late night escapades this is a great adventure, perfect for fans of Lauren St John’s Kat Wolfe Investigates or Jess Butterworth’s When The Mountains Roared.

Thanks to Pushkin for my copy.

Snowglobe by Amy Wilson

Cover illustration by Rachel Vale

Clementine discovers a mysterious house full of snowglobes, each containing a trapped magician. One of these is Dylan, a boy who teases her in the real world but who is now desperate for her help.

So Clem embarks on a mission to release Dylan and the other magicians, unknowingly unleashing a struggle for power that will put not only her family, but the future of magic itself in danger.

I finished reading this on Christmas Day. I think this is the first Christmas Day I’ve managed to read since I was little! It was lovely (even if I did have to read stood up!) and the magical feel of this book was perfectly suited to it!

I really enjoyed the characters of Ganymede, Io and Clem especially and the way strong emotions are portrayed and played out through the magic of the book worked really well.

But what I really loved were the magical elements of the book and the world building – so imaginative and exciting.

I thoroughly enjoyed it and I’m still marvelling at the Snowglobes and the setting – at the worlds within a world within a world. The whole concept was such a unique idea and brilliantly described – so tangible and memorable. It made me want to go in and explore!

Thanks to Macmillan for my copy.

Have you read any of these – what did you think?

What are your favourite wintry or snowy books?

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Jess Butterworth’s Books

Jess Butterworth is one of my favourite new authors of the past few years and I’m so excited for a new book from her next year. Ahead of that, a belated review of her two books to date…

Both are beautifully designed, illustrated and laid out with gorgeous covers from Rob Biddulph and patterned pages to mark each chapter.

With a truly original and enjoyable style – Jess’ writing is a perfect example of ‘less is more’ and of how sometimes short, sparse sentences can be just as effective as long, adjective-filled passages.

I devoured this book – it’s not a long read, but a brilliant one.

Set in the Himalayas, this is a story steeped in culture and tradition, and I was transported right into the heart of the it.

When Tash’s parents are captured by soldiers, Tash and Sam embark on a dangerous journey out of Tibet to find the Dalai Lama and ask for his help.

It is a tale which shines a light on real issues in an immensely approachable and sensitive way: what could be an overbearingly heavy tale of censorship, control, lost freedoms and protest is instead a book filled with hope, bravery, friendship and family.

With incredibly likeable and relatable characters, a richly described and detailed setting and an important but perilous journey at its heart, this was definitely one of my favourite children’s books of 2017 and remains a favourite now.

Ruby and new friend Praveen set out on a mission to protect the local leopards from some very disagreeable and suspicious types they suspect of poaching.

Unsurprisingly after ROTROTW it is the vivid descriptions of the setting in the story that I like best about it too. The mountain landscape and its flora and fauna, and the bustling city and its busy river will have you sighing, gasping and wondering at the sights along with Ruby as she discovers her new surroundings!

With perilous trips through the mountains, midnight stake-outs, bustling trains and floods this is a thrill-filled adventure that nature-loving readers in particular will relish.

I am so excited for Jess’ new book next year – she has such a distinct and effective writing style creating books that are easy to read in short bursts, but that you’ll want to read all in one go.

Kat Wolfe Investigates

So, before I start this review, a confession: until I received a copy of this to review (thanks to Macmillan), I’d never read Lauren St John.

There, I’ve said it. I knew how talented she was rumoured to be, how much of a mainstay in teacher recommends and class libraries, and how popular with many of the young readers I meet in work. But, despite being on my list of authors to catch up on for sometime, I’d just never got round to it. So, Kat Wolfe was my introduction, and what a pleasing introduction it was.

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Kat Wolfe loves her new home in idyllic Bluebell Bay, especially since it comes with a resident wildcat.

