Return to Wonderland

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

I love Alice in Wonderland. I love its eccentricity, its cleverness, its humour, its playfulness, its wit, its off-its-head-off-with-their-head-ness. And so, I was really excited to see some of today’s best children’s authors revisiting it in this short story collection.

Each story has something of the original that fans of Alice will love, it’s a real treat for those who’ve already read (and re-read) the original.

But each also brings with it its modern author’s distinct style, voice and choice of direction and theme, making it perfect for fans of these authors and/or as an introduction to Wonderland for a new readers.

I think Pamela Butchart’s ‘The Queen of Hearts and the Unwritten Rule’, for example, is a great story for new readers, and sits well in its position early on in the book. It gives a brilliant broad impression of Wonderland and brings it bang up to date at the same time with the introduction of Lil Queen, the Queen of Hearts tech-savvy, ultra-modern, next-big-thing-loving daughter.

Likewise, stories such as Patrice Lawrence’s ‘Roll of Honour’, Maz Evans’ ‘The Sensible Hatter’, or Lisa Thompson’s ‘The Knave of Hearts’ are great for honing in on particular characters/events from the book in new ways.

Just as it reconnects familiar readers with their favourite characters and events, it’s a great way to introduce these characters and Wonderland’s weird ways to newcomers.

I think the biggest surprise for me was Chris Smith’s ‘The Tweedle Twins and the Case of the Colossal Crow’, which I found myself chuckling all the way through.

I really enjoyed the way it was written, with lots of asides to the reader and a combination of both daft and dry humour – all of which made it perfect for a Wonderland tale.

So, I reached the end thinking “but who is this Chris Smith? What else have they written…and why haven’t I read it?” I googled of course and couldn’t believe what came up – Kid Normal! Co-authored with Greg James, I admit I’d always just dismissed it as popular, celebrity unfunny funny stuff…but I suspect I may have been…*whispers it*…wrong. Certainly if its written like this is, I was and it deserves a closer look!

Anyway back to Wonderland. Being a collection of stories, it will of course divide readers on which are the ‘best’. Everyone will have their own favourites, just as everyone will have their own favourite moments and characters from the original (and this will no doubt play into which of these we like most).

My own favourites, alongside The Tweedle Twins, were:

  • ‘The Missing Book’ by Swapna Haddow I thought this really captured the absurdity and contrariness of Wonderland, as well as Carroll’s love of word play. Wonderfully Wonderland-ish.
  • Plum Cakes at Dawn by Lauren St John I loved how Lauren St John evokes brilliantly the weirdness of Wonderland, while at the same time getting a very timely and urgent environmental message across. Those familiar with her work will appreciate how ‘her’ this is.
  • Ina Out of Wonderland by Robin Stevens I loved the back story to this and how Robin drew on not just Alice, but it’s creation and creator, focusing on Carroll, the Liddell girls (the ‘real’ Alice and her sisters) and their Oxford home. I thought she very cleverly and creatively tied this to the original (I feel sure if you’re an Alice fan, you’ll absolutely what she does) but made it something new and brimming with a fiery, mould-breaking determination too.

That is the other thing I really liked about the collection – each story has a short introduction from the author detailing, for example, their inspiration, memories and favourite moments from the original book and setting the scene, which I found really interesting.

Again, Alice fans will likely recognise the sentiments in many of them while new readers may be encouraged to read or at least dip into the original to see what all the fuss is about!

This collection is perfect for old fans and new visitors to Wonderland alike. With a fabulous balance of nostalgia and modernity, there are plenty of old favourites with some new gems as well. It’s a collection that is a more than worthy tribute to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and is every bit as weird wondrous.

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Scavengers

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

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Scavengers by Darren Simpson, illustrated by Tom Clohosy Cole

Landfill enjoys his life in the Hinterland – running free with dogs, foxes, goats and cats; swimming with turtles and chasing squirrels. He is happy in his wild, junk-yard home with old Babagoo taking care of him, as long as he follows the rules and sticks to the routine.

The rules are Babagoo’s way of keeping them safe from Outsiders. So is the wall inlaid with glass shards which must be checked for cracks, disrepair or infiltration every day. So is the need for cover whenever the Eye passes over. So is the fact that Landfill cannot yet accompany Babagoo to the Spit Pit to rummage for useful ‘treasures’ and catch gulls to eat.

