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.

Storm-wake

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Moss has lived with Pa on a remote island for as long as she remembers. The Old World has disappeared beneath the waves – only Pa’s magic, harnessing the wondrous stormflowers on the island, can save the sunken continents. But a storm is brewing, promising cataclysmic changes.

I received a review copy of this from Chicken House and wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s taken me a while to get round to reading and I wish I’d read it sooner. It was wonderful.

Classed as YA, it is in one sense a classic ‘coming-of-age’ narrative. We see Moss as she grows from a ‘Small Thing’ into her teens, and watch as her relationships with both “wild-boy” Cal and Pa change as she does. However, there’s a lot more going on here, and in some ways I’m not sure where or how I’d categorise this, which is no bad thing.

Let’s start with the island and its stormflowers – described in Lucy Christopher’s beautiful and lyrical style, there is a dream-like feel to the place, the flowers and the magical qualities that surround them. But are things as idyllic as they seem, or is there a darker side to the flowers and their effects? There’s a heavy, heady link to poppies and their opioid connections made, but we’re left to draw our own conclusions as the book progresses.

Much of the book feels like this: the line between fantasy and reality is not so much blurred as changeable and shifting. There is a wonderful balance between the real and the fantastic: the real often seeming to be written between the lines of the magic on the page, which I thought was so cleverly done and only added to the sense of foreboding and doubt that gradually creeps in as Moss begins to realise that perhaps not everything is how she has grown up believing it to be.

While not a retelling as such, I loved the many parallels with The Tempest in the book. I want to say more, but am loath to give any spoilers away. Suffice to say – the influence is there with similarities carefully woven into the story. If you don’t know it, it won’t matter: it stands as a well-crafted story in its own right.

This is a book for being swallowed up in – immersed in stories, stormy seas, stormflower smoke and the tingle-fizz of petals on tongues, scales on skin and whispers of another world. You could easily find yourself going as mad as Pa if you try to wrap your head round what’s really real, what’s magic, what’s illusion, what’s lies, what’s truth, what’s a version of all of these… and that’s partly why I loved this book as much as I did. It’ll definitely be a book to come back to and one that will withstand multiple readings.

I’ve not read any of Lucy Christopher’s other books, but will be looking out for them: have you read any? Which would you recommend?

 

Oi Cat!

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Well, what can I say about this book that hasn’t already been said? This series is an absolute treasure trove of fun and, like so many little ones I meet in work, I can’t get enough of it! While this is technically a review of Oi Cat (thank you Hachette for my review copy), it will inevitably be a review of the series as a whole!

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‘Oi Cat’ follows hotly on the heels of ‘Oi Frog’ and ‘Oi Dog!’. For anyone unfamiliar with this series (I’m trying not to judge, but where have you been?! Get them all. Immediately!) a brief recap of the story so far…

In ‘Oi Frog’ we meet a discontented Frog, fed up of having to sit on a log, and a bossy cat who explains to him he has to because, after all “frogs sit on logs”, and then goes on to recount all the other rhyming places animals must sit (gophers on sofas and puffins on muffins being two of my favourites!). That is, until Frog makes the mistake of asking where dogs sit…

Cue ‘Oi Dog’ which picks up where ‘Oi Frog’ left off, namely with one very squashed and disgruntled frog who has had enough and is changing the rules! This time, it’s Frog’s turn to decide where everyone should sit, with leopards on shepherds and elephants on smelly pants being this book’s highlights for me, although I could have probably picked all of them (I didn’t think it possible but Oi Dog somehow managed to raise the rhyming bar a notch or two!) Cats, Frog decides must sit on gnats!

Which leads us nicely to ‘Oi Cat’, in which Cat is getting  very itchy bottom from being made to sit on gnats. This will of course go down an absolute storm with young readers – who doesn’t love some bottom jokes?! Even just reading the word bottom out loud is hilarious (you know you’re smiling…). And so the search begins to find Cat a more comfortable seat, bringing with it all the usual rhyming fun and games.

