Mini Monday – a YA double bill

I requested and received advance copies of both books free from the publishers, in exchange for an honest review. All views are my own.

This month I’ve read two YA books, both by authors whose debuts I read and loved last year, so I was very lucky and very excited to get early copies of both of these.

Both of these books not only take on some serious and relevant issues, but also give a voice to what have traditionally been (and continue to be, although it may be improving) under-represented members of society: a British-Pakistani teen and a young black American girl.

Up first:

Kick the Moon by Muhammad Khan. Illustrated by Amrit Bird. Cover design by Rachel Vale.

I thought Khan’s debut I Am Thunder last year was brilliant – well-written, ground-breaking in the way it looked at radicalisation and with huge contemporary YA appeal – so I was eagerly anticipating this one too.

Fifteen-year-old Ilyas is under pressure from everyone: GCSE’s are looming, his dad wants him to join the family business while he dreams of designing comic books, and he’s becoming increasingly unsure of the direction his group of mates is taking.

Serving detention one day, Ilyas finds a kindred spirit in Kelly, but when Kelly is caught up in his gang’s toxic bet, Ilyas must decide where his loyalties lie.

While I didn’t feel this broke the mould in the same way I Am Thunder did, it nevertheless tackles some difficult and important subjects – racism, revenge porn, gangs, bullying and peer-pressure not to mention culture, family and friendship – and it does so with sensitivity, awareness and realism.

Similarly, when I first started reading the book, it felt like there were a lot of stereotypes at play. However, as I read on, they felt necessary, believable and, perhaps most importantly, familiar.

There’s a lot in this book teens will recognise and all of it feels well-described, with voices that sound natural and real, not forced or too ‘adult’. There is a lot of slang used in the dialogue and this feels carefully considered, well-researched and integral to the characters and the story which just would not have the same effect without the characters speaking as they really would.

Immensely relatable, my heart went out to Ilyas as he struggled with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, but it also cheered as he found the courage to stand up for what he believed in and grew in confidence.

This is a book which really understands how hard it can be to find yourself trapped in a bad situation and how it can be even harder to get out of it again. The increasing desperation came across powerfully and will be so familiar to so many. It shows how confusing and difficult teenage years can be as you try to find your way, your goals, your ‘people’ and of course yourself.

A story of hope, change and self-belief: I really enjoyed this and it deserves to be a big hit with contemporary YA fans.

And next…

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas. Cover design by Tim Marrs.

Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. As the daughter of an underground hip hop legend who died right before he hit big, Bri’s got massive shoes to fill.

But when her first song goes viral for all the wrong reasons, Bri finds herself at the centre of controversy and portrayed by the media as more menace than MC. And with an eviction notice staring her family down, Bri no longer just wants to make it – she has to. Even if it means becoming the very thing the public has made her out to be.

The Hate U Give was one of my favourite books of last year – powerful, hard-hitting and brutally honest, it was truly something else.

On The Come Up returns to ‘The Garden’ (Garden Heights) where THUG was set and – while it isn’t a sequel and reads perfectly well as a stand-alone book – there is much overlap, with events from THUG seeing their consequences reaching into On The Come Up.

As with ‘Kick the Moon’, this didn’t feel quite so ground-breaking as THUG, but still tackles some very important issues – racism, poverty, class, misrepresentation, drugs and gang affiliation – in a compassionate but unsentimental way which very much holds a mirror up to certain aspects of society and the media.

Angie Thomas is an incredible writer – her characters feel real and complex, their relationships and lives the same. Bri’s mum in particular struck a chord with me, while the changing dynamics of Bri and her best friends’ relationships will no doubt hit home for many readers.

Bri herself is incredibly likeable – and if you’ve read THUG and liked Starr, you’ll love Bri just as much if not more: fiercely determined, stretching her wings and aiming for the sky, she is a character with big dreams, plenty of hope and just as much fire…which, whether rightly or wrongly, can lead to trouble.

It was near impossible for me to like this as much as I did THUG, but it was still brilliant and readers from all backgrounds will find both things they relate to and other things which open their eyes or make them pause for thought. It is a book brimming with friendship, love, hip hop and hope!

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Mini Monday: 7/1/19

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

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

First up…

There’s a Yeti in the Playground by Pamela Butchart

Illustrated by Thomas Flintham

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

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

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

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

Thanks to Nosy Crow for my copy.

The Missing Barbegazi by H. S. Norup

Cover design by Anna Morrison

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

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

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

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

Thanks to Pushkin for my copy.

Snowglobe by Amy Wilson

Cover illustration by Rachel Vale

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to Macmillan for my copy.

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

What are your favourite wintry or snowy books?

WWW Wednesday 12/12/18

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

What are you currently reading?

Snowglobe by Amy Wilson. I’ve only just started it, but I’m loving her writing style and the magic in the book. Plus, I just love the whole idea of the snowglobes.

What have you just finished reading?

