Believathon 3 – A Clock of Stars: The Shadow Moth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what a tale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Believathon 3 – Storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture Book Picks – Mini Rabbit Must Help

Mini Rabbit Must Help by John Bond

Mini Rabbit is back! Hurrah!

We first met Mini Rabbit in Mini Rabbit Not Lost back in early 2019 and it’s remained a firm favourite (you can read a review of it here) so I’ve been really looking forward to Mini Rabbit’s next adventure and I wasn’t disappointed.

It proved an instant hit with Peapod too and it’s jumped straight into our regular reads basket and is read at least once a day and most bedtimes too!

Mother Rabbit has a letter to post and Mini Rabbit is only too keen to help! Armed with cake slime and stick he sets off to post the letter…what could go wrong?!

Well, throw in a missed bus, sticky, cake-covered paws, a dip in the river, a strong gust of wind and a post box that’s ever so slightly too high and the answer, apparently, is lots.

As with the first book, Mini Rabbit’s childlike enthusiasm and exuberance paired with Mother Rabbit’s familiar blend of fond exasperation, patience and resignation (which will be familiar to parents everywhere) make for a wonderful pair of characters who’ll be instantly loved.

It’s this observant and humorous take on everyday events paired with John Bond’s unique voice that sees the Rabbits up there with the Large Family for us.

I especially love that there’s no moral, no message, no attempt to teach us anything (except maybe an incidental reminder that it’s nice to be nice and what goes around comes around) – it is just all about an enjoyable, well-crafted and engaging story.

Peapod loves seeing the letter get blown away then found by the bird (we were especially pleased to see the bird from Not Lost playing a starring role here!)

He comforts Mini Rabbit (“sad”) with a stroke, then delights in the bird returning the letter every time we read it. Likewise, he loves seeing the letter get covered in cake (and I love this link back to the first book!) “Cake!” he shouts pointing with glee at the cake-covered letter.

This is a book which absolutely captures the magic of a child’s world. It’s all the small familiar highs and lows of toddler life – independence, birds, cake, ducks, a can-do attitude like no other, letter posting, buses and helping all ramped up into an exciting and very funny adventure.

It has all the quirkiness, style and detail you’d expect, with so much going on in the pictures that, as with Not Lost, there’s something new every time and plenty, especially for those who are already fans, to spot.

Peapod is particularly taken with that box under Mother Rabbit’s desk – “Peep! Hide! Box!” and I love the postbox we see just before Mini Rabbit starts his epic hunt for one.

With so much to love, this is a brilliant new addition to our bookcase and I’m already impatiently waiting to see what Mini Rabbit gets up to next!

Starfell

I was lucky enough to be sent copies of these by the publisher. All views and opinions are my own.

Starfell: Willow Moss and the Lost Day/Willow Moss and the Forgotten Tale by Dominique Valente, illustrated by Sarah Warburton

When the first Starfell book came out I just wasn’t sure – it looked good for its intended audience but I got the impression it would be a bit young for my personal tastes. So I put it off and put it off.

Then it was announced as our March Book of the Month in work, so it suddenly had to jump to the top of my pile.

And, quite frankly I was a fool to have put it off for so long. I LOVED it.

Luckily, I’d been sent an early copy if book two with the first one, so I could dive straight in when I finished it, which is exactly what I did!

After The Brothers of Wol attempted to rid Starfell of its magic, it went “into hiding” and became much diluted. These days those with magical abilities tend to have one specific talent rather than being generally magical, and in Willow’s family it looks like she’s drawn the short straw when it comes to her abilities.

While her mum and older sisters have seemingly impressive magic, Willow has a knack for finding lost things. Useful in an everyday sort of way, but without much of a wow factor.

So when the most powerful witch in Starfell turns up in Willow Moss and the Lost Day looking for her help, Willow is sure she’s made a mistake. But last Tuesday has gone missing and Moreg Vaine knows Willow’s the witch for the job.

Thus, together with Willow’s fantastically grumpy cat kobold (definitely NOT a cat…) Oswin, they embark on a mission to find Tuesday, an adventure filled with excitement, set backs, wondrous creatures, people and places and of course an adventure over-shadowed by the threat of The Brothers who are always on the lookout for witches…

Along the way, Willow is joined by several new friends who in one way or another help her mission and who, collectively, make for that most brilliant of MG tropes – a group of misfits and/or underdogs all banding together, finding friendship, looking out for each other and especially in Willow’s case making some positive realisations about herself too.

Willow is a great main character. While she is determined and courageous, she wears her heart on her sleeve and is often worried by self-doubt and a lack of confidence.

I really loved the way we see her grow over the course of the first book and how much more self-assured she is by book two, all the while remaining true to her character and nature, and I think she’ll strike a chord with many children, younger siblings especially!

Then there’s Oswin, who is just amazing. Snarky and with a host of catchphrases to express his utter disapproval of anything remotely daring, dangerous, exciting or put of the ordinary, he brings so much humour to the book!

He’s also fiercely loyal and his readiness to protect Willow means that under his cowardly couldn’t-we-just-have-stayed-at-home exterior, he’s actually quite brave when he needs to be – after all its not brave unless you were scared to face it in the first place!

And the rest of the group of friends she makes along the way are equally fab, all bringing unique qualities but creating a balanced mix overall, and each both needing and bringing something from/to the mission. There’s hope and reassurance aplenty from their scenarios too for those who feel a bit different or misunderstood.

