The Explorer by Katherine Rundell // “You should always dress as if you might be going to the jungle”

34992381Author(s): Katherine Rundell
Publisher:
 Bloomsbury
Publication date: 10th August 2017
Category: children’s
Genre(s): adventure, historical fiction
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received an e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Quotes from this copy may be subject to final changes.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

From his seat in a tiny aeroplane, Fred can see the vast Amazon jungle below him. He has always dreamed of becoming an explorer, of making history and reading his name on lists of great discoveries.

But when the plane crashes through the canopy, Fred suddenly finds himself in the jungle far sooner than he expected, along with three other children he’s only just met: Con, Lila and Max. With little hope of rescue, their chances of getting home feel impossibly small. Except, it seems, that someone has been there before them…

I love YA, but when you spend a lot of time reading and reviewing it (and its seemingly never-ending swamp of contemporary fiction), it can be a real breather to jump back into the exuberant capers and imaginative gymnastics of children’s fiction. There is a touch of that vibrancy to the work of Katherine Rundell, whose books include Rooftoppers (“A soaring story of adventure, friendship and hope set on the rooftops of Paris,” to use the fabulous Jenny’s words) and The Wolf Wilder, one of the most reviewed children’s titles of 2015. Set in the untamed wilds of the Amazon rainforest and following four children who must work together to find their way back home, there’s no other term for it: The Explorer is a good old-fashioned adventure story. 

Fred has read everything he can get his hands on about explorers, adventurers and the great expeditions which have taken them into the unknown. But with his father far too busy working and being respectable to notice (“his father always insisted so unswervingly on clean shoes and unrebellious eyebrows”), Fred’s dreams have always been a secret. That is, until a trip to Brazil sees him crashlanded in the jungle with three other children – siblings Lila and Max, and haughty Con (actually Constantia but use it at your peril). While their time in the jungle is dangerous (and involves eating spiders), it opens up something more in each of them. Fred gets braver. Con learns to climb trees and run. Lila’s love for animals, though she’s never been allowed a pet, leads her to adopt a sloth named Baca who likes to hang out in her hair. Five-year-old Max mostly wanders off into nearby trees/beehives/ant nests, but you get the idea. There’s lots of teamwork, arguing, and new friendship.

As with all good kids’ books, adult characters are a secondary consideration. There is one exception in the titular and nameless explorer, a mysterious and gruff jungle-dweller who lives in some ancient ruins and can catch fish with his bare hands (think Indiana Jones if he was more concerned with leaving things intact than putting them in a museum). Rundell makes sure to give each of her characters moments of complexity or backstory, the explorer included. The period setting isn’t entirely specific, but a little digging puts it somewhere in the mid-to-late 1920s. There were no illustrations in my early copy, which is a shame as they have the potential to really change or cement one’s experience of the book. It takes time to invest in the plot and a rushed ending is precipitated by just a little too much dialogue, but the book runs at an otherwise jolly pace. It’s packed with incident, from hair-raising river rides to tricky rock climbs.

Rundell’s prose is fairly straightforward, but also expressive (“his accent, Fred thought, belonged among good tailoring and fast motor cars”) and memorable (“I liked that it might be all right to believe in large and wild things”). The rainforest – “it was a thousand different colours; lime and emerald and moss and jade and a deep dark almost black green that made him think of sunken ships” – ultimately becomes a place more for savouring than escaping from. Rundell takes the opportunity to invoke the host of extraordinary creatures who call it home, too. Sloths, snakes, spiders, monkeys, Amazon river dolphins, whispers of big cats (“something with strong jaws and sharp manners”) all get a look in.

The writing style will appeal to readers across the 7-12 age group, and could make a great family/parent-child choice for reading aloud or together – particularly as the writing is by turns clever, challenging, touching (“Love is so terrifying. It is less like rainbows and butterflies and more like jumping on to the back of a moving dragon”) and tongue-in-cheek (“I did not admire our prime minister. He is very well-dressed, but despite his many protestations to the contrary, I am not one hundred percent sure he can read”). Of course it requires a little suspension of disbelief, a little strategic pacing, but young readers employ logic where it suits them and it is not going to detract too much from the story here. The Explorer is about adventures, and wildlife, and kids who get their hands dirty. It’s a rollicking recommendation.

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Vibrant, expressive and often clever, The Explorer is a good old-fashioned adventure story. Rundell’s prose is terrifically appealing. Ideal for young fans of Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Island at the End of Everything or Abi Elphinstone’s The Dreamsnatcher. 

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The Guggenheim Mystery by Robin Stevens // “I would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!”

31176543Author(s): Robin Stevens
Publisher: Puffin (PRH)
Publication date: 3rd August 2017
Category: MG
Genre(s): mystery
Series or standalone?: sequel (#2 of 2)
Source: I received a Netgalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository 

Three months ago, Ted Spark solved the mystery of how his cousin Salim disappeared from a pod on the London Eye.

While on holiday to New York to visit Salim and Aunt Gloria, who have newly moved there, he goes to the famous Guggenheim Museum. On the same day, a highly valuable painting is stolen.

Though paintings don’t matter much to Ted, mysteries do. When Aunt Gloria, who works at the museum, is blamed for the theft, Ted realises that he can use his detective skills – and his very unusual brain, which sees more patterns and clues than other people’s – to find the painting, and discover who really stole it.

The London Eye Mystery has become something of a staple in UK literature for young people since its publication almost a decade ago. Like books by Malorie Blackman or Jenny Downham, it’s shown a capacity to appeal across age groups and is treated with a kind of reverence rarely seen in busy, snap-to-it publishing (this is partly because of late author Siobhan Dowd’s contribution to youth fiction – you can read more from The