Hollowpox: The Hunt for Morrigan Crow

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.

Nevermoor: The Hunt for Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

Before we go any further, all you really need to know is: this book is A-MAZING!

But that wouldn’t make for much of a review on its own, would it, so…

This is the third book in the absolutely fantastic Nevermoor series. If you haven’t read books one and two (where have you been?!) stop reading immediately and go and read them now.

I realised on writing this that I reviewed book one before I had my blog, so I’ve posted it here belatedly. And I’m not sure where my Wundersmith review went but let’s blame that on new baby craziness and just know that it was every bit as good, if not better, than book one.

And the same can most definitely be said of Hollowpox.

We rejoin Morrigan in her second year as a member of the Wundrous Society and see her beginning to learn more about the Wretched (or Wundrous) Arts in a most brilliantly devised and captivating way, as she is helped to try and harness, master and diversify her powers as a Wundersmith, whilst simultaneously struggling to keep her Wundersmith status under wraps outside of WunSoc – something which proves increasingly challenging as the story unfolds.

We are introduced to a new, third part of WunSoc, which is every bit as intriguing, magical and atmospheric as we’ve come to expect from Jessica’s settings and we’re introduced to some great new characters and typically WunSoc style secrets too.

But of course, things couldn’t go smoothly for long. And in an eerily prescient way (for the book was written way before this year’s Covid 19 pandemic), we see a deadly ‘virus’ sweeping through the Wunimals of Nevermoor, turning them into Unnimals on the rampage, with no sense of their human sides left and a compulsion to attack.

As the attacks increase, panic spreads. No-one knows where the Hollowpox came from, how it spreads and there’s no cure. With curfews, closures and messages to “Stay Alert” it felt like a mirror for current times in many ways.

After attacking, the Wunimals left ‘hollow’ in a coma-like state but with seemingly nothing left inside, leading to increased debate in Nevermoor about who the victims of the Hollowpox are.

Indeed, it felt all too realistic and equally saddening to see the way in which the disease sees Wunimals blamed, with fellow citizens turning on them and the sparks of prejudice many carried against them already ignited.

There is an absolutely hilarious, but all too true quote about numpties which I will let you discover for yourselves but it summed up perfectly both Nevermoor in this crisis, and our own world too.

With twists, turns, blame and backstabbing, not to mention a race against time to beat the mysterious disease, this is already thrilling, shocking and thought-provoking. But then, of course, comes the return of Ezra Squall.

The last Wundersmith, banished from Nevermoor for his evil acts, he reappears to Morrigan on the Gossamer from the Wintersea Republic with a, deal to be done, and the plot well and truly thickens….

And that ending! Oh my god.

I loved everything about this.

As, ever, the characters are well-fleshed out and considered, and I especially liked how we dug a bit deeper with Squall in this book.

The inhabitants of Hotel Deucalion (including of course the hotel itself, which is one of my favourite ‘characters’ I think) are as fantastical, funny and fiercely loyal as ever.

The story itself is compelling and complex, with heavy doses of humour and gloriously magical moments, as well as messages of equality, kindness, courage and honesty which always run through this series.

And of course, it is breathtakingly imaginative, heart-stoppingly exciting, goose-bumpily (yes that’s a word!) observant. At once a wundrous escape from reality and an astute commentary on it.

Loved it, loved it, loved it. Need book four immediately.

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

So, I thought I’d reviewed this way back when it came out but realised that I hadn’t started my blog them so had only reviewed it online.

Ahead of the imminent release of book three in the series, Hollowpox (my review is here) I thought I’d post my review of book one here too.

I received a reading copy of this in exchange for review and while I knew it was the sort of story I’d enjoy, I just wasn’t prepared for how much I’d love it!