I also thought the way Dominique managed to deal so sensitively, gradually and tactfully with the theme of loss, as well as the way she gets us thinking about what a day involves was so skilfully woven through the book.

I can’t lie, my heart broke with Willow’s by the end of The Lost Day but the book also made me pause to think and reflect – very clever and incredibly well done.

We rejoin Willow at the start of The Forgotten Tale still getting over her loss and still dealing with a family who love her but don’t recognise her talents. To make it worse, said magical talents have gone slightly awry and Willow is now inadvertently ‘disappearing’ objects as well as finding them!

The opening of this second installment is just superb – punchy, funny and mysterious with enough of a recap for new/forgetful readers and a huge dollop of the imagination that makes these books so good,in the form of a leaf letter delivered to Willow by a nearby oak.

There’s something wonderfully reminiscent of Pratchett’s Discworld (but younger) in Starfell, both through the characters and the world, not to mention in Dominique Valente’s writing itself – by turns touching, funny, dramatic and imaginative, but overall just very human.

The world-building, magic and inventiveness are absolutely fantastic. I especially loved Wisperia, the use of a Forgotten Teller and the bathtub boat, but there is so much to love in the little details of Starfell and its inhabitants.

Many of you will know how much of a fan I am of Abi Elphinstone’s Unmapped Kingdoms and Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor, and Starfell has definitely joined the ranks – utterly magical and bursting with imagination.

Sarah Warburton’s illustrations really bring it to life – warm but with a real lightness of touch and life to them – and will add extra appeal to those readers just embarking on full length chapter books.

Overall, these books were fantastic and true celebrations of the weird and wonderful, of friendship and loyalty and of (not) fitting in and finding (and liking!) yourself. I CANNOT WAIT for book three!

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!

Peapod’s Picks – Can Cat and Bird be Friends?

We chose and bought this ourselves. Opinions our own.

Can Cat and Bird be Friends? by Coll Muir

This was recommended to us by a friend who knows what HUGE Jon Klassen fans we are and thought we’d love this too. They were SO right and to all you other Klassen aficionados out there, you need this book too!

Cat and Bird want to challenge the status quo and be friends. It starts quite well, seemingly they both have something to bring to the friendship table.

Things are going great then, until they decide that they should find something they both enjoy doing as friends like to do things together. And here’s where the problem lies.

Washing, stretching, licking, flying – all out! It’s looking like they’ll have to give up on bring friends after all, so Bird decides to go and work on his painting instead…

It’s such a brilliant book. Clever, witty, deadpan dialogue is employed to great effect; the block background, muted tones and minimal pallette are stylish and focus our attention on the ever-so-expressive characters, not to mention making the final spread with its burst of colour an even more joyously effective ending (no spoilers here!)

One of my standout picture books this year, I can’t wait to see what Coll Muir does next.

Peapod was particularly taken by Cat!

The Binding

9780008272111

Imagine you could erase your grief.
Imagine you could forget your pain.
Imagine you could hide a secret.
Forever.

Emmett Farmer is working in the fields when a letter arrives summoning him to begin an apprenticeship. He will work for a Bookbinder, a vocation that arouses fear, superstition and prejudice – but one neither he nor his parents can afford to refuse.

I was lucky enough to be sent a copy of this from HarperInsider/Borough Press to review and I’ll be honest, it’s another of those magpie books that I was drawn to, initially solely because of its oh-so-beautiful cover (sadly, I don’t know who designed it, so I can’t credit).

But then I found out that this was a book about books – specifically books which are not so much banned as shunned, feared, locked away, secreted; and specifically books which are created by specialists (some more scrupulous than others) by binding – not works of fiction as we would know them, these books contain memories that for one reason or another someone wants forgotten.

I was hooked before I’d begun.

The fact that it had elements of all my favourite genres without really being confined to any of them only added to this. Even the fact that it is essentially a love story couldn’t deter me (and it shouldn’t – it’s beautiful, full of hope, frustration, guilt and despair: raw feeling and not in the least bit sentimental and squishy).

While this is a work of fantasy, it is hinged on real lives and the everyday, in particular society, class and prejudice. Magical realism if you must. But really I don’t think either of those pigeon-holes are quite right for it. Similarly, it has the feel of the best gothic, historical fiction, but it’s not really that either – there is unquestionably an atmosphere of times gone by but no concrete time period to pin it down.

The setting is richly described and I was drawn right into the thick of it. My favourite part of the book is the time Emmett spends at Seredith’s bindery: the workshop and vaults, the surrounding marshes, the changing seasons and the isolation – all of it felt so tangible. I could happily have had this book go down a completely different route and spent the whole novel there (did someone say prequel – Seredith’s story anyone? Come on, Bridget, you know you’d love to!) But all of it felt incredibly vividly and real.

Likewise, the characters are well-drawn and believable. Though at first I felt some of them were going to be a little stereotypical, with some of their relationships looking to play out in ways we’ve seen before, the way they develop as the story progresses, the way each character is vital to the story and the way we see it from different angles and viewpoints helps bring them much more depth, purpose and realism.

This was a truly captivating book. It is at times dark, horrifying, bleak, but at other times bursting with hope and possibility. It feels both magical and all too real; historical and incredibly relevant. A book that truly swallows you up into its world and has you reading ‘just one more page/chapter/part’ every time you pick it up.