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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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?

Unrateables 2 – A Witch and a Mouse

You might remember a while ago,I posted reviews of books I hesitantly dubbed ‘Unrateables’. Books which I can see others loving, books I know exactly who I’d recommend them to in work, books where I can see loads of positives and talent and things that work well…but ones which I didn’t really love on a personal level.

I probably need to find a better name for them, as it sounds a bit negative, a bit of a back handed compliment, a bit ‘they’re OK for you but not me’. And it couldn’t be further from the truth – these are books which I’m impressed by, enjoy and appreciate but just don’t give me that soaring feeling inside that a book which really grabs you and speaks just to you does. But that’s quite a mouthful for a snappy name, so any better ideas for what else to dub them – answers on a postcard please!

Until then, in an entirely complimentary way, I have two (or strictly speaking four) more ‘Unrateables’ to review today.

The Apprentice Witch series by James Nicol:

The Apprentice Witch

A Witch Alone

A Witch Come True

I’d heard nothing but glowing praise for this series from bloggers and the twitter-sphere alike. It’s easy to see why – it’s a compelling and enjoyable read that would be a great introduction to MG.

The series takes us along on Arianwyn’s journey from apprentice to fully qualified witch. And as she progresses and settles into her role as Lull’s town witch, we see the spread of Hex – a dark magic – and come to realise that it’s spread may not be entirely unaided.

Arianwyn is the best sort of main character – courageous, loyal and committed with enough self-doubt and honest mistakes to do to make you really believe in her.

For the most part too, her ‘supporting cast’ are equally likeable. Salle is probably my favourite character in the books and is the best sort of friend. Her parents and the inn they run have a Weasley-like feel and both Arianwyn’s supervisor, Miss Delafour, and the Mayor feel like just the right characters for their respective jobs.

Gimma is a great ‘rival’ for want of a better word. I liked the way her character developed over the series without giving in too much to cliche or happy endings.

The villain of the piece has the requisite wickedness and is suitably cold and powerful. While it’s easy to see who it will turn out to be as an adult reader, there’s a great feeling of ‘mistrust and suspicion created as well as a build up of tension and danger.

I really liked the unique way the magic was controlled through glyphs, and having a glossary of them was a nice touch. Likewise with the various magical creatures and demons. This is a world, and a system, which has been created with a thorough, but also thoroughly inventive, hand.

There were certain things which really captured my imagination – the Spellorium in particular felt so inviting and I could picture it so vividly. And the Yule celebrations felt so atmospheric – wintry, festive and traditional.

This is a great series for slightly younger MG readers, or for those just starting to move from. Early chapter books to longer books or series. It has magic, danger and humour, friendship, loyalty and charm.

The Umbrella Mouse by Anna Fargher, illustrated by Sam Usher

I’ll be honest, this is a great book. It’s Unrateable status is a real case of “it’s not you, it’s me”. I went into this not having properly read the blurb and expecting something very different.

I’m not sure what I was expecting – more people maybe? more of the umbrella shop? a different sort of journey? I don’t know. I’d seen a lot of comparisons to books like Goodnight Mister Tom, Carrie’s War and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and, in my opinion, save for being set during the war, it’s nothing like these books.

It was a lot more animal-y than I’d expected. If you have read the blurb or heard of this book by now you’ll know how ridiculous this is.

I’m not a very animal-y person, in real life or in my bookish life. But I know lots of people are and I can see the appeal of animals in stories. Especially so when they highlight the importance of animals in a certain way, our reliance on them or their skills and abilities, because animals are amazing. I just like them to amaze at a distance.

The Umbrella Mouse is set in WW2 and follow a young mouse, Pip, as she tries to return her family’s umbrella-home to its original home in Italy amidst the fighting. She is soon caught up with a secret, underground animal resistance group and one of their dangerous missions.

Other authors, notably Michael Morpurgo and Megan Rix but others too, have told many stories of the horses, dogs, pigeons etc that played a really vital role in wars. But what’s clever about The Umbrella Mouse is the way it highlights this but through a story that takes it one step further and makes it at the same time imaginary and real. No easy thing to do. Here, the animals aren’t working for us, they’re working alongside us with their own secret agents, codes, messages, missions and enemies.

As a resistance group, Noah’s Ark are a wonderfully motley crew. From hedgehogs (Madame Fourcade is great) to pigeons to eagles and stags, everyone plays a part. I liked the mix of characters and voices in the group, and the themes of loyalty, suspicion, trust and teamwork it explored.

We first meet Pip at home in her umbrella, inside the window of James Smith and Sons’ umbrella shop. I loved this first chapter, it reminded me of the Borrowers (likewise the headquarters of Churchill’s Secret Army) and I could easily have spent the whole book here. But then I suppose the action would have been limited.

And this book has plenty of action. There is tension built and suspense created. There are scenes of confusion, shock and fear, of danger, urgency and courage. There is conflict, double-crossing and grit, and beneath it, behind it and running through it, so much emotion. The way Anna Fargher captures all this is fantastic and will stay with you. Personally, I’m still on the Thames with Pip in her umbrella.

The way the animals’ missions cross paths with the humans is clever and a nice way of reiterating the bigger picture whilst we’re focused on the details of the animal resistance.

Sam Usher’s illustrations work really well with the text too, there’s an inky, scratchy, Quentin Blake-esque looseness to them and they encapsulate the different personalities and characters.

This is a story of the futility, loss and damage of war, and one of finding new strength and the importance of friendship and loyalty.

With spies, secrets and an incredibly dramatic and daring finale, this is a brilliant war adventure…for animal lovers.