I was utterly hooked, pulled straight into the world of Nevermoor and still stubbornly gripping my umbrella on the Brolly Rail refusing to get off at the end.
It was hailed as the next Harry Potter by pretty much everyone and with good reason. It does draw heavily on what has come before – a purportedly cursed child with a pre-determined fate, a villain hiding in the shadows supposedly banished from Nevermoor with ordinary folk scared to mention him, a heavy dose of magic and friendships forged between a variety of ‘misfit’ type characters.
But, and it is a big BUT as this is where it moves away from the many other magic-adventure-type books written post-Potter: Jessica Townsend’s writing transforms this into so much more than a wannabe-HP: despite it’s obvious similarities, it feels fresh, unique and new.

The imagination that has gone into creating Nevermoor and the thought that has gone into detailing and describing its weird and wonderful features (not least the fantastic Hotel Deucalion, which I would happily handover a month’s pay packet to stay at for a night or two!) is truly wonderful: it is vibrant, bursting with life and sucks you right in.
The characters are charming, funny and believable. Morrigan is a perfect ‘heroine’ – at times insecure, at time courageous, but always loyal – I was relieved that she was also ‘real’ enough to be likeable.

Jupiter is zingy, zany and full of verve, his self-assured, confident manor the perfect balance to Morigan’s self-doubt.

Hawthorne brings humour, daring and warmth as the sort of sidekick anyone would want. And so the list goes on…all the characters bring something else to the story, none seem gratuitous.
The story itself zips along through the darkness of the Hunt of Smoke and Shadows and the elusive Mr Jones; the vivid colour of Nevermoor itself – the Hallowmas and Christmas celebrations in particular; the nerves, tenacity and adventure throughout the Trials (like others the Book Trial made me smile, but it was the witches in the Fright Trial I loved best).

It’s a book you don’t want to reach the end of – I can’t wait for the next instalment!

Peapod’s Picks – An Alphabetty Botty Book!

Oi Aardvark! by Kes Gray and Jim Field

The latests in the Oi! series, and its just as good as ever. Frog has decided to write his own alphabet book, and its the funniest alphabet book you’ll ever read!

In his Alphabetty Botty Book (and honestly, what child isn’t going to live that title?!) Frog has decided to give animals that still have nowhere to sit somewhere to park their derrieres, one (or in some cases several!) for each letter of the alphabet.

Frog is as confident and bossy as ever, with Cat remaining their usual resigned and superior self, and there are some classic Dog moments too (not least in the very funny ending!)

Fans of Kes Gray’s ‘You’re Called What?!’ will be pleased to find a plethora of lesser known (or certainly lesser mentioned!) creatures included, with pangolins, quolls and uakaris for starters.

Peapod likes that “pigeons sit on wigeons”, joyfully repeating “pidge-widge! Pidge-widge!” at this point, but his favourites are definitely the jays (after seeing one on a walk once, we must hunt for them on every walk now!) and, of course, the kudu sat on doo-doo, which he (and surely every other toddler who reads this) finds hilarious -” Poo! Sit in poo!”

For my part, I giggle at the iguanas sat on piranhas (“they’ll bite their bottoms!” – I don’t know where Peapod gets it from!) and love the big fold out spread from Q to W. If I still taught early years, I would definitely have ended up buying multiple copies of this to turn it into an alphabet strip for my wall!

As bright and bold, as delightfully daft and as completely comical as you’d expect from this series. Just when you think they can’t possibly find anywhere else to go with it, they take it in a new direction and deliver all over again. Fab!

P. S. You can read our reviews of Oi Cat and Oi Duck-Billed Platypus here and here!

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.

Peapod’s Book Advent Day 7

You can find out more about our Christmas Book Advent here.

Last night, we read…

We were sent this last year to review and thoroughly enjoyed it – Emily Brown was totally new to me but we’ve since read her other adventures and highly recommend them too (I think Emily Brown and the Elephant Emergency is our favourite!).

This is a fun story with a message not to lose sight of the magic of Christmas and that newer isn’t always better.

