a pair of reviews // even more magical realism

22317526Author(s): Cathryn Constable
Publisher:
 Chicken House Books
Publication date: 5 January 2017
Category: children’s
Genre(s): magical realism
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: ARC
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

When Livy is accepted at Temple College – a school for the very brightest, and the oldest in London – no one is more surprised than she is. Though she’s always felt different, she doesn’t seem to quite fit in at Temple College, either.

Recently, Livy has become more and more drawn to the roof of the school, climbing fearlessly among its towering stone angels, where she can be alone, and has the strangest desire to fly. But her behaviour has been noticed by others, for whom the ability to defy gravity is magic which could be a possible reality… and involves a secret they’ll do anything to discover.

Five years after the release of her much-lauded children’s fiction début The Wolf Princess, Cathryn Constable follows up with a novel full of things to like: mysterious adventures, crumbling but atmospheric old buildings, hints of potions, concoctions and alchemy, tantalising tendrils of magic. Plain, uncomplicated prose accommodates moments of wonder and almost lyrical description – and perhaps could have accommodated a little more of it – in a story which unfolds like the ripple of billowing fabric in the wind.

Thrust into a school where stone Sentinels perch on the roof and the history of its founder seems to lurk wherever she goes, Livy is struggling to fit in and deal with the loss of her childhood best friend. The timelessness of traditional school stories, embodied here by the centuries-old Temple College with its stiff uniforms, stained glass windows and soaring towers, is tempered by the occasional nod to modernity and, more successfully, the presence of Livy’s family, especially little brother Tom. Constable’s skill works best when displaying Livy’s explorations, Tom’s boundless energy and one of the mysterious relics of Temple College’s eerie past.

Constable tackles some fairly serious themes in the book, but unfortunately there’s not quite enough time spent on the most pressing of them to say they’ve been adequately explored. As ever with novels aimed solidly in the middle of the children’s fiction section, the characters aren’t exactly realistic (including the secondary cast of children themselves), but then that’s not the point. I’d recommend Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers more readily, but there are plenty of discoveries, secrets and flights of fancy to fill the adventure.

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Fans of Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers and Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Girl of Ink and Stars will find atmospheric though not ground-breaking fare with Cathryn Constable’s The White Tower. Straightforward and, at its best, suitably elegant. 

33782743Author(s): Nigel McDowell
Publisher:
 Hot Key Books
Publication date: 9 March 2017
Category: children’s
Genre(s): magical realism, historical fiction
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: ARC
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Luke Mountfathom is the son of Lord and Lady Mountfathom, keepers of a great House where the wrong door could take you to a far away land and strange animals appear to stalk the grounds at midnight. The house is his home – but it is also the headquarters of the Driochta, a magic-weaving group of poets, artists, politicians and activists charged with keeping the peace across the land. They have many powers – have mastered Mirror-Predicting and Smoke-Summoning and Storm-Breaching – and a final ability: that of Mogrifying; taking on a unique animal form.

But Luke’s idyllic existence at Mountfathom appears in danger. Word reaches them of a people with a wish for independence, a rising discontent and scenes of violence that even the Driochta cannot control. But what seems like a  quest for freedom involves a greater darkness than the rebels can know – and it draws Luke’s irretrievably into the fight. And when things quickly spin out of control for the Driochta, it is up to Luke, his cat Morrigan and his best friend Killian to worm out the heart of the evil in their land. 

For fans of Debi Gliori, Dave Rudden and Moira Fowley-Doyle, The House of Mountfathom is as eclectic as such a multifarious description would suggest: its melting pot of magical realism, historical fiction and action adventure is close to boiling over, it’s so stuffed. It’s got spells, shapeshifters, soldiers, servants, poets, priceless treasures, tradition, rebellion, wallpaper that comes alive, orchards, inexplicable powers, political tensions, class struggle, and room upon room of strange and wondrous workings. All that’s missing is the kitchen sink, and even then I’m sure Mountfathom has one somewhere.