But when she starts pet-sitting for pocket money, she finds that beneath the town’s surface lie some dark and dangerous secrets…

This is sure to be a wildly popular new “middle-grade” series: it has a whole zoo’s worth  of animals (from cats and dogs to parrots and capuchins to horses and wild cats); a seemingly idyllic seaside town (and we all know that when a book features a peaceful, close-knit and crime-free setting it’s going to mean plenty of crime, daring and action!); two enterprising, clever and determined female lead characters (Wolfe and Lamb – love it!!) plus a wonderful ‘supporting cast’ including Edith – an ex-librarian and armchair adventurer extraordinaire (loved her!); plenty of shady characters to cast suspicions on and a healthy dose of tech to bring it smack up to date.

And that is one of the best things about the book: it has the feel and old-fashioned charm of a classic mystery adventure, but with a sassy coding genius as one half of the detecting duo and plenty of hi-tech gadgetry and plot twists to plant it firmly in the now.

It’s sure to be a hit with fans of both other mystery/detective series (think Enid Blyton re-routed via Lauren Child’s Ruby Redfort) and animal lovers too – any fans of Jess Butterworth’s ‘When the Mountains Roared’ or Gill Lewis’ animal-based books are sure to love this series.

I also read the author’s note at the end of the story with great interest: Lauren St John’s experience with animals and journalism, and the wealth of knowledge gleaned from both have clearly informed her writing; the amount of the story that was rooted in true stories was fascinating – as she points out fact is often stranger than fiction!

This background knowledge and research show in the gradually increasing complications in the investigation: starting out as a seemingly simple missing person, the plot as they say soon thickens, and we’re faced with a a multi-layered case involving an ever-widening range of puzzles, problems and of course – suspects!

The Storm Keeper’s Island

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Once in a generation, Arranmore Island chooses a new Storm Keeper to wield its power and keep its magic safe from enemies. The time has come for Fionn’s grandfather, a secretive and eccentric old man, to step down. Soon, a new Keeper will rise.

But deep underground, someone has been waiting for Fionn. As the battle to become the islands next champion rages, a more sinister magic is waking up, intent on rekindling an ancient war.

This was sent to me at work as an advance copy of July’s Children’s Book of the Month. I loved the look of it – exactly the sort of MG book that I’d pick up and want to read – but I’ll also admit to being a little apprehensive – partly because, hand on heart, I haven’t been crazy about the last couple of books chosen for our Books of the Month and partly because while it is exactly the sort of MG book I’d pick up and want to read, this automatically makes me worry it will be another book trying to do what others have done before, but failing to come up with anything special enough to make it stand out.

I needn’t have worried.

I liked the writing style immediately. Like my favourite of the characters (Fionn’s Grandfather), much of the day-to-day events and conversations were witty, full of humour and, importantly, realistic – Fionn and Tara’s love-hate sibling relationship was perfectly depicted through their bickering, one-upmanship and silent seething at each other!  Conversely, the more magical elements of the story and its setting were described with a wonderful sense of wildness, mystery and legend. This juxtaposition gave the story a brilliant balance between the fantastic and the everyday, making it both reassuringly familiar and thrillingly unknown.

The book draws inspiration from Catherine’s own grandparents, their home on Arranmore and sea-faring history, as well as Irish legends and history. Her passion for these things runs through the book as much as any of the magic she creates in the story, giving it a real sense of history and depth and transporting you right into the thick of it. I won’t say any more than just – The Lifeboat Scene.

The magical elements of the story feel fresh and unique – with weather, candles, time and memories being its key players. Again, written with subtlety, understanding and an incredible talent for merging real-life with fantasy, it is by turn joyous, heart-breaking, uplifting, nostalgic, hopeful… I could go on!

A highly original and moving adventure, set in a wonderfully well-built world – I can’t wait for the follow up!

All aboard…The Night Train

I’ve had this song in my head for days! And it’s all thanks to this little gem of a book:

secret of the night train

I know I may be a bit late to the Sylvia Bishop party – I still haven’t got round to reading her books for younger readers ‘The Bookshop Girl‘ and ‘Erica’s Elephant‘ (probably because my ‘resolution’ to read more younger children’s fiction, those between picture books and MG, still hasn’t really got off the ground! Maybe these books will kickstart that?!) But I loved the look and the sound of this one straight away and reading Sylvia’s description of her trip on the night train cemented the deal on Bookloverjo’s blog, so I was very glad to have the chance to read and review the copy Scholastic sent me (thank you!)