The Deathless Girls

I requested and received a copy of this from the publishers in exchange for an honest review, but I’ve since bought the beautiful, finished (and signed!) hardback edition anyway. All opinions are my own.

The Deathless Girls by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, cover art by Olga Baumert

I’m a big fan of Kiran Millwood-Hargrave’s MG books so I’ve been really looking forward to both this and her adult fiction debut, The Mercies, due out in February (snapped up the proof copy that arrived in work today!)

I’m also a big fan of anything that draws on folk or fairytale, myth or legend, cultural histories or fables so the fact that this is a spin on the Dracula legend from the ‘brides” point of view was really appealing.

And it’s testament to Kiran’s writing that I approached the end of the books invested in the sisters that I was still hoping they would ‘escape’ despite knowing their fate!

Although what I absolutely did not see coming was the way in which they finally became his brides in the final chapters, and especially Kizzy’s role in this – this was one of my favourite parts of the book which I can’t talk about without spoilers so if/when you’ve read it please let me know your thoughts!!

The sisters in question are brave and feisty Kizzy and the less confident Lil who loves her sister dearly but often feels like she lives in her shadow.

Part of a small and close-knit travelling community, they return to their camp on their divining day to find it burnt down and their families and friends killed or captured. Not without a fight, they too are taken to serve a nearby Boyar, leading them straight into the path of the much-feared ‘Dragon’ or Dracul – a mysterious, powerful figure about whom rumour abounds.

I loved this. It had everything I’ve come to expect from her younger books – rich, lyrical prose with vivid, detailed description that transports you right into the story; I felt the rawness of the girls’ emotions – their fear, anger, pain and loss especially, but also the flares and flickers of warmth, comfort, joy and love.

I’ve read mixed reviews of this and I think a lot of it comes down to expectation. So, let me say here that while this is a brides of Dracula story, it is their story not his – their backgrounds, family and the events which led them into his path – therefore, it is not the next Twilight, Buffy or Anne Rice vampire fest.

It is a story about sisterhood (both literal and figurative), family, love and loyalty; and it is a story primarily about power in all its guises – about in/equality, slavery and subjugation and it is a book which shouts, sings and echoes with indignation at abuses of power.

It is, therefore, unflinching and brutal at times and while this makes it uncomfortable to read that is as it should be to address these themes well and there is also tenderness, hope and strength.

Atmospheric, powerful and beautiful. Bring on The Mercies!

Rose, Interrupted

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

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Rose, Interrupted by Patrice Lawrence.

Cover art by – to be added: my proof copy didn’t have the finished artwork or name the artist and I have tried and failed to find them online. I’ll add as soon as I know who they are!

I have enjoyed both of Patrice Lawrence’s previous books, Indigo Donut particularly, but this was by far my favourite that she’s written so far.

It follows Rose and her younger brother, Rudder, as they attempt to adjust to life in the ‘Worldly World’ having left the strict religious sect they’d been brought up in. Rose, like their mum, is relieved to be ‘free’ and doing all she can to fit in and shake off her religious past, having written herself a ten point decommissioning programme.

Rudder, on the other hand, is finding it hard. He’s struggling to adjust and swings between finding in comfort in his Harry Potter books, throws and robes and feeling guilty for having them as he yearns to be accepted back into God’s Pilgrims.

I also loved the use of music, which is a common theme in Patrice’s books (especially the choice of Simon and Garfunkel). It added a wry humour and helped build Rudder’s character further.

Unlike Rose, who has thrown herself, ultimately rather naively, into modern teenage life – using chat rooms to guide her actions when it comes to relationships and choosing flamboyant ‘fairy kei’ outfits and make up to stand out on her own terms rather than because of her past – Rudder is finding the outside world, the idea of making friends and teenage behaviour terrifyingly confusing.

The dual narrative in this works brilliantly as the characters and their worries are so different, but have the same root causes for their situation and struggles. Their different ways of coping (or not) and their differing views on what happened before they left the Pilgrims are really well articulated this way, and their frustration, anger and worry for each other is made clearer because of it too.