And it is this last point, along with a couple of other seemingly, but emphatically not, insignificant events that plants a seed of doubt in Landfill’s mind about Babagoo’s rules and what he has always known to be true. And it is this seed of doubt combined with a chance meeting, that gradually triggers the events which will see Landfill and Babagoo’s world turned on its head.

The world-building in this is fantastic. While very much sticking to show not tell and avoiding being at all laboriously descriptive, Darren Simpson manages to describe in intricate detail this world made up of discarded, broken and ‘good for nothing’ objects in a way which has you clambering around it, climbing over it and chasing through it with Landfill.

The thick, sweet scent of rubbish and the acrid, sour smells of living unwashed, along with a multitude of others infiltrate the pages. The swarms of butterflies we see taking flight, the joy of splashing about in a sunlit pool of water (albeit, rather dirty water!), the absolute abandon with which Landfill lives as he lopes along on all fours with the dogs – all of it is described in a way which not only makes this place incredibly easy to picture,  but in a way which makes it easy to understand both how and why Landfill is so content in this place you couldn’t imagine being a home.

The use of a combination of altered, made up or old versions of words add to the sense of Landfill and Babagoo being a world apart, as do the scenes in the latter half of the book in which Landfill is slowly introduced to ‘Outside’ concepts, inventions and life. The way these are shown and described really hammer home how isolated from ‘normal’ life Landfill has been. Likewise, his innocence and naivety about the world only highlight his separation from it.

This is a coming of age story like no other. Landfill begin to question his world and rebel against Babagoo’s rules and ‘facts’. We see doubt creeping in and hurt, anger and confusion taking their turns. But ultimately, we see his love for Babagoo and his want, and need, to trust him and believe him.

However, as the reader, we are also able to see, or at least guess at, Babagoo’s dishonesty and his motives – there is no doubt he loves Landfill and wants to protect him, but his fear of Outsiders and the actions they cause may be pushing him away instead.

While part of me would have loved to know more about Babagoo’s backstory, I also liked that we were left to make up our own minds about Babagoo and his past – where do the lines of right and wrong blur, cross or meet? What should or shouldn’t he have done? Can we excuse him? What led him to his current life? Why does he do what he does? The book comes with discussion questions at the end (great for schools or children’s book groups) but there is so much to discuss from Babagoo’s character alone.

I thought the relationship between Landfill and Babagoo was incredibly well-written – the bickering and rows and the deception and disobedience juxtaposed with really tender moments where we clearly see how much they care for each other. The way this built over the book made the final chapters even more dramatic and emotive.

I did at times find the early chapters a bit slow, but the pace gradually quickens as events unfold, until the final chapters which are punchy and pacey, chaotic and tense, making this slow burning start very effective in the end. These final scenes are frenetic with panic, confusion, and desperation and a stark contrast to the contented tranquillity of their life at the start.

Again, this leaves us with questions that open up a wealth of discussion about personal vs. private lives and when we intervene and how, about mental health, homelessness and support (or lack of), about society, materialism and ‘the norm’.

I started reading this with echoes of Room or Our Endless Numbered Days, but it soon moved into its own, with its unique and detailed language and world-building to thank. There is a feel of David Almond to this, or at least there was for me, though I can’t quite place why, perhaps the coming of age narrative or the fact that the voice of this sits so well in that mid-ground between MG and YA, or perhaps for other reasons entirely! Whatever the reasons, I think if you like Almond, you’d enjoy this.

This book was a slow burner for me, but I’m glad I stuck with it. It’s incredibly moving, heart-breaking at times, and there is much to discuss, pick over and reflect on by the end.

 

The Wild Folk Rising

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

The Wild Folk Rising by Sylvia Linsteadt, cover art by Sandra Dieckmann

The Wild Folk was one of my favourite books of last year (you can read my review of it here) and I was so excited for this second, and final, installment of The Stargold Chronicles.

It was well worth the wait, I loved it and I’m already looking forward to re-reading them both back to back.

If you enjoyed the first book, you’ll enjoy this immensely too. If you haven’t yet read the first book, stop reading this and go and start reading that straight away!

In this second installment we rejoin Tin, Comfrey and the hares Mallow and Myrtle as they race to save Farrallone from the Brothers’ greed.

I loved the way this opened. In fact, I thought both the start and end of this were excellent.