I’ve finally read Wundersmith! Jessica Townsend’s follow up to the brilliant Nevermoor is just as imaginative and ‘wunder’-full (couldn’t resist!) as the first and I’m. Now impatiently waiting for book 3! Full review to follow.

What are you planning on reading next?

I’m stuck! On the one hand I still have a gazillion MG books I really want to read waiting for me to get to them – The Train to Impossible Places, Sky Circus, The Missing Barbegazi and so, so, SO many others.

On the other hand, I have some brilliant YA and adult books clamouring to be read to – Angie Thomas’ new one, On the Come Up, and Marcus Zusak’s Bridge of Clay especially.

And on the other hand again (yeah, three hands. And what of it?!), I keep promising myself a re-read of Harry Potter and what better time than Christmas?!

What do you think – what should I choose? Have you read any of the books here? What are you reading at the moment?

Into the Jungle: Stories for Mowgli

First published almost 125 years ago, the combination of the wild world, freedom and adventure in The Jungle Book mean it is just as appealing today as it was then. And that writing a ‘companion’ for it would be no easy task.

Luckily, Katherine Rundell is more than up to the task. Already a huge fan of her writing and the way it captures perfectly a scene, a mood, a character… and knowing from her last book The Explorer how well she can conjure up the jungle, I had no doubts she’d bring The Jungle Book roaring to life in Into the Jungle.

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Charming and compelling origin stories for all Kipling’s best-known characters, from Baloo and Shere Khan to Kaa and Bagheera. As Mowgli travels through the Indian jungle, this brilliantly visual tale will make readers both laugh and cry. 

Firstly, this is going to be an absolutely stunning book. I received an ARC which included samples of Kristjana Williams’ sumptuous illustrations and they are as rich and vivid as Katherine Rundell’s text. Put together in a hardback edition, this is going to be a beautiful gift of a book.

This is a wonderful series of five stories, as told to Mowgli as he makes his way through the jungle (trying to evade Mother Wolf and the telling off he thinks is coming!) Each story is narrated by one of the animals and tells the backstory of one of the others, with the stories giving a brilliant new depth to each of the characters, while at the same time staying true to Kipling’s original depictions of them.

Mother Wolf’s story is one of the reckless invincibility of youth, female ferocity, loyalty and love. Bagheera’s solemn, often solitary nature is perfectly explained by his story – one of loss, freedom and the ways of the wild. Kaa’s story was the most surprising to me, while Baloo’s was without a doubt my absolute favourite of the bunch – a story of intelligence, courage, defying expectations and challenging preconceptions. While Shere Khan doesn’t have his own chapter, his story also threads through the book and, like Baloo’s, is one of the ones that I enjoyed most.

Mowgli’s own character – one of a typical child: selfish, blunt and arrogant at times; carefree, mischievous and friendly at others, but always full of life – is gradually drawn from each of these encounters before the final chapter shows just how much of life, loyalty, courage and respect he has learned from his jungle family.

These individual stories weave together as the book progresses to create the central plot of the book, which has a much more modern feel to it, despite still being rooted in the characters and events of the original. It is an exciting, colourful and cleverly woven tale, in which quick-thinking, creativity and teamwork make for a dramatic and gripping finale. It has all the ingredients needed to be a hit with young readers today, whether they are familiar with the original or not.

Important messages about diversity and celebrating differences, as well as the impact of man on nature, run through the book too and are written into the story in the very best way: it’s not at all shouty, preachy or shoe-horned in, but it makes the points in no uncertain terms that, as Bagheera finds: “To be alive is to be wild and various.”

Full of warmth, humour and life, and perfectly complemented by beautiful, bold illustrations – this is an adventure for all ages. Those familiar with Kipling’s Jungle Book will relish the chance to delve deeper into some of our favourite characters, and for those unfamiliar with the original this is a perfect introduction to whet the appetite or a thoroughly enjoyable stand alone story bursting with jungle life.

The Skylarks’ War

I loved this book.

It’s one of those books where no matter what I write in this review, all I really want to write is that – I loved it.

You know that feeling when you can’t put a book down, but at the same time really don’t want to reach the end?! And then when you do finish it and desperately want *something* to follow them with but have no idea what that is or how you can? That. I’ve since read 3 or 4 other books, but I’m still lingering on this one and I still haven’t quite found what I want to read to follow it up with suitably.

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Clarry and her older brother Peter live for their summers in Cornwall, staying with their grandparents and running free with their charismatic cousin, Rupert. But normal life resumes each September – boarding school for Peter and Rupert, and a boring life for Clarry at home with her absent father, as the shadow of a terrible war looms ever closer.

When Rupert goes off to fight at the front, Clarry feels their skylark summers are finally slipping away from them. Can their family survive this fearful war?