It was also a great way to depict their relationship in a realistic way – they clearly love and care for each other, but they bicker, fight, roll their eyes, take deep breaths and generally annoy each other the way only siblings can. I thought this was so well-written.

There are real layers to this, both in terms of the story which we get more and more of the history for as it unfolds, and in terms of the topical and thought-provoking issues it deals with – social media, sexting, so-called ‘revenge’ porn and consent, but also poverty and power, religion, control and being able to break free.

There is much to relate to in both Rose and Rudder’s situations and feelings – no, I’ve never had to leave a strict religious community that shun modern life, but I have been a teenager and so many of their doubts and uncertainties and their attempts to fit in, to do what ‘everyone’ does and to be accepted will be universally recognised.

It feels deep and complex and the emotions and shades of grey involved in so much of what’s covered are clear, but it’s such a page turner too!

Those of you who are here often will know I’ve been struggling to boot myself back into reading some YA for a while now, and contemporary (in YA or MG) is NOT MY THING…but this really grabbed me and I couldn’t put it down. Really well-written, it feels like Patrice Lawrence is going from strength to strength and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Peapod’s Picks 26/8/19

We were lucky enough to request and receive copies of these free from the publishers in exchange for an honest review. Opinions and views are all my own.

Peapod’s Picks is a weekly round up of some of the books that Peapod* has read (often, but not always, for his bedtime stories) each week plus a review of at least one of them.

*His social media alter ego, not his real name!

My Pet Star by Corrinne Averiss and Rosalind Beardshaw

This is a lovely story and one that I think will be extra enjoyable as the nights draw in and autumn arrives – there’s just something really cosy and comforting about it.

A little girl finds a star that’s fallen from the sky. She takes it home, patches it up and takes care of it. As the days pass, the star gets better and brighter until the time comes when it’s time to say goodbye as the star returns to the sky.

With pared back text, this is a perfect example of illustration and text working in harmony to tell a story, create atmosphere and express feelings. To do this using rhyme (and using rhyme which flows, reads well and doesn’t feel clunky or forced) is an achievement indeed.

Bonus points for a non-white main character who doesn’t live in a detached house with garden!

I loved the way the book conveyed imaginative play and bigged up reading – if I still taught I’d have the spread below framed:

“I showed him pictures in my book. He couldn’t read, but he could look.”

So many early years children would start the year telling me “I can’t read though” as if being able to decode the words was the only way to enjoy a book. A lot of work went into encouraging looking at pictures, making up stories etc.

And of course, there’s a gentle introduction to the idea of letting go, transience and saying goodbyes.

This is a warm, tender-hearted book perfect for snuggling up with at bedtime.

I can’t wait to have Corrinne into work in October for one of our Read and Make sessions!

There’s a Rang-Tan in my Bedroom by James Sellick and Frann Preston-Gannon

Produced in collaboration with Greenpeace, this starts much like your typical picture book might – funny, animated, bright and seemingly light-hearted. An orangutan (or Rang-Tan) has arrived in a little girl’s room and is causing chaos.

But, when the little girl stops to find out why the Rang-Tan is there, the book’s more serious message is revealed, along with a clever change in illustration style to mirror it.

We see how humans are destroying the Rang-Tan’s home for palm oil in dark and muted tones, desolate and bleak.

We’re then offered a ray of hope along with a nudge of encouragement not to be passive but to do whatever we can to help. We see the little girl writing letters to big companies, rallying friends and neighbours through posters and word of mouth and going on protests.

It finishes with more detailed information about orangutans and their habitat as well as palm oil, its uses and the problems with it, as well as suggestions for action similar to that taken by the girl in the story.

This would be ideal for use in schools, as well as for reading at home, as a way of both developing understanding and interest in environmental issues and getting children engaged and involved in doing something about them.