There’s no slow build, long recap or drawn out reunions. There’s enough as we go along to recall book 1, but we are straight back into the action with a dead Brother, a daring and deadly escape and the start of a seemingly impossible mission crossing Farallone via the underworld and the very highest mountain tops.

And the tension, drama and danger keep going right to the end. There’s no gradual resolution, no light at the end of the tunnel as you pass the halfway point. If anything, things get harder and harder until the very end.

I loved this about it. There’s no simple solutions or happy coincidences. There are risks and deals and consequences; there are bargains and gambles and backs against the wall.

Accordingly then, and as with the first book, the story is steeped in folklore, myth and fairytale influences. And, just as Baba Itha’s scene stole the show for me in the first book, it was the First Bobcat’s dealings in the Underworld that I loved best in this for its truly dark, fairytale feel.

On top of this, it is a book which positively glows with wonder at the natural world. Don’t let that be mistaken for gushing, flowery prose though. This is a book that understands the, well, wildness of that world, and it demands respect for it.

There are some beautiful, fantastic and awe inspiring scenes (the flock of birds!), as well as some really heartbreaking ones which should serve as a warning to all of us about the way we treat others, the impact of power and greed and being reckless with nature’s resources.

We meet many old characters, both good and bad – I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to say there’s a terrific reappearance of Father Ralstein.

And there are wonderful new faces too – I especially loved Rupert and Oswald, and was so pleased to see a gay couple in an MG book not as a ‘token’ or an ‘issue’ but just there as lovely characters playing their part in the story, whilst ever so subtly making a point about prejudice.

This book is a fantastic adventure in a magical place that all the while mirrors our own. It deals with many timely issues, primarily but not exclusively environmental, in a non-confrontational way which nevertheless forces the reader to consider our own world, its past and, most importantly, its future.

Pacy, dramatic and dark at times but with friendship, hope and nature’s wonders bringing balance, this is one of my standout books of the year so far, just as book one was last year. This series is truly something special.

No Ballet Shoes in Syria

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

Apparently today is Empathy Day. Its amazing that I know this when I’m not often sure whether it’s Tuesday or Sunday at the moment, and keep thinking it’s March. But, you know, good old Twitter.

And so I should (but don’t) have a whole post full of books that would help develop empathy. Though really I think all good books do that to a certain degree, because they all force you to see the world through the characters’ eyes.

But, as luck would have it, I needed to give myself a kick up the bum and post my review of No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton, and as that’s perfect for empathy day, let’s all pretend I planned it this way…

We follow Aya and her family as they attempt to find their feet in England after escaping the war in Syria.

Billed as a modern version of, and as the author herself explains in the introduction, influenced by the wonderful ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’, this had big shoes to fill (excuse the pun).

While I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call it a modern version, it certainly has echoes of Pink Rabbit. Miss Helena especially feels like she’s stepped straight out of it and I loved her character and the way we gradually discover her back story along with Aya’s.

The other character I loved was Dotty. She brought real balance to a book that tells a sad but all too common story and doesn’t shy away from the dark bits. Dotty though lifted it with her cheerfulness, her slight clumsiness, her brightness and sparkle, her positivity and friendliness.

What I liked best was that she was properly fleshed out, not just a one dimensional, cheery new friend. She had issues of her own and it is testament to Bruton’s lightness of touch that they were made an integral part of the book while emphatically not over-shadowing its main message and Aya’s story.

At the community centre she visits with her mum and brother, Aya stumbles across a dance lesson which reminds her of her own ballet school in Syria. Tired and worried with more on her plate than she should have as she struggles to support her mum (depressed, grieving and alone with a baby and child in a new country with nowhere to live and no English), she discovers an escape in dance.

But it becomes more than that. As she joins Miss Helen’s dance class, interacts with the others and, of course, dances, her memories of her old life resurface.

The way what is happening or being said in the present is mirrored in her memories and flashbacks, and the way they gradually move us forward from before war hit her home to her arrival in England is genius and so skilfully done.

It also helps to convey the idea that this is not something vague happening somewhere else to some ‘other’ people – they are just like us and it could happen anywhere to anyone.

Similarly, the juxtaposition of bombs and shrapnel and fleeing and fear and camps and danger and loss and despair with everyday life really brings home how awful it is. And I was pleased to see Catherine Bruton didn’t shy away from this. While it is sensitive, it is also unflinching and honest.