One small girl. An unexpected detective. A handful of suspects.

All aboard the night train, where no-one is what they seem.

As Max takes off on a thrilling journey across Europe by train, can she unravel the mystery of a priceless missing diamond and find a way to bring the jewel thief to justice?

Off to visit her Great Aunt Elodie in Istanbul, Max sets off by train and unwittingly stumbles into the role of detective as she finds that the suspect (and diamond!) from a recent burglary are thought to be on board the train! Each chapter of the book is set on the next stage of her journey and sees us whisked from Paris through Munich, Budapest and Bucharest to Istanbul.

I loved the time we ‘spent’ in Budapest particularly: the description of the place combined with the humour of Max’s investigative attempts were pitch-perfect and had me smiling right through. And this is common throughout the book. The way in which each destination is described is so cleverly done: this is not a book full of flowery, scene-setting paragraphs but I felt I’d just stepped off the train with Max at every stop: each place given a distinct character, geography and culture with just a few well-chosen details dropped into the story or Max’s first impressions of places and without it interrupting the flow or the pace of the story.

Max is an immediately likeable character and with a voice that feels very believable and just right for her age: while she falls into role as sleuth, she is not suddenly an expert nor bursting with confidence, she’s still slightly unsure and a careful thinker. Similarly, she is curious: yearning for an adventure to break the everyday routine and dreaming of seeing the world, but when on her way is still as apprehensive as any child leaving home for the first time would be.

From Sister Marguerite and her Mary-Poppins’-bag-like-habit to the clumsy Robert to the frightfully bolshy and rude Ester and knitting ‘hulk’ Klaus, all of the characters have a touch of the eccentric and absurd about them. But they all have back-stories and well-drawn personalities which make them much more than caricatures and, while retaining a huge dollop of humour, become just as enjoyable to read and root for (or against!) as Max is.

The story itself is fast-paced, witty and a carefully balanced mix of slapstick (the scene at Marek, Marek es Ruszy springs to mind!), twist-and-turn-filled adventure, mad-cap plans and suspects with secrets to hide. It whizzes along and keeps you guessing along with Max about who the culprit could be (some parts are more easy to work out than others, but it doesn’t spoil the fun!) With perfectly suited, lively illustrations that are equally full of character from Marco Guadalupi, this is a very enjoyable read!

The Huntress

Sea-churning
Sky-soaring
Beast-chattering
Dream-dancing
Whale-singing
Terrodyl-flying
World-saving adventure

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This should be and was intended to be a review of the most recent (and final 😭) book in Sarah Driver’s Huntress Trilogy: Storm (kindly sent to me by Egmont, thank you). However, as it’s the last book in the trilogy, I’m finding it impossible to limit myself to  review of that book without touching on the other books too, so it’s a review of the series as a whole, but weighted towards Storm.

I read Sea in March 2017 when it was first released. In the same month, I read Kiran Milwood Hargrave’s ‘Girl of Ink and Stars‘ and Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials‘. It was a time of uncertainty at work, though I was just about on the up again after what had been a horrible, anxiety filled year. My scrapbook/journal/call-it-what-you-will entry on finishing all three books simply reads:

“THINK LYRA. AND ISABELLA. AND MOUSE.”

Heart-strong, battle-ready and fierce with determination and loyalty, Mouse is one of those characters who I instantly loved and believed in. I’ve said it before and will no doubt bang on about it again, but my favourite characters are those who aren’t perfect and who feel ‘real’ and Mouse definitely ticks those boxes.

When we meet her in ‘Sea’, she is an all-too recognisable impulsive, opinionated and fiery girl who is desperate to grow up and follow in her Grandma’s footsteps as Captain of The Huntress. When we reach her adventures in ‘Storm’, she’s retained the very essence of what makes her ‘her’ and what makes her so endearing as a character (the book opens with her tired of being cooped up for protection and yearning to rove and continue on her quest, and we still see her make some questionable decisions putting herself in danger in order to defy the adults who think they know best) but she has learned a lot and grown too – more open to others (and their help) and finally recognising that being a Captain is about more than giving orders. It’s been such a well-written, realistic and subtle change over the books and lovely to see.

