Skycircus

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.

Skycircus by Peter Bunzl, illustrated by Becca Stadtlander

This is the third installment in the Cogheart series, following the original Cogheart and its sequel Moonlocket.

I loved both the first two books, Cogheart itself especially, and was so excited for this, so I have no idea how it got so buried in my TBR (there’s a WWW Wednesday post from October 24th last tsar saying I’m planning to read it as one of my nexf few books! Past me – what happened?!)

But, I finally read it as part of #Believathon this month and it was worth the wait! It was also the first time I’ve buddy-read a book, as Amy and I read it alongside each other, and I really enjoyed being able to share our thoughts and talk about what was happening as I went along.

One of the things I liked best was that, although it rejoins Lily, Robert and Malkin from the first two books, and does follow on from what’s happened to them previously and, in particular Lily’s past, it would be very easy to read this having not read the first two books, or to read it and go back to them. It works really well as a stand alone adventure, though of course it is even better if you’ve already read the others!

Here, we meet Lily on her birthday as a mysterious parcel arrives for her seemingly out if nowhere containing her mother’s old notebook and an invitation to the circus, where she’s excited to see there’s another ‘hybrid’ – part human, part mechanical – and she has wings, just like the work she’s discovering her mother was interested in. Could this be a link to her past and getting to know her mother like she never had chance to?

Of course, when they arrive at the circus, all is not as it seems and Lily, Robert and Malkin soon find themselves captured and whisked away as part of an unhappy circus crew with a sinister, and it transpires all too familiar leader. It’s up to them to bring the hybrids and humans together to overcome those in control, escape and restore the Skycircus to its happier past.

This was a brilliant book and the circus made for a fantastic setting. As we saw the show, and met Angelique/Angela – a winged hybrid – for the first time I was transported both to this circus but also back to Angela Carter’s ‘Nights at the Circus’ and its star Fevvers. Peter Bunzl kindly answered my question on twitter confirming that this was an influence and I think a wonderful one.

He said he also drew on the brilliant Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, which became gloriously apparent as we became immersed in the circus life, and especially as the story reached its climax (no spoilers!). Peter also talks in the acknowledgements about some of the research and trips to see the circus he did in writing this, and I think it shows – the book seems to really capture circus life.

The adventure itself is tense and exciting, with some excellent twists and jaw-dropping revelations. Themes of friendship and inclusion were woven in well and the historical nature of the story helped to explore inequality and the beginnings of women in science (both Amy and I felt thoroughly ashamed of ourselves for being caught out at one point, as no doubt we were expected to be – we’ll played Peter!!)

Lily and Robert are both likeable characters, but it’s Malkin I was most pleased to see again! The mechanical fix perhaps played a smaller part in this adventure, but was every bit as dry and sardonic as usual when he did feature. You can practically hear his eyes rolling in his voice and I love what this brings to the feel of the book as a whole.

This was a fantastic addition to a fantastic series and I’m only glad I left it so long because it means I font have too long to wait now before book four, Shadowsea. I’m so intrigued about where that will go, though both Amy and I agreed we’re expecting the return of at least one villain!

Bad Nana: That’s Snow Business

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.

Bad Nana: That’s Snow Business by Sophy Henn

When the first Bad Nana book (Older not Wiser) came out it immediately piqued my interest. With a naughty Nana whose heart is in the right place, an incredibly likeable narrator whose voice was funny and believable, and eye-popping pink, white and black illustrations throughout alongside funky use of font style and size – I was totally sold.

So I was very excited to see Bad Nana back for a winter adventure, and even more excited to see that my copy had been signed!!

There’s a Winter Wonderland Variety Show and everyone is very excited to try out for it. Adults will likely find the descriptions of the ventriloquist, recorder and Disney dance moves acts just as funny (if not more so) as young readers and the book captures perfectly the feel of such a show – the nerves, the excitement, the competition that shouldn’t exist but definitely does, the ‘am-dram’ organisation and of course the “stage with swishy red curtains, which we are NEVER allowed on normally because the grown ups think we are all idiots and woukd immediately fall off.”

Bad Nana starts off helping Jeanie and her friends (and her younger brother Jack, against her wishes!) to rehearse and prepare – after all, one of her many past jobs was in showbiz! – but soon becomes swept away with the” razzle dazzle” and, along with old friend from the stage, Bobby Truelove (what a name!) she’s soon got her sights set on Winter Wonderland stardom and will stop at nothing to get there!