While I can think of many books set in the times of the second World War, those based in WW1 seem much less common. Due for release in November, this is perfectly timed to commemorate the centenary of the first World War, and – in my opinion – is a beautiful way of marking it. Sensitively highlighting the stark contrast between the perceptions and realities of what it meant to join the war effort, this is a book which handles the grit, despair and hardships of war with a delicate but incredibly powerful touch. Rather than being a sudden, overnight drama which takes over the story, there is a real subtlety to the way the war is portrayed as it gradually creeps into the lives of the different characters; it shows so well how it affects the everyday lives of different people, as well as the effects it has on those who go to fight.

Similarly, while this is a story about war, it is much more than that. It is a story of family and friendship, of pursuing dreams and tackling challenges, of growing up and facing change, of love and loss. It is a story of times gone by, with characters earnestly looking to the future.

And it is the characters which really bring the story to life. From the detachment of Peter and Clarry’s father to the rambunctious Rupert and everyone in between, the variety in the characters gives the book a brilliant balance. All of them are incredibly well-drawn, with real depth and detail: their relationships described with real understanding and warmth; the internal struggles they were facing obvious without them having to be spelt out; their flaws weren’t sugar-coated nor magicked away by the end. I loved seeing them all grow throughout the book, and felt like I didn’t want to leave them by the end.

This is a book written with an evocative, old-fashioned charm and with both settings and events which are very much of their time – it should have massive appeal to fans of historical children’s fiction, particularly wartime stories. It is also a book filled with characters and situations that are still incredibly relatable now. At times heart-wrenching, warm, and full of humour – I can’t deny there may have been a tear or two, but there was also a lot of laughter and silent cheers of joy for the characters and their triumphs. Like I said at the start, I loved it (and I’ve passed it straight on to my mum, because I know she’s going to love it too!)

Spinning Silver

spinning silver

Miryem was brought up in a snowbound village, on the edge of a charmed forest. She comes from a family of moneylenders, but her kind father shirks his work. Free to lend and reluctant to collect, his family faces poverty – until Miryem intercedes. Hardening her heart, she starts retrieving what’s owed, and her neighbours soon whisper that she can turn silver into gold. Then an ill-advised boast attract the cold creatures who haunt the wood. Nothing will be the same again, for words have power.

Loving all things fairy-tale based, I’ve meant to read Uprooted by Naomi Novik for years, but still not got round to it somehow. So when I was offered a copy of Spinning Silver for review by Macmillan, I jumped at the chance to sample her fairy-tale retelling skills!

I say ‘retelling’ but it’s really so much more than that. This is a fantasy novel which puts down its roots in Rumplestiltskin particularly, but which references a multitude of more general fairy tale tropes throughout (the rule of three, relationships and roles, poverty and riches, wishes and bargains etc.). But it is the subtle, skilful and original ways in which Novik weaves these into her tale that elevate this from being either a simple retelling or veering into cliche: they feel integral to the story, the fairy-tale similarities almost coincidental. Similarly, alongside it’s rich fairy-tale and mythological background sit societal themes of race, debt, class, equality which are as relevant today as ever.

While I love fairy-tales and all that goes with them, I’m not a big fantasy reader. So, for me, the first half of this book was by far my favourite – it had much more of the fairy-tale and less of the fantasy, whereas the balance had flipped a little by the end. Not that this stopped me from enjoying it: I was still very much immersed in its world, but while the beginning of the book felt like an old friendship rekindled after years – almost unrecognisable, but still themselves – the second took a bit more effort on my part, and I found the Chernobog elements of the storyline hard-going at times.

But, it was worth it. Atmospheric and vividly depicted, the world sucks you in. As so much of it revolves around the frosty lands of the Staryk, it did feel a little odd to be reading it mid-‘heatwave’ in July, but I can’t wait to re-read it in front of the fire with plenty of hot chocolate come winter! Without wanting to give away too much, it was the little details that really did it for me – the description of everyday family life (both good and bad), the seemingly abandoned cottage in the woods, Stepon’s white nut…

The book begins with Miryem as our main protagonist, but soon develops to incorporate two more female leads, as well as other important if more minor female characters, not least in the roles of mothers. The differences between them, and their differences with each other as their stories begin to come together serve as a useful mirror for women in society as a whole: the variety of ways in which women are strong, cunning, protective, brave; the choices they make for the sake of themselves, their family or others; as well as both their wisdom and folly – these women are not infallible and some of the most interesting twists and turns of the story come as they deal with the fall-out from their own or others’ decisions. It’s not just the women though: the male characters are equally well-developed and nuanced, and also challenge/provoke thought on stereotypes and expectations.

The thing I loved best was the building up of the narratives in the book: each chapter from someone else’s point of view, flitting between viewpoints, worlds and characters frequently but without ever becoming confusing or distracting from the various plots. Indeed, for me, it was this which served to bring the various characters’ tales together so well.

An incredibly well-crafted, magical and thought-provoking book. I look forward to finally getting round to reading Uprooted soon, and to whatever Novik writes next!

P.S. On adding my review to waterstones.com, I’ve just found this interview with Naomi Novik about the book which I thought was a really interesting read!