A rollicking riot of rhyming fun, this is a sharp and witty series that’s perfect for reading aloud (and adding your own rhymes to!), with fantastically well-defined characters and hilarious twists at the end of each book. Jim Field’s bright, bold and expressive illustrations complement the text perfectly and might be some of my favourite picture books illustrations around – I can’t imagine one without the other.

An absolute must have for any picture book collection.

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There’s also the brilliant Oi Goat, which was a special World Book Day book this year – we read it at storytime and it went down a treat! Check out our goats…!

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And I am beside myself with excitement waiting for….

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I flipping love platypuses!

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(this guy’s already featured in one blog post, but any excuse for some platy-action!)

Am I Yours?

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Who does this lost egg belong to? Can our little egg find its way back to the right parents before it hatches?

While the story is a familiar one (lost baby – looking for parents – finds lots of others but not their own because of x/y/z – reunited for a happy ending), this is a charming picture book with plenty of thoughtful details that bring it into its own. I really liked:

  • The fact that it’s not mentioned whether the baby dinosaur, its parents or most of the dinosaurs it meets along the way are male or female, making it perfect for any family to share and any child to enjoy.
  • The facts you learn about the dinosaurs as egg ‘meets’ them, and the details given about them in the text: great as a gentle introduction to dinosaurs for the curious and a springboard for talking about their different features and finding out more.
  • The way the dinosaurs are named throughout the book then illustrated and labelled at the back – young dino fans will LOVE this (and it gives grown ups like me who are useless at remembering which dinosaurs are which a chance at learning some of them!)
  • The repetition of “What do you look like inside that shell? I can’t see in so I can’t tell.” Lovely for joining in with, and for talking about what children think might be in the shell…
  • …and leading on from that the element of surprise at the end. It’s nice that we don’t know which dinosaurs might be its parents either: plenty of opportunities for guessing and talking!
  • The illustrations are lovely too – bright, rich, gentle, they’re detailed enough to add interest but simple enough not to confuse or take over. The dinosaur faces in particular make me smile.

There’s plenty to talk about, compare and find out when looking at this book, but it’s also a lovely, warm story that is perfect to snuggle up together to share at bedtime.

Thank you to Oxford University Press for my review copy.

No Fixed Address

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Can you ever feel at home when your ‘house’ is always on the move?

Felix and his mom Astrid have a secret: they are living in a van. Astrid promises it’s only til she finds a new job and begs Felix not to breathe a word. So when Felix starts a new school, he does his best to hide it, even though his home has some serious downsides, like no privacy, heating, space or bathroom.

But Felix has a plan to turn their lives around. All he needs is a little luck a lot of brain power…

This is another book, a bit like ‘The List of Real Things’ that straddles the MG/YA age range. Technically YA, it would be best suited to younger YA readers or more mature MG readers ready to start reading slightly older books. It tackles the serious, all-too relevant and sadly all-too prevalent issue of homelessness, but with humour, hope and a lot of luck involved, preventing it from becoming too weighty, serious or bleak.

It highlights in particular the ‘hidden homeless’ – a worryingly high number of people (hat is sadly only getting higher) who, for one reason or another (losing their jobs, finding their tenancies unexpectedly ended, illness etc.), find themselves without a fixed place to live: not (yet) sleeping rough, but for example on the couches of friends, in hostels, or in the case of Felix and his mum Astrid in the story, in cars or vans.

I thought Susin Nielsen did a wonderful job at highlighting the many challenges this throws up – both practically and emotionally – with a real lightness of touch and without it becoming a heavy, ‘preachy’ or depressing read. While your heart goes out to Felix as he tries to hide his home-life from people at school, including his friends, there is plenty of humour within the book, not least between him and his best friend Dylan to counteract it. Felix himself is an enormously likeable main character – determined, resilient and ever the optimist – and I thought his mum Astrid was well-written too.