Bad Nana is such a brilliant character, as is our narrator, 7 3/4 year old Jeanie. It’s lovely to see Jeanie realising how alike she is to Bad Nana – don’t be fooled by her mischievous ways, she’s got a heart of gold has our BN! – and plenty to chuckle at along the way.

With enough of the familiar and funny to engage young readers, there’s also a dollop of warmth and a message of understanding that gives the book depth without it becoming didactic or sweet. This is a brilliant instalment to a brilliant series. Bad Nana is THE (snow) business!

The Secret Starling

I received a free copy of this in exchange for an honest review. All views and opinions are my own.

The Secret Starling by Judith Eagle, illustrated by Amy Geyer.

I didn’t know what to expect from this, only that I’d heard very good things about it.

Clara lives with her Uncle Edward in Braithwaite Manor, where he follows the ‘children should be seen and not heard’ line of child care, except as far as he’s concerned they shouldn’t be seen that much either and ‘care’ might be stretching things.

With limited dealings of the outside world, no friends (except Cook) and a boring routine of governesses, staying out of the way and meagre meals, Clara’s life is turned upside down when first her Uncle abandons her in the nearby village and then a boy her own age turns up expecting to stay. Coupled with the house being put up for sale, secrets about Clara’s family coming out if the woodwork and Cook’s wild and wonderful grandchildren turning up on the doorstep – Clara’s adventures are only just beginning.

Setting this in the 70s was inspired – modern enough to feel familiar, but old enough to have a classic feel too and be unimpeded by technology. For adult readers (even those not quite old enough for the 70s, ahem!), there’s the added bonus of bits of nostalgia – Woolworths, Lewis’ and Curly Wurlys!

Clara is fabulous – hopeful and impulsive, but also practical and determined. With Peter levelling her out somewhat they make an excellent main duo and Cook’s grandchildren only add to the excitement with horses indoors, gymnastics and wild fashion. There’s definitely a flavour of Pippi Longstocking to Amelia Ann, and to the book as a whole, which I enjoyed immensely.

I was also pleased to see the focus on male ballet dancers, both through Peter’s dreams for his future and the incorporation of famous ballet stars. It felt like a positive and encouraging message against stereotypical gender expectations without being contrived or clunky.

Whimsical and full of the joy of unbridled childhood, this is sure to capture children’s imagination as it whisks them along on its whirlwind of adventure and mystery. Wonderful.

The Girl Who Speaks Bear

I requested and received a free copy of this from the publishers in exchange for honest reviews. Opinions and views are all my own

The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson, illustrated by Kathrin Honesta

So, I liked Sophie Anderson’s first book The House With Chicken Legs, but I didn’t love it the way everyone else did. So I was keen to read this, but my expectations were firmly in check.

I absolutely love, LOVE, LOVED it.

I felt there was a greater depth here than in THWCL, though it retained the readability (is that even a word?!) of Sophie’s first book, as well as her distinctive style.

It was such a moreish read, and the fact that many of the chapters are a tale being told makes them much shorter than average MG chapters too and so perfect for those ‘just a bit more’ moments (and also perfect for readers who feel overwhelmed by long chapters/books).

These tales were one of the things I loved best about this book. Sophie Anderson’s passion for and knowledge of folk and fairytales really shines through in this book, even more so (if possible) than it did before!

The way it was told through stories within the story was simply magical. I really sank into the tales that were told and I thought the way they gradually helped to unravel the main tale was incredibly clever and so skilfully done.

I also found I got behind Yanka in a way I never really did with Marinka. And I really did get behind Yanka. I suspect this is because I felt more common ground with her – those feelings of not quite fitting in, of being a part of a group, but always slightly outside of it too, were all so familiar.

Whatever my reasons, she was a great main character and I loved how we saw her grow and change over the book, especially where she acknowledged past mistakes or errors of judgement (both her own and others’) and learned to move on, though not necessarily to forget. Complex feelings and themes were touched on with subtlety and perception.

Yanka’s ‘herd’ is wonderful too (Mousetrap especially!). A fantastic mix of creatures and personalities add humour, energy and a certain edge to the story, whilst also making the point that we each have our strengths even though it may not always seem like it, and that we don’t have to be the same to be together.