The novel is populated by a vast array of characters, naturally named things like Findlater and Vane-Temple, theirs is an eccentricity in keeping with the most bizarre elements of the world concocted around them. The book never lingers too long on any of them which leaves some a little flat – the most interesting, like Lord and Lady Mountfathom, seem like they have oodles more to add than Luke’s viewpoint allows for. By far the most striking feature of the book, however, is the writing style. Its distinctive, choppy prose is forceful but evocative: jewel-like visuals and precise metaphors lurk in lopped off sentences and juddering lists. This may wear a little thin after fifty pages or so and a rather confusing narrative will occasionally not so much challenge readers as baffle them – more focused description and fewer jumpy paragraphs would give the storytelling a necessary steadying – but the story is strong.

The addition of historical fiction has some mixed results: on the one hand it’s a unique and bold decision, but on the other it can be a little jarring when the transition doesn’t quite work. However, this unusually complex pursuit of the genre – for example the fact that the Mountfathoms are aristocracy occupying a complicated position in historical events – is emblematic of an ability, aided by flashes of humour and lightning-quick points of reference, to appeal to an audience of children and adults alike.

The final novel by late writer Nigel McDowell, The House of Mountfathom’s shines best in its playful use of magic and wonder. It deploys magic spells and creations with reckless abandon. The impossible lopes about the House and its rolling grounds with the self-assured freedom of pure childlike imagination. There are streaks of dark to the book’s villains and themes, but it’s the fantastic and strange that the young fan will re-read this book for.

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An inventive and sometimes dark caper told in playful, idiosyncratic language, The House of Mountfathom is a vivid children’s novel, overflowing with magic and the fantastic. Pacy and chaotic, its meld of magical-realism-historical-adventure can seem a little overbusy, but has moments of real punch. 

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a pair of reviews // children’s fiction takes on a winter’s tale (or several)

It’s time for another pair of reviews – and yes, I have gone full winter (it’s nearly Christmas whoop!). Grab your knitted scarves, curl up with a cup of cocoa (or coffee) and enjoy this foray into children’s fiction!

28168228A Girl Called Owl by Amy Wilson
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: 
26 January 2017
Source: 
I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 
Genre:
magical realism, fantasy
Category:
children’s fiction

A swift, snowy adventure in which the eponymous Owl discovers she’s the daughter of Jack Frost. Full of gleaming icicles and midnight escapes, A Girl Called Owl conjures up vivid sequences of magic and nature, with more than a hint of Disney’s Frozen and Christmas classic The Snowman in its pages.

This is firm magical realism, occasionally touching on issues relevant to modern life – school, divorce, non-nuclear families – but generally focusing on a fantastical semi-otherworld of elemental creatures and their court, where grudges grow and powers wax and wane over centuries.

Denizens of spring and autumn provide a mixture of allies, enemies and surprises, while interjected chapters uncovering backstory and myths start with great intrigue but sometimes lose steam. The book isn’t quite up the standards of recent classics like The Lie Tree or The Wolf Wilder, and its subplots are somewhat tacked-on, with repetitive scenes of dialogue that go nowhere. The plot could be stronger, but the book should make solid reading for young 8-10s. A thoroughly G-rated children’s novel parents will happily gift to kids.

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A Girl Called Owl features beguiling wintry description and a straightforward plot, but there are deficits in storytelling and the dialogue needs work.

29991694Winter Magic edited by Abi Elphinstone
Authors:
Emma Carroll, Jamila Gavin, Berlie Doherty, Michelle Magorian, Michelle Harrison, Amy Alward, Piers Torday, Geraldine McCaughrean, Lauren St. John, Katherine Woodfine, Abi Elphinstone
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Publication date: 
3 November 2016
Source:
Purchased 
Genre:
magical realism, contemporary, fantasy, multiple
Category:
children’s fiction

Short story anthologies are always tricky: notoriously hit and miss affairs, it’s likely that some stories will endear more than others, and indeed that is the case here. But for the book on the whole to feel satisfying and hold attention – that is a rare thing, and Winter Magic comes very close to achieving throughout that sense of cohesive wonder.

Drawing on the talents of nearly a dozen acclaimed children’s authors from Berlie Doherty to Katherine Woodfine, this collection ranges from soft to sharp, subtle to starry. Helped by its magical unifying theme – enchanting, Christmassy winter – these are stories of playful childhood and close-knit celebration, but also of frost fairs, snow dragons, glittering landscapes, unexpected time travel, rogue French teachers and friendship. Several stories, including Amy Alward’s ‘The Magic of Midwinter’, fell flat for me, but contributions from Michelle Harrison, Lauren St. John and particularly Emma Carroll prove worthy of a collection which is at its best as tempting as Turkish delight in a frozen forest and hearty as Lyra’s race across the ice on the back of an armoured bear.