The direction the book takes as Felix tries to find a way out of their desperate situation is somewhat whimsical and highly unlikely, but it works wonderfully within the context and feel of the rest of the book. Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch of the imagination (and if I’m honest, it all gets tied off a bit too neatly for me by the end) but it’s an enjoyable, easy to read book with an important message and a feel-good, optimistic heart.

The List of Real Things

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Grace knows the difference between what’s real and the strange ideas that float around in her little sister’s mind.

Their parents died – that’s real.

A secret hotel on the cliff-top where their parents are waiting – definitely NOT real.

So when grief strikes again, Grace is determined not to let her sister’s outlandish imagination spiral out of control. But the line between truth and fantasy is more complicated than it seems…

This was a quick read, but a thoroughly enjoyable one. A real one-sitting-somewhere-comfy-with-a-cup-of-coffee-and-cake sort of book.

Yes, some of what was likely to happen was easy to guess early on, but the how, where and why of it wasn’t. And, yes, the secondary characters felt like a slightly predictable assortment at times, but a wonderfully endearing assortment at that: a bit like when you get a box of chocs – you expect to find a caramel, a strawberry, a truffle, a praline etc. …there’s no real surprises, but that’s because it works and it’s what we want. It also gave the main characters and their very well-drawn and unique personalities chance to shine.

The story is told from Grace’s point of view: she’s 14 and since their parents died has been her little sister, Bee’s most loyal and caring protector. But as she starts to become interested in make-up, boys and popularity, she finds herself increasingly conflicted between her absolute love of and concern for Bee, and being embarrassed and annoyed by both Bee and her unconventional, not-especially-well-off family life.

It’s a testament to how well Grace was written that she drove me nuts at times: she’s a teenage girl starting to push away from her family and find her place, if she wasn’t frustrating and at times incredibly dislikeable, she wouldn’t have been at all believable.

I thought the challenges she was facing were very well written: trying to be the grown up one, looking out for her sister and taking on too much at times, whilst simultaneously struggling with all the usual teen issues too: belonging, friendships, fitting in and, of course, boys. I loved seeing her mature and find herself as the book progressed.

Bee herself was a wonderfully quirky and loveable character. 6 going on 60, her best friends are her Grandfather and the eccentric old librarians the Misses Allen. Which perhaps explains her rather odd way of speaking, even odder mannerisms and the very strange ideas she has which may or may not be real…

…which leads us to the fantasy element of the book. This is by and large a contemporary piece of fiction, set in the everyday lives of Bee and Grace as they come to terms with deaths in the family. However, when Bee starts talking to the family dog, seeing ghosts and trying to find out about an old hotel that absolutely does not exist any more, what’s real and what’s not becomes increasingly blurred.

And this leads us in turn to my only sticking point with this book, which is the age it is aimed at. As an MG book I thought the fantasy element was very effective, both as part of the plot and as a way of tackling the more sensitive issues of loss and grief that the book covers. Similarly, the characters themselves and the way the issues the family are facing are touched on but not really delved into in great depth felt just right for MG readers, but Young Adults may be left wanting a bit more.

So, although it’s technically YA, but I would say it sits much more comfortably at the top end of MG or as a good bridge between the two. I don’t like to pigeon-hole books into age and this is an enjoyable regardless that I’m by no means writing off for older readers (I’m in my mid-30s so categorically not MG or YA!). But, I’m also conscious that a lot of teen readers expect certain things from contemporary YA fiction and a lot of young readers and their families can find it hard to know what to read as they start to want to move on from just MG books.

So, I mention the age thing as a guide and as something which struck me as I read it with my bookseller hat on. Whatever your age, it is a great read to settle in for and consume all t ones (a bit like those chocolates I mentioned earlier!) and I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s books to add to my TBR pile!

Wiggly Wiggly: Playtime Rhymes

I feel like I haven’t reviewed any books for littlies for AGES! Been so busy catching up with the stack of MG/YA/Adult books I’d let build up that I just never got round to it. But now that I can stick my head above the surface of the others, it’s time to get caught up on the board/picture book side of things too! (And really, these are my favourite books to read and review!)