I really enjoyed Catherine Burton’s writing style. The little details in her descriptions brought everything to life and the amount of research she’d clearly done showed through in how believable Aya’s voice is.

This was a brilliant, well-balanced and carefully thought out book. The way it looks at the war in Syria is timely, sensitive and informative. But more importantly it makes it real, and it makes those fleeing it real. Honest and unflinching, but sensitive, hopeful and joyous too – I can’t recommend this enough.

Owen and the Soldier

Owen and the Soldier by Lisa Thompson, cover art by Mike Lowery

So, Lisa Thompson’s books are not what you might call my usual cup of tea and there’s a lot about them that skirts my Unrateables category (for books I admire but don’t fall for personally). But they are just SO well written.

Lisa really knows her audience and her books always feel perfectly pitched. There’s an understanding to them and the way her characters and their stories develop feels like she’s gently nudging them on like the best sort of friend, and you can’t help but find yourself doing the same!

This is definitely true of Owen. I really liked the way we saw Owen’s story unfold gradually (impressive in such a slim volume) and his comments about his English teacher, for example, were funny, insightful and again will feel familiar to many quieter types.

I’m ashamed to say this is the first Barrington Stoke title I’ve read (I know!) but I know from work how popular they are and how great they are for encouraging both dyslexic and/or reluctant readers. They are designed to be ‘dyslexia friendly’ in their layout and because they are also so short and nomake perfect books for less confident readers too.

This is no exception and I think Lisa’s voice fits this style of storytelling incredibly well. It’s great to see such a talented new(ish!) author joining other big names (Malorie Blackman, Tom Palmer, Michael Morourgo, Anthony McGowan…) in writing for Barrington Stoke and I really hope she’ll do more for them.

The way she fits such a lot into so short a text is a testament to her skill as a writer. Covering topics such as mental health, war and young carers with incredible sensitivity and perception, this is an easy to read but thought provoking story that deserves to be popular with existing fans of Lisa Thompson and serve as a fantastic introduction to her work for those who’ve not yet had the pleasure!

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

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.

WWW Wednesday 5/6 /19

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

What are you currently reading?

I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett, audiobook read by Stephen Briggs (cover art pictured by Laura Ellen Anderson)

I am gulping down the Tiffany Aching books. I’m nearly at the end of this now, just a chapter to go.

Tiffany’s trip to the city has made me keen to return to Ankh Morpork too – looking forward to (re) reading the other Discworld books!

The Nowhere Emporium by Ross McKenzie (eBook)

I keep my ebooks for the dark lonely hours of night wakes and feeds but Peapod’s sleep is even more unpredictable than normal at the moment so I’ve either actually managed to get a bit of sleep or the complete opposite where I’ve been up nearly all night but either too tired or too busy wrestling am unsettled bubs to read!

Long and short of it is that I haven’t got very far with this yet!

What have you just finished reading?

Owen and the Soldier by Lisa Thompson, cover art by Mike Lowery

I was really pleased to see Lisa Thompson had written this fir Barrington Stoke, I hope she’ll do more, I think her style is a great fit for them.

This was a great, quick read with her usual depth of understanding and a believable voice that her target audience should find easy to relate to. Review to follow.

No Ballet Shoes In Syria by Catherine Bruton, cover art by Kathrin Honesta

I really enjoyed this. Yes, there were a couple of things that grated on my cynical old self but not enough to put me off the book as a whole and for children, they provide a good balance to some of the harder parts.

I liked that there was a satisfactory ending without something happening that could have happened. Though, if I’m being nit-picky, the other thing that could have happened and did happen I’d have preferred to be left not knowing about too. (Sorry, vague I know but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who’s not read it!)

Overall though, I really enjoyed it and I loved the writing style and the use of flashbacks, memories and conversations to tell Aya’s story. Review to follow.

What will you read next?

Audio

The Shepherd’s Crown – the last of the Tiffany Aching books.

E-book

Murder Most Unladylike.

Physical copy

I’m taking part in the #PinkRabbitReadalong on Twitter so I’ll be re-reading that next.

Im not sure what else I think I prob need to crack on with some of the YA I have waiting – Deathless Girls is a strong contender!

Have you read any of these?

What are you reading at the moment?

Will you be taking part in the #PinkRabbitReadalong too?