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At turns enchanting and exciting, Winter Magic is a short story collection which on the whole benefits from the skilled pens of its writers, with only a handful of duff twists or lacklustre contributions. A strong – and altogether more charming – alternative to the YA-orientated I’ll Be Home for Christmas (my review of which you can read here).

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DECK THE HALLS WITH BELLS OF HOLLY (BOURNE): books to give as Christmas gifts this year

We all know the drill: it’s getting closer to Christmas, and you’re wondering if you can swap out the traditional novelty mug and socks for something a little more…conducive to your their book addiction. Or maybe you’re still doing the bookworm’s good work in trying to convince friends and family of the wonders of books in the first place (moment of silence for all those still struggling with this quest). Or maybe you don’t celebrate but just want an excuse to peruse the shelves for hours give birthday or seasonal presents anyway. But what to choose?! To shed some light on the matter, I thought I’d take you through some YA and kidlit perfect for that hard-to-please reader in your life…(even if it’s yourself)

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THE CONTEMPORARY CONTINGENT

Am I Normal Yet? by Holly Bourne: I figured we should just get this out of the way first since it’s one of my favourite books to recommend and it’s kind of amazing. Heartfelt, raw and real, it’s the opening book in a trilogy about teens Evie, Lottie and Amber as they tackle friendship, feminism, and feeling less alone in the world. Focused on Evie, this book is also a great introduction to some of the best handling of mental health YA has to offer. It’s not always an easy read, but it’s chatty, accessible and honest. Fabulous.

Love Song by Sophia Bennett: Love Song is warm, feel-good and so well-written. It’s about unexpected allegiances, fractured friendships, new experiences, good food, great songs and of course, a boyband. (If you’re not aware of the #boybandlit phenomenon, check out this post for all the details). i don’t even have the words to describe how fantastic it is, only that it’s one of Sophia Bennett’s best books. It’s full of drama, gorgeously tender moments (I personally love the scene where Jamie sings to heroine Nina’s sister Ariel) and, of course, music.

London Belongs to Us by Sarra Manning: this is a book I’ll be giving as a gift this year, because it is brilliant. Fun, fresh, fast and full of joy, it’s a dizzying whirlwind of a book, pulling you in from start to finish. You can read my full (and much more eloquent) review here for more on its fierce female characters, grumpy French boys and glorious sense of humour.

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SCI-FI THAT’S NOT STAR WARS

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers: adult fiction! OH MY BLOG?! A rare sight indeed. But then The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet is exceptional in many ways: a refreshing, episodic, detailed, diverse, non-dystopian space opera, it is sci-fi filled with colourful characters, rich cultures, thematic exploration and of course the occasional raising of stakes. Perfect for fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with a little more drama thrown in. Another one I’ll be giving as a gift this Christmas.

The Last Beginning by Lauren James: Time travel! Starcrossed romance! Knitting! This is the story of Clove, a teenager investigating the sudden disappearance of two scientists, Katherine Finchley and Matt Galloway sixteen years before. There are multiple timelines, cool secondary characters in the shape of ex-hacker Tom and snarky computer Spart, and epistolary additions like letters, emails, extracts, doodles, transcripts and powerpoints which keep book both visual and interesting. Although it is a sequel so you should probably pick up its predecessor The Next Together as well. (You can read my reviews for both books here.)

These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner: you know the upcoming Jennifer Lawrence/Chris Pratt movie, Passengers? This is a little bit like that, except YA got it first and oh, the luxury spaceliner in question has just crashlanded from hyperspace onto a nearby planet. Apparently alone, teenagers Lilac – wealthy, privileged, whip-smart – and Tarver – a cynical war hero who came from nothing and, when Icarus crashes, apparently still has nothing – must rely on each other for their very survival. It’s alternately narrated, has an epic romance, and is just generally FULL of feels.

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FIERCE HIGH FANTASY

The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi: a lush, lyrical take on mythology and royalty, The Star-Touched Queen is fantasy of a slower kind. It dials things down a notch when it comes to pace and plot, but if you’re looking for world-building and a game of choice and chance that becomes steadily deadlier, then this diverse NYT bestseller may be for you.