There is also a message of doing together what you would struggle to do alone; of asking for and/or accepting help when it’s offered, of not being too proud or self-conscious or worried to do so. This is something I really struggle with and I loved the way it was addressed – it didn’t make it seem easy to do, but gently suggested it was worth trying.

The setting is richly described, with close attention to detail and the depiction of life there really adding to it. I felt I was there. It was made even more immersive through those folk tales Yanka is told throughout the book – they give the place a history and I absolutely loved the idea of Anatoly’s map with a little detail added on each of his visits to represent a new story. I believe there will be a map in the finished version and I cannot wait to see it.

On that note, the illustrations are gorgeous and so fitting for the story. I was so so lucky to receive a hand-printed proof with previews of the interior art and they’re just as rich and atmospheric as you could want.

This is going to be a truly stunning book.

Full of traditional folkloric magic, with humour and the increasing tension, danger and drama of Yanka’s journey keeping it fresh and exciting for modern readers, this is one of my stand out books if the year so far.

Picklewitch and Jack and the Cuckoo Cousin

I received a free copy of this from the publishers in exchange for honest reviews. Opinions and views are all my own.

Picklewitch and Jack and the Cuckoo Cousin by Claire Barker and Teemu Juhani

I reviewed the first Picklewitch and Jack book last year and I LOVED it, so when I was offered a copy of the new book to review I leapt at the chance.

I wasn’t disappointed. This more than lives up to the expectations built by book one!

Much of what I wrote about the first book stands true about this one as well.

The language and writing style are as vibrant, pacy and original as ever and remain perfectly pitched – accessible but in no way dumbed down.

“As secret as a nut in its shell.”

And there are some wonderful invented words and phrases adding spark and humour – think Roald Dahl’s BFG and you’re on the right lines for Picklewitch’s vernacular.

“I can’t be dealing with mooncalves and frazzlers.”

Picklewitch

The illustrations are stylish and expressive, with the characters’ very different personalities shining through and Picklewitch’s love of the wild and nature made visual.

There is again a glossary of Picklewitch’s words, a selection of spells and recipes, nature guides a la Picklewitch at the end of the story and they’re an absolute delight – I grinned and grinned reading them!

The characters remain true to themselves – Picklewitch is still a cake-loving, slightly bonkers, brimming with confidence, rule-breaking/making, tree-dwelling witch and Jack is still a school-loving, rule-following, bit-of-a-worrier Boxie who lives in the house attached to Picklewitch’s garden.

But they’re given chance to grow and develop in this episode as well, which – especially in Jack’s case – is lovely to see. Yes, he’s still a worrier but he’s taking more chances, starting to make friends, enjoying life more… Picklewitch, whilst being a terribly bad influence, has of course been a fantastically good one!

And for her part, she shows in this book just how smart and loyal this apparent kidder really is, whilst – of course – retaining her pride, her irrefutable manner, her incredible knack for absolutely always being right and of course her enormous sense of fun.

Picklewitch and Jack’s friendship is put to the test in this book, when Picklewitch receives a letter

“Do witches get letters?” asked Jack, squinting into the sun.

“All the time,” she said.

“Have you ever had one before?”

“No.”

from a mysterious, and hitherto unknown, cousin saying he’s coming to stay.

Jack is naturally anxious – what if Picklewitch has so much fun with her cousin she forgets about being friends with him? But when Archie Cuckoo arrives, Jack thinks he’s perfect – well behaved, interested in learning, smart (he even has a briefcase) – and they end up getting on splendidly.

But is Archie Cuckoo too good to be true? (Spoiler alert – Yes. Yes he is.)

He is in fact a brilliant baddie. I love how we see him charming/magicking his way into Jack’s life and the repercussions of this for Jack and Picklewitch.

There’s a serious story of friendship, loyalty and trust which underpins the humour, magic and dancing ants.

I think that’s what I love so much about these books – they zip and ping with energy, spells, flying feathers and creepy crawlies, and you will giggle from start to finish (I chortled my way happily through my lunch hour) but there’s also a huge amount of warmth, understanding and gentle reassurance for some tricky situations in there.

This second book in the Picklewitch and Jack series is just as full of heart as the first and has confirmed their place as firm favourites of mine. I can’t wait for the next one (roll on Autumn 2020!!)