Similarly, her relationship with her brother, Sparrow, hits the nail on the siblings head. There’s a great post here from Sarah Driver about siblings in stories and writing Sparrow and Mouse in which she talks about the importance of not “sugar-coating their reality, with all the tears, frustration, jealousy and fighting that are often part of the deal, despite the strength of the bond and the foundations of love underneath.” And this comes across so strongly with Mouse (“stinker”, “fool-heart”) and Sparrow (“too-soon”, “slackwit”) and their devotion to and protection of each other, despite their bickering and chalk-and-cheese nature.

And this is without mentioning the many other wonderful characters and relationships we encounter throughout the books (Grandma Wren, Crow, Kes and Egret, Bear, The Skybrarian – oh, how much I love the Skybrary and Skybrarian! – …even the despicable Stag) – a great and true mixture of personalities, talents, traits and flaws, all of which make for a fantastic cast and a story that’s never dull and full of challenges, excitement and empathy.

The two other things I absolutely loved about these books was the world-building and the language.

There are many comparisons to Pullman in other reviews, and I think it’s the sheer imagination shown in the creatures and worlds created here that do that. The word-choice, phrasing and vocabulary is a delight, reading as a language unique to the world(s) the stories are set in, which is wonderfully immersive and exciting.

With the exception of Sea, which takes a bit more time to set a fantastically sea-salty scene, the description is often fast, brief and vivid as we often see it through Mouse’s racing mind as she’s in the thick of a chase/fight/escape. I found this added to the excitement and tangibility of the stories, though some younger readers may find it harder to take in (Though, I think for the younger MG age-range particularly, this would be a fantastic story to read aloud together, it reads like a story that begs to be spoken and shared).

The adventures throughout the trilogy take us through a myriad of places, where we meet a whole host of tribes and creatures: easy to identify with and liken to those which may be familiar to us, but different enough to be fantasy places, people and animals; from pirate-esque life at sea to tree-top dwellings to frozen wastelands (sorry, Axe-Thrower) to rumbling, smog-filled city life (which to me, at least, had something of Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork about it) these books really do take you on a fantastic journey around ‘a’ world.

And so, to the story itself (after all that!) Over the course of the three books, we see Mouse (and Sparrow, and Crow…) hunting for the three Storm Opals (one each for Sea, Sky and Land) to keep them out of evil hands and restore peace and harmony to the Triannukka tribes.

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Storm sees us in the latter stages of this hunt, and while I loved it, I can’t help but wonder whether it might have worked better either as a longer book, or as two books – one in the hunt for the Land Opal and one ‘grand finale’ so to speak. While it had the fantastic worlds, perilous adventures and diverse characters of the first, it felt rather rushed at times: like we didn’t have chance to settle into any of them before being whisked elsewhere. Personally, I’d have preferred more time spent on the journey to and time in the ‘Frozen Wastes’ in this one, with more time to explore the ‘Big Smoke’ and reach a less-hurried conclusion in a follow-up.

Similarly, there were times when Mouse’s behaviour just didn’t sit right (despite her growing up some): she spends a good part of the first half of the book being entirely distrustful of a particular character, which feels like the Mouse we know…only to jump head-first into telling her story and trusting a pretty unknown character in the second half, which just felt ‘un-Mousey’. More time for this relationship to build and develop gradually might have made this leap of faith more convincing.

However, those minor sticking points don’t mean it wasn’t still a fantastic book (I think I just preferred the first two)! This is still a thrilling, highly original and captivating adventure, filled with incredible lands, imagination (the Spiders in the city – what genius!) and hugely engaging characters. I am already looking forward to re-reading the trilogy as a whole (rather than with the gaps of waiting for the next installment!) as I think it will be even more enjoyable read like this, and can’t wait to see what Sarah Driver brings us next.