So, today it’s the turn of ‘Wiggly, Wiggly’, kindly sent to me for review by Walker.

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Really, all I need to say about this book is that it’s written by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Chris Riddell (both former Children’s Laureates and both blooming brilliant). So, there – that should be all you need. But that’s not really much of a review is it, so I’ll start by reviewing another book (bear with me!)

The rhymes inside ‘Wiggly Wiggly’ are taken from the larger collection ‘A Great Big Cuddle’.9781406373462

The main difference being Wiggly Wiggly is a book for the youngest readers. It’s a board book which means sturdy (edible) pages and a good strong cover (best tested by throwing on the floor and bashing up and down a lot) and it features the very best rhymes for joining in with from A Great Big Cuddle. But, for toddlers upwards I’d recommend getting A Great Big Cuddle instead: it’s paperback and paper pages, so it’s not as durable for tiny hands and exuberant, excitable readers, but perfect to share together as they get a bit bigger and with LOTS more rhymes to enjoy!

Regardless of whether you go for Wiggly Wiggly or A Great Big Cuddle, all of the rhymes are firmly rooted in children’s own experiences and interests: things that they can relate to (food, greetings, cuddles and puddles) and/or that will spark their imagination (animals, toys and nonsense). And, in both, Chris Riddell’s illustrations bring them all to life superbly: full of expression, colour and movement – they leap off the page, they make you pause and look, they encourage talk, movement and laughter.

The rhymes are bursting at the seams with onomatopoeia, alliteration and rhyme – perfect for experimenting with making silly noises, using nonsense words, adding sound effects or changing your expression/volume/tempo etc.

Likewise, they are made for joining in with: finger rhymes, action rhymes, moving around or role-playing rhymes – they are impossible to read without getting moving in one way or another! For the very, very youngest it’s easy to see how you can move them or move with them or use your touch and movement to make them interactive, so there’s really no excuse not to get wiggling!

But the thing I liked absolutely best of all about this as a book of action rhymes is that there’s no instructions: no diagrams or drawings showing how to move your feet/hands/body so it’s yours to take wherever you and your little one want to take it! They are (as the sub-title ‘Playtime Rhymes’ suggests) perfect for playing with and making your own.

I can’t wait to start reading this with my little one (currently still on the inside so quite hard to wiggle with effectively!) and will be ‘upgrading’ to ‘A Great Big Cuddle’ as he gets older.

Kat Wolfe Investigates

So, before I start this review, a confession: until I received a copy of this to review (thanks to Macmillan), I’d never read Lauren St John.

There, I’ve said it. I knew how talented she was rumoured to be, how much of a mainstay in teacher recommends and class libraries, and how popular with many of the young readers I meet in work. But, despite being on my list of authors to catch up on for sometime, I’d just never got round to it. So, Kat Wolfe was my introduction, and what a pleasing introduction it was.

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Kat Wolfe loves her new home in idyllic Bluebell Bay, especially since it comes with a resident wildcat.

But when she starts pet-sitting for pocket money, she finds that beneath the town’s surface lie some dark and dangerous secrets…

This is sure to be a wildly popular new “middle-grade” series: it has a whole zoo’s worth  of animals (from cats and dogs to parrots and capuchins to horses and wild cats); a seemingly idyllic seaside town (and we all know that when a book features a peaceful, close-knit and crime-free setting it’s going to mean plenty of crime, daring and action!); two enterprising, clever and determined female lead characters (Wolfe and Lamb – love it!!) plus a wonderful ‘supporting cast’ including Edith – an ex-librarian and armchair adventurer extraordinaire (loved her!); plenty of shady characters to cast suspicions on and a healthy dose of tech to bring it smack up to date.