The Dog Runner

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

I absolutely loved Bren MacDibble’s first book How to Bee (you can read my review here) so I was really excited about this one. And I was right to be.

While they are very different in a lot of respects, there are many similarities between them and their unique style and voice helps them stand out from other MG offerings.

Both are set in a not too distant dystopian future in which fictional (but entirely plausible) environmental crisis have come to pass. In this case, a fungus has spread across Australia killing all the grasses, wheats, grains…food is in increasingly short supply. This is both a love letter to nature and a wake up call to examine our behaviours and the things we take for granted in our everyday lives.

Both have the most wonderful main characters – Peony in How to Bee remains one of my favourite MCs in recent children’s reads. Here we follow Ella and her step brother, Emery, as they embark on a dangerous journey out of the city.

Ella’s mum has been deemed ‘Essential Personnel’ and can’t come home, as she’s needed by the government to help keep the power running. Their dad hasn’t come back after heading out into the city a few days ago, and while the plan had been to wait til they were all together to head up country, now Emery and Ella must go it alone. Well, almost, they have their dogs too.

Those of you who know me or who have been reading for a while will know I’m not the biggest lover of animal stories. But, while animals are integral to these books, there’s enough realism to avoid sentimentality. There is recognition that the animals are animals, with animal instincts, natures and behaviours. There’s no attempt to soften this or personify, sweeten or dumb them down. The dogs here are loved fiercely, but respected too. There’s a wonderful contrast to the dogs we see playing and piling on the children at the start of the book and the way they behave at various points later on. Bren Macdibble shows a great understanding of them and they feel real.

Ultimately, these are books with the environment at their heart and animals in their telling but people at their core.

Both have a strong family theme, with both taking on different aspects of modern family life. In The Dog Runner, the relationships within Ella and Emery’s step-family are explored. What I loved was the subtlety and realism with which this was done – there are no stereotypes; no outright dislike, jealousy or bad feeling. What there are much more complex feelings – of missing one half of your family while with the other, of liking and respecting a step-parent, but still battling that inner ‘you’re not my real parent’, of getting used to an already-there sibling you’ve just started living with, of finding how it all it fits together and making it work. Ella and Emery’s relationship is especially wonderful – they are a loving brother and sister, again no stereotypical, step-family snarking, they are loyal and caring and protective of one another.

Which is good, because on this journey they need to be. It’s lovely to see how reassuring and calming Emery is towards Ella as she struggles with worry, doubt and fear. Likewise, it’s great to see Ella have the chance to prove (to herself as much as anyone else) how courageous, strong and decisive she too can be when needed. They are a brilliant example of a balanced, realistic and, above all, close sibling team.

As with How To Bee, Bren MacDibble’s love of nature really comes through in the setting and the description of Ella and Emery’s journey. It is vivid – I felt the heat of the midday sun, the dust, the scratchy shrubs, the cool night air. All of it is superbly described and takes you right into the Australian landscape.

This is a gritty and tense adventure which takes on environmental issues with the urgency they deserve – there is threat writ large throughout in more ways than one. Pacy and full of danger, this is also a book which shouts of the importance of loyalty, family and self-belief. I loved it and I can’t wait to see what Bren Macdibble writes next.

Rumblestar…

…or why I love Abi Elphinstone’s books*

*I am about to wax lyrical for a bit, so if you only want to read what I thought of Rumblestar (I loved it) then, in the words of Spaced legends Daisy and Tim, “skip to the end”.

Abi Elphinstone took a place in my reading heart with her Dreamsnatcher trilogy. I came to it late, which was lucky as I devoured them one after the other.

This is a brilliant adventure – starring a bold heroine and filled with a magic, riddles, journeys into the unknown, friendships, terrifying villains and obstacles to overcome. Truly original.

Then came Sky Song, a love letter to nature, loyalty and acceptance, which was released last January and was suitably seasonal – with an Ice Queen, it glittered and glistened with winter magic as it conjured Narnia, The Snow Queen and fairy tales.

Then this March came Everdark. Released as one of the World Book Day £1 books, it was a wonderful teaser and taster, an excitement-builder-extraordinaire as it introduced us to The Unmapped Chronicles.

Smudge is a typically unlikely heroine and Bartholomew a truly splendid sidekick (if you don’t love a slightly haughty, golf-loving monkey then I don’t know what’s wrong with you). There’s a huge adventure crammed into this tiny book!