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab: another technically-adult book, this is classy, classic fantasy, full of magical Londons and many-sided coats. Cut-throat almost-pirate Lila Bard steals something dangerous from Kell, brother of the prince of Red London, without realizing he’s an Antari – someone born with the ability to travel between worlds otherwise cut off from each other. Throw in waiting enemies, treacherous deceptions and poisoned power, and it’s a rich, compact opener to a trilogy.

Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas: Throne of Glass is the ULTIMATE high fantasy series in recent YA. If you (or the person you’re buying for) love vast, sprawling sagas with thrilling quests, deadly secrets and just a dash of magic, and you haven’t read it yet, then you need to get on that STAT. Now’s the perfect time to get started, too, as the final book in the series releases next year (though I’m going to include the cover for the third book here because it’s fab).

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and finally: FICTION FOR THOSE PESKY KIDS

Winter Magic edited by Abi Elphinstone: a more recent release, this is a short story collection featuring contributions from award-winning children’s authors like Emma Carroll, Michelle Magorian, Piers Torday, Lauren St. John and Katherine Woodfine. And it it’s a book with a Christmassy winter theme! Its varied, vivid stories should have something for everyone and would make a great gift for eager young readers this year.

Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell: elegant, extraordinary and full of adventure, Rooftoppers is already being considered a classic of children’s literature, and it was only released three years ago. If you haven’t read it yet, then I urge you to pick this one up, as it’s such a great book. It sees heroine Sophie escape to Paris as she searches for her long-lost mother with only the information contained on the cello case she was found in as a baby to go on, and recounts her acquaintance with the rooftoppers, street urchins who live beneath the night sky. There’s a magical quality to the book even though it isn’t strictly magical, and Rundell’s prose has moments of pure brilliance.

Never Evers by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison: ideal for readers nearing YA but with one foot still in middle grade fiction, this is a tale of early teen chaos and bashful charm. Never Evers has all the drama and disaster of classic light-hearted teen fiction – think Louise Rennison or Karen McCombie – with the added pandemonium of a school trip and ski slopes. It’s a landslide (or should that be avalanche?) of shenanigans: snow sport disasters, failed flirtations, new friendships, hidden ballet, igloo building, French popstars… oh, and the smuggling of a live hamster across several international borders. It’s mayhem, misunderstandings and mischief – and full of snow, too!

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So there you have it: your guide to YA and children’s books ideal for gift-giving this Christmas! (Or just for treating yourself). What’s the best book you’ve ever been given – or the worst?! Are your favourites among these recommendations?

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a pair of reviews // (mostly) marvellous middle grade

Today on the blog, I catch up on some middle grade I’ve been meaning to review for ages – this time, with plenty of action-adventure (and darkly-toned covers).

25613853Knights of the Borrowed Dark by Dave Rudden
Publisher:
Puffin (PRH)
Publication date: April 7th 2016
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Genre:  f
antasy, paranormal
Category:
MG/YA

An action-orientated series opener with a hero by the unlikely name of Denizen Hardwick, Knights of the Borrowed Dark borders that line between upper middle grade and younger YA. It reads rather like a comic book, its pages splashed with gaping cliffs, flashes of lightning and lurking henchmen.

Clearly written and sometimes humourously self-aware, its straightforward prose must stretch to encompass Denizen’s rocky beginnings, high-octane chase sequences, and of course, the mysterious order of knights who are revealed to protect the world from monsters. The book is full of ghastly orphanages and enigmatic acquaintances, though I would’ve liked more thoughtful exploration, several characters could’ve been better developed and it runs the risk of casting all odd-looking caricatures as villains. Perhaps drawing on the influence of A Series of Unfortunate Events, the book drifts a little too much toward being a burlesque of every gothic trope known to fiction, but with plenty of “but how do we get boys reading?!” appeal and blockbuster backing, this planned trilogy will likely go far.

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Knights of the Borrowed Dark takes familiar ingredients of unremarkable-boy-turns-unlikely-hero fiction and mixes them with the heightened atmosphere of the almost-gothic – a kind of Rick Riordan meets Lemony Snicket recipe – to create an accessible fantasy début, though it doesn’t avoid all the pitfalls of its genres.