And that is one of the best things about the book: it has the feel and old-fashioned charm of a classic mystery adventure, but with a sassy coding genius as one half of the detecting duo and plenty of hi-tech gadgetry and plot twists to plant it firmly in the now.

It’s sure to be a hit with fans of both other mystery/detective series (think Enid Blyton re-routed via Lauren Child’s Ruby Redfort) and animal lovers too – any fans of Jess Butterworth’s ‘When the Mountains Roared’ or Gill Lewis’ animal-based books are sure to love this series.

I also read the author’s note at the end of the story with great interest: Lauren St John’s experience with animals and journalism, and the wealth of knowledge gleaned from both have clearly informed her writing; the amount of the story that was rooted in true stories was fascinating – as she points out fact is often stranger than fiction!

This background knowledge and research show in the gradually increasing complications in the investigation: starting out as a seemingly simple missing person, the plot as they say soon thickens, and we’re faced with a a multi-layered case involving an ever-widening range of puzzles, problems and of course – suspects!

The 57 Bus

When I was sent a copy of this by Hachette/Wren and Rook in exchange for review (ages ago! I’m sorry – it’s taken me forever!) I had no idea it was non-fiction. I’m not normally a non-fiction reader, but I decided after a friend gave me a non-fiction book to read that I really should read more non-fiction, so it ended up being a bonus that when I did pick this up I discovered it was a true story.

That said – how sad on so many levels that it is. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves or give anything away.

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One teenager in a skirt. One teenager with a lighter. One moment that changes both their lives forever.

If it weren’t for the 57 bus, Richard and Sasha would never have met. Although they live in the same city, they are from radically different worlds. But one single reckless act changes both of their lives forever.

Richard and Sasha don’t know each other. The only contact they have is a few minutes each day on the 57 bus. They are not even aware of the others existence. Until the day Richard sets fire to Sasha’s skirt.  This book charts the events leading up to, surrounding and following that day for both of them.

Sasha identifies as agender, and one of the things I really liked was the inclusion of a chapter detailing and explaining different phrases and terms which may be used in conversations around gender and sexuality. It explains that it by no means covers all bases and that language changes, evolves and differs from person to person, but it’s an excellent starting point.

Because of the way the whole book is written, it didn’t feel at all out of place – some chapters are in list form, some more narrative, some take the form of letters or text messages, so it didn’t feel jarring or ‘stuck in’. It was informative without being either condescending or feeling too in depth and out of reach, and I felt this was true of the writing style throughout the book: it was incredibly easy to read, despite tackling some meaty subjects.

When Richard sets Sasha’s skirt on fire, the questions begin to build up for the reader as well as for those involved: was it intentional? Was it a hate crime or an act of stupidity? Was it peer pressure (there’s an excellent chapter on the way teen brains are wired and the very specific responses they have to taking risk, high pressure situations and decision making)?

When he is charged, they continue: would that have happened if he were white/well-off/from a different neighbourhood (some of the statistics about the way the justice system was set up/used/manipulated made my head hurt)? Should a teenager ever be tried as an adult and how should that be decided? And what of forgiveness?

While, on the surface, this is a book about Sasha and Richard, the incident on the 57 bus that throws them together and the impact this has on them in the years to come, it’s really about so much more than that. Covering gender, race, class and the so-called ‘rich/poor divide’, prejudice, equality and the US justice system, this is a book that will make you think. It left me feeling frustrated, impotent and angry (that’s a good thing by the way!), as while it is based in America and therefore centred on American systems, laws and culture, much of it is all too applicable here as well.

Meticulously researched and compiled, Dashka Slater has used a great range of sources (interviews, letters, social media, videos etc.) from a variety of people (those involved on both ‘sides’ and their wider family, friends and communities) alongside relevant national data, statistics and trends to highlight the complexities of not just this specific case, but the wider issues surrounding it.

Clearly and concisely written, here is a book for exploring grey areas, questioning the norm, challenging the status quo and opening up debate. A compelling and important read and an excellent addition to any YA library/bookshelf.

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!)