Which left me even more excited for Rumblestar, the first of the Unmapped Chronicles ‘proper’. (You knew we’d get to it eventually!)

Rumblestar by Abi Elphinstone. Cover art by Carrie May and Jenny Richards.

I was incredibly lucky to be gifted a copy of this from Abi and Simon and Schuster – thank you! All views are my own.

This book. Oh, this book.

Let’s begin with that gorgeous cover. Even the proof was exciting – it had a gold hot air balloon on it for goodness sake! – but when the real cover was revealed I was even more excited. It’s so atmospheric, with really map-like feel to it and I think it fits the book perfectly.

Can’t get any better? Wrong. I’ve just found out there’s an actual map inside too, courtesy of Patrick Knowles. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I love a map in a book.

Definitely can’t get any better now though, can it?

Erm, yes it can. There’s also going to be a Waterstones exclusive version with blue sprayed edges…and a BONUS CHAPTER! Trust me, after reading this you will want this bonus chapter. I feel like I need a bonus chapter every day until the next book comes out! I have pre-ordered mine and am very excited.

And so, onto the book itself.

It is the first of the Unmapped Chronicles, three books set in the Unmapped Kingdoms (three books which, unusually but refreshingly, do not need to be read chronologically) where evil harpy Morg and her followers, The Midnights (incidentally, I really think there should be a band called Morg and the Midnights), are trying to take control of the Unmapped Magic, thereby creating ruin not only the Unmapped Kingdoms, but also the Faraway (our world) whose weather is created by the Unmapped magic.

Eleven-year-old Casper Tock hates risks, is allergic to adventures and shudders at the thought of unpredictable events. So, it comes as a nasty shock to him when he accidentally stumbles into Rumblestar and meets Utterly Thankless, a girl who hates rules and is allergic to behaving, and her miniature dragon, Arlo. Can they save the Unmapped Kingdoms and our world from the clutches of Morg and her Midnights?

I loved this book.

The end.

Ok, I’ll expand, but once I’m back in work, this is going to be one of those books that I just shove into people’s hands whilst babbling incoherently about how much I loved it.

For me, this book has taken all the best bits of Abi’s previous books and then added its own unique magic and gone one up on them all – it’s her best yet. It bears all the hallmarks that make her books so fulfilling and enjoyable to read – unlikely heroes, adventure, a truly wicked villain, a cast of weird, wonderful and wildly different beings and messages of bravery, loyalty, tolerance, acceptance and individuality.

Utterly Thankless is The Best (I mean – she’s called Utterly Thankless, of course she’s The Best). Don’t believe me? “Chop chop! No-one likes a lazy criminal.” This quote makes me grin every time I think about it and sums her up so well. In her own words, she’s “not cross, just unbelievably fierce” and she’s not wrong (ever. Even when she might be just a little mistaken.) Brave, feisty, independent and seemingly so self-assured, she’s a true armadillo (crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside – Dime bar, anyone?!)

One of the things I love best about Abi’s writing is her understanding of her characters, and by extension people in general. They are always so well fleshed out – their voices so entirely ‘them’, their actions believable and what you’d expect from them, their flaws explored with sensitivity and warmth. And both Utterly and sidekick, Casper, are perfect examples of this.

Casper is Utterly’s opposite which makes them a really enjoyable team to read, especially as we see their friendship develop. Likewise, it’s lovely to see Casper’s confidence grow over the book. We have all at some point known or been a Casper, and I guarantee you’ll be rooting for him. And then there’s Arlo – a lesson in modesty and loyalty, this quietly clever little dragon will steal your heart. Especially when he’s sleeping in a sock.

One of the other things I love in all of Abi’s books is the world-building, and Rumblestar is no exception. While the worlds she creates feel incredible – full of wonder and magical creations, her knowledge and love of nature and places all over our world make her new, invented kingdoms all the more vivid and true. The whole concept of the Unmapped Kingdoms and the way their magic creates our weather is inspired.

The imagination and creativity on show here are INCREDIBLE. From weather scrolls to drizzle hags, sky fly to cloud giants and snow trolls, there comes idea after idea which pops with the fantastic and magical. There are nods, jokes and twists on things we know and love as well as other completely original and wonderful things – the Just-In-Case, oh how I loved the Just-In-Case.