25995832The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands
Publisher
: Puffin (PRH)
Publication date: September 3rd 2015
Source: NetGalley
Genre: historical fiction, fantasy, mystery
Category: MG

I read this book in 2015, and when I was looking for titles to add to my review list I couldn’t believe I hadn’t already reviewed it! I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this one. The Blackthorn Key is clever, sophisticated and completely engaging historical fiction. Brimming with mysteries, puzzles, codes, potions, clues, danger and friendship, it holds the reader’s attention and while it generally favours adventure over detail, it’s doesn’t fall into the upper MG trap of being too simple – it’s both challenging and exciting stuff.

It’s 1665 and fourteen-year-old Christopher Rowe is in busy, bustling London, apprenticed to a master apothecary. Benedict Blackthorn is teaching him the delicate balances and steady hands required to handle and create powerful medicines, potions, even weapons – but when mysterious accidents begin to befall the city’s apothecaries and scholars, Christopher finds himself torn from the shop he’s come to know as home with only a dire warning and a page of cryptic clues at his disposal. As they uncover secrets and the net of jeopardy closes in, Christopher and his best friend Tom must decipher a plot as pacy as it is intriguing. Unfortunately, some of the characters read like cardboard cut-outs – and I particularly would’ve liked to see more complex roles for the female characters, who are reduced to minor, stereotypical background moments in a book which, with all its alchemy and adventuring, has no excuse not to feature well-realized female leads.

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An awesome, though definitely imperfect, apothecary adventure. Action-packed and easy to read with a clever, engaging mystery-solving quest at its core. 

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The Secret Cooking Club by Laurel Remington // WARNING: READ THIS BOOK WITH CAKE NEARBY

31311603Author: Laurel Remington
Publisher: Chicken House Books
Publication date: 4 August 2016
Genre: contemporary
Category: MG
Series or standalone?: Standalone
Source: won
Find on Goodreads

Twelve-year-old Scarlett is the star and victim of her mum’s popular blog. The butt of school jokes, she’s eager to stay out of the spotlight. But one evening, she finds a gorgeous kitchen in the house next door which has been left empty by an elderly neighbour in hospital. As Scarlett bakes, she begins to discover new friends and forms the Secret Cooking Club. But can baking really help fix her family or her search for a mysterious secret ingredient? And will her new hobby stay secret for long?

The Secret Cooking Club is fun, straightforward stuff. It’s not quite the Great British Bake Off in book form (I’ll give you a second here to collect yourself in the wake of the apparent demise of the cosy, pun-filled format we all know and love), but that doesn’t stop it trying. In mixing protagonist Scarlett’s discovery of her passion for old-fashioned homemade recipes with the modernity of her mother’s role as a ‘mummy blogger’, it’s easy to see why the book ticked many of the marketable boxes from 2015’s Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction competition.

Scarlett’s hobbies, school disasters and most embarrassing moments have all been revealed to the masses in the pursuit of fame. But while her mum obliviously spills the beans to the amusement and sympathy of fans, Scarlett struggles with teasing at the hands of classmates and former friends. Then she stumbles upon her next door neighbour’s magnificent kitchen and special recipe book, and she finally has something to call her own again. This book’s plot is fairly predictable, but I was surprised by its keen observation of what a life where every mistake is up for grabs – on social media, on camera, in print – does to kids. Knowing that her every move could potentially end up on her mum’s blog, Scarlett’s become fearful of humiliation, quitting many of her afterschool activities and feeling that only by doing and saying nothing can she escape infamy at home and in the classroom. Her self-confidence, like her connection with elderly neighbour Mrs Simpson, must be built over time.

The Secret Cooking Club is by no means a classic, but it’s a quick, clearly written début. It’s uncomplicated, relatively harmless – Scarlett, while occasionally trespassing and leaving tea towels on the hob, is the kind of character who has apparently avoided the rat race of early teen snapchat politics and still gets excited about the prospect of holding a boy’s hand – and on the whole jolly. The villains have names like Mr Kruffs and Gretchen and serious themes are presented simply, but its bright, colourful cover will leap from the shelf for parents of 9-12s seeking unchallenging, innocent reads. There are descriptions of cakes and tasty treats which will see plenty of young readers eager for, if not the multi-hour effort of cooking, then at least the resulting delights.

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Straightforward and full of baking montages, The Secret Cooking Club, though far from a classicis fun, easy-to-read kidlit.

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