Be More Bernard by Simon Philip and Kate Hindley

Bernard pretends to be just like the other bunnies, who all eat, dress, act and even dream alike. But deep down, he knows he’s different.

Until one night, he decides to let his inner self go! Of course, the other rabbits are shocked at first but they soon start sharing their dreams of being different too and slowly the burrow realise they can be themselves as well.

We always love Kate Hindley’s illustrations but the burrow scenes in this are truly fab and not without a touch of Richard Scarry which is wonderful!

Its an enjoyable read with a positive and affirming message about being yourself and following your dreams, and Bernard is brilliant in both words and pictures.

Here’s the thing though – we love You Must Bring A Hat by this duo so were very excited for this and, honestly, although we enjoyed it and it did have some of the dry humour that we love in YMBAH, it just couldn’t compete with it…even with Bernard’s absolutely kick-ass, roller-disco-dancing outfit and moves.

Fun, positive and guaranteed to make you smile, but it didn’t have the originality, daftness or ‘just because-ness’ of ‘You Must Bring A Hat’ so while we like and recommend this, for one you’ll want to read and read again get YMBAH.

This is a Dog by Ross Collins

This is a great example of a book that benefits hugely from not being afraid to strip the text back to bare bones and let the pictures do most of the work.

Written in the style of a young children’s animal primer, each page introduces us to a different animal…except that dog (in typical dog style) isn’t content with just his page. He needs your attention on everyone else’s page too!

From crossing them out to chasing them off the page, disguises and even wee – dog goes to great lengths to remain centre stage!

The other animals eventually get fed up of dog’s antics, but he has one last trick up his sleeve to ensure he stays top dog (couldn’t resist that, sorry!!)

It’s such a great book – dog is utterly doggish! It’s simple but clever and its minimal style allows the humour to really shine.

Peapod loved looking at this too. It’s a book that we enjoyed as a softback story to read together, but one that would make an even more fantastic board book – perfect for toddlers to ‘read’ with its repetition, recognisable animals, block-coloured backgrounds and visual humour. I’m told there are whisperings so fingers crossed!

Where the River Runs Gold

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

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Where the River Runs Gold by Sita Brahmachari, illustrated by Evan Hollingdale

I was initially dubious of this. I’d heard from a friend what it was about and it sounded remarkably similar (I’m putting that kindly) to How To Bee, a less well-known book that I loved, so I was worried that this was going to be a bit of a rip off but one that totally over-shadowed the original (Waterstones Book of the Month, more well-known author and publisher etc.)

Luckily, I needn’t have worried. While both books stem from the idea that crops, insects (particularly bees and other pollinators) and flora/fauna in general are dying out and while there are some overlaps because of this (children being used as pollinators for example) they take very different approaches and are written in very different styles, with different themes and directions.

In fact, far from hating this the way I feared I might, I really, REALLY loved it – it’s gone straight into my favourite books of the year (along with Rumblestar and Wild Folk Rising – I think while totally different from Wild Folk Rising it has that same love of nature and folklore that is present in the Stargold Chronicles, which is possibly why I feel the same way about it).

This is one of those books that’s incredibly frustrating (in a good way) as I’ve really struggled to put anything into words about it (indeed my procrastination about this review is one of the main reasons I’m currently so behind!)

Simply put, I just thought it was excellent – beautifully written with well-drawn characters you absolutely get behind and feel for, as well as complex themes and multiple layers. It was at once soothing and angering; full of a folkloric magic and disturbingly plausible; believable bleak but full of hope.

With environment, nature and climate change are at its core, there are also questions raised about power, wealth, inequality and freedom. About fairness, society and childhood. About family, friends and roots. The way it draws on nature, folk tales, cultural heritage and the arts as well as celebrating differences, talents and togetherness is inspired.

Just wonderful.

The ‘Unrateables’

I know there is great debate within the blogosphere on the posting of negative reviews. Personally, I choose not to. I’d prefer to spend my time writing about books I enjoyed and sharing the book love.