And that ending!

While it’s clear that Abi is well-versed in children’s literature herself (only readers make good writers) and there is evidence of a wide range of influences (the Lofty Husks seem to come straight out of Discworld!) There are little nuggets of nostalgia dotted throughout the book – familiar enough to feel cosy, but different and trivial enough to make you wonder if you’re reading too much into things! A dragon curling up in a teacup for a sleep mid-feast is a case in point. Either way, it did what the best books should and occasionally gave me the biggest smile, reminding me of other favourite books from childhood whilst at the same time being nothing at all like them!

It’s a story of discovering exactly what courage looks like, of finding friendship in unlikely places, of wondrous places and magical creatures, of celebrating differences and sticking up for each other, of adventure and danger and feeling the fear but doing it anyway, of the most inventive, creative and apt vocabulary, language and phrases, of rivers and forests and mountains and castles and clouds and hot air balloons (it can’t just be me that thinks there’s something inherently magical about a hot air balloon?)…

I could go on and on about this book (more so than I already have) but it’s one of the best books I’ve read so far this year and has gone straight into my favourites. I am already bursting with excitement for both “Chapter 2 and a half” in the finished, Waterstones exclusive edition and, mostly, for the next book in the series.

The Afterwards

I’d seen and heard all sorts of good things about this on twitter before I received a copy from Bloomsbury for review (imagine my excitement at finding it was signed too!).

However, as is so often the case, I’d heard how great it was but didn’t actually know anything about it! Normally, I’d find out a bit about it before deciding to read it or not but in this case Emily Gravett decided for me! I’m such a fan of her picture books that I wanted to read this if only for the illustrations!

And I wasn’t wrong to – they are both very like some of her picture book work in some ways and much more detailed and with an older feel in others, which is as it should be for an older children’s book.

Her use of both incredibly detailed pencil sketches and bright colour images not only mirrored and matched the storyline but really enhanced it, adding extra atmosphere and bringing home what was happening.

The illustration felt really fresh and modern, whilst retaining a traditional method and style. The girls and Harry felt expressive and real and the cat in particular was (in my mind) a perfect representation of his character in the story.

Ah yes, the story:

Ember and Ness are best friends. There’s nothing more to say about it. It is what it is. It is what will always be. Ember and Ness. Then Ness dies.
When Ember finds a way into the Afterworld, she determines to bring Ness back. Because that’s what friends do isn’t it? They rescue each other. They help. They never give up.

 

This is ultimately a story about death – loss, grief, letting go and moving on; I can see it being a great book for a lot of children dealing with these things, with many aspects of death (finding out about it, the funeral, getting on with life) tackled head on, but in a very age-appropriate way.

I would say that due to the nature of the story – the mysterious afterworld and the way that works – it would probably be better for slightly more mature readers who’d be able to easily separate the fantasy elements of the story from the more real aspects.

However, this is also what makes it a universally good read with a wider appeal. Sensitively written, it takes an incredibly tough, real situation and everyday life and combines it with fantasy to create a story which is at once familiar and otherworldly. For those who are in, or have been in, Ember (or Graham)’s situation coping with loss, there’s plenty of subtly delivered advice and comfort; for those who (fortunately) have not had to deal with this, there’s a supernatural story firmly rooted in familiar settings, making this ideal for fans of a range of MG fiction – from Lisa Thomson’s ‘The Light Jar’ to Neil Gaiman’s ‘Coraline’, for example.

I thought the relationships in the story were one of its strongest points – very believable and easy to relate to, with characters it was easy to warm to. Both the relationship between Ember and her dad, Harry, and her friendship between Ness and Ember were very well depicted, in both the text and illustrations, with little details giving them added depth and credibility.

Characters such as the cat and Ms Todd gave the book an extra dimension and the fact that their roles are left obscure and undefined I thought was very clever in giving the reader something to ponder and draw their own conclusions from. However, I would have liked a more definite conclusion to Uncle Graham’s role in the story, but that’s just me!

The real world felt, well, real – familiar and relatable in both text and image, while the mysterious, grey afterworld Ember follows Ness to is just that – an eerie place that’s easy to imagine but feels goosebumps-strange. The way it mirrors the real world in a warped sort of way was very clever: similar enough to keep the focus on the characters as they come to terms with their loss without getting lost in fantasy world-building, whilst being strange enough to provide interest, mystery and space away from that reality.

Overall, I thought this was an imaginative, personal and touching take on a difficult topic (I especially liked the way the scene was set in the prologue), which strikes a delicate balance between real life and fantasy. Harrold and Gravett have previously collaborated on ‘The Imaginary’, which I’ll be keen to read after this.

Picklewitch and Jack

As part of my quest to read more younger chapter books as well as ‘MG’, I requested a copy of this from Faber (who very kindly obliged – thank you!) and it’s safe to say I’m thrilled I did as it’s become one of my favourite books of the year.

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Picklewitch lives in a tree at the bottom of the garden. She has a nose for naughtiness, a mind for mischief and a weakness for cake. And unluckily for brainbox and all-round-goody-two-shoes Jack (who’s just moved in) she’s about to choose him as her new best friend… Jack is in for a whole lot of trouble!

I can’t tell you how much I love this book. Rather than reminding me of any specific book from when I was little, it brought back the feeling I got from reading the very best of them. The ones I loved. That indescribable buzz of a book that just seems to have got everything spot on.

The language for a start. Not too simple or patronising, nor over the top, it’s just right for younger readers The descriptions are wonderfully atmospheric and lively, conjuring up thunderstorms and wild gardens, trying to sleep in a spooky old house and, of course, delicious cakes. The way in which the blossoming friendship between Jack and Picklewitch is described – its complications, and Jack’s frustration and confusion in particular are depicted brilliantly.

The pace is perfectly matched to Picklewitch’s particular brand of chaos – the rollercoaster-like build and scream of it each time Jack moves from feeling relieved to realising something’s not quite right to…uh-oh! And all the while, cleverly dropping in the growing realisation that Picklewitch might be trouble with a capital T but she’s also desperate to be a friend with a capital F.

Which brings us to the characters. It would be easy to dislike a character like Jack – always well behaved, incredibly clever and something of a perfectionist – he has the potential to be boring at best and irritating at worst. Luckily, he’s neither, and his uncertainty about the not-so-black-and-white world of friendship and his earnest efforts to address it are very endearing too.

And then, of course, there’s Picklewitch. Even her name is fantastic – just say it and try not to smile. A tornado of trouble with an enormous heart, an insatiable appetite for cake and confidence enough for two, she is simply wonderful. Everyone should have a Picklewitch in their life.

The glossary of Picklewitch words, as well as her jokes and spells added in at the end of the story was joyous too!

And if all that wasn’t enough on its own, Teemu Juhani’s busy, fun and full illustrations capture the essence of Picklewitch and the feel of the story splendidly.

There will never be a shortage of witch books, especially for this age group, but this truly stands out from the crowd – a madcap tale of friendship and fun – it really is the kipper’s knickers!

WWW Wednesday 21/11/18

Hosted by ‘Taking on a World of Words’, every Wednesday is ‘WWW Wednesday’:

It feels like it’s been an age since I’ve done a WWW post – probably because it has been! Although I’m managing to read with Peapod here, I’m not reading anywhere near as much. Before I’d read on my commute to and from work, so a good 30mins minimum each way plus in bed at night. Now I’m lucky if I can snatch ten minutes during the day, so everything is taking me SO much longer to get to – which is frustrating when I have so many books I’m desperate to read! But let’s face it – he’s worth it.

What are you currently reading?

Well…nothing! I need to make a start on something new. I seem to have been saying Wundersmith is next for months, so maybe that…

What have you just finished reading?

I loved this! Its one of those books that just felt absolutely spot on and had me grinning from ear to ear. Picklewitch is as joyous as her name sounds. Full review will follow, but I can’t wait for the next of Picklewitch and Jacks’ adventures!

I’m a huge Lauren Child fan too and my review for her new Hubert Horatio book is here.

This arrived earlier in the week – I’m going to post a full review as part of our Book Advent in December but for now I’ll just say this – it’s wonderful!

What are you planning on reading next?

I only ever read one book at a time, but am considering breaking that ‘rule’ in order to start Wundersmith and read one (or more!) of these too – as they’re very different and a fair bit shorter too I’m pretty sure it would work…

Do you ever read more than one book at a time? Have you read any of the books here? What are you reading at the moment?