However, that sometimes leaves me with a bit of a ‘grey area’, with books I like to think of as ‘Unrateables’. (This is not, I promise, a back-handed compliment!)

You see, another thing I see quite often (on twitter and the like) are children’s books being given rubbish reviews (on a****n, goodreads etc) because “it’s childish” or “it’s ok for kids”…well, um, yeah…its a *children’s* book.

Which leads me to my quandary (we got there in the end), which is that usually when I read the kids books I choose to read (MG for the most part) I love them as me, an adult.

However, sometimes I read books that I didn’t particularly fall in love with, but that I know are absolutely spot on for their intended audience (kids) and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend at work etc to young readers.

Books that are well pitched and written for that age. Books that often tackle thorny subjects or feelings incredibly well and at just the right level. Books that balance serious stories with humour or fantasy or a pinch of the unlikely. But books that don’t grab me on a personal level.

Today’s books are two like this. The Boy at The Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Rauf and The Closest Thing to Flying by Gill Lewis.

There used to be an empty chair at the back of my class, but now a new boy called Ahmet is sitting in it.

He never talks and never smiles and doesn’t like sweets.

But then I learned the truth: Ahmet really isn’t very strange at all. He’s a refugee who’s run away from a War. And the more I find out about him, the more I want to help.

This book is a great way of opening up discussion about war, refugees and – more generally – differences, prejudices, fairness, right and wrong.

I thought the way we were introduced to Ahmet, and the way we see his integration into the classroom and relationships with others unfold was brilliantly written and paced.

Ahmet’s situation is described perfectly – there are some very difficult themes written about, but all are addressed sensitively and age-appropriately, and the author uses small, everyday things to really make it understandable and bring the message home (I thought the pomegranate storyline was lovely).

Likewise, the bullies at school not only introduce another, likely more familiar issue, but also cleverly highlights both how refugees are treated and mirrors the larger issues in the book.

A book which makes helping others – against the odds, in the face of obstacles and when we have no real reason to – seem obvious.

With strong themes of friendship and loyalty, and including a fast-paced, very funny adventure, this takes on some heartbreaking issues but with humour and a heart-warming touch.

Present day: Semira and her mother were brought to England by a man who has complete control. Always moving on, always afraid of being caught, she longs for freedom.

1891: Hen’s trapped in a life of behaving like a lady. But her Aunt Kitty is opening her eyes to a whole new world. A world of animal rights, and votes for women, and riding bicycles!

When Semira discovers Hen’s diary, she finds the inspiration to be brave and to fight for her place in the world.

Semira and her mum have had to flee their country, and the way not just this but the surrounding issues – the reasons they fled, the way they had to do it, the control and power someone else now has over them, the constant moving – are explored sensitively and age-appropriately.

This Victorian narrative – that we see through Hen’s diary, found by Semira – likewise highlights issues of that time too, not least some very sexist and prejudiced attitudes, but also the very beginnings of change and a glimmer of hope.

The use of birds and cycling to draw parallels between the two times, and between the characters really drew them together as well as creating powerful metaphors for the feelings of being trapped and free was very cleverly done. And of course, there was the link between Semira and Hen. Both feeling trapped and powerless, both find the courage to do something about it – Hen drawing on the spirit of her Aunt Kitty and friends, Semira on turn drawing on Hen.

Another thing I thought was very clever about the telling of Semira’s story was the way it drew on things both good and bad – ice cream, cycling, birds and homework; being an outsider, domestic abuse and bullying – that helped draw the characters together in spite of outward differences, and which in turn will help readers from all backgrounds relate to, empathise with and understand them.

Empowering and inspiring, this is a book filled with brave, determined and strong female characters. It is a book of solidarity, trust and friendship. It is a book about helping others, but also allowing others to help you. It is a book about standing up for your beliefs and for each other. It is a book full of hope, power and action in the face of adversity. It is a book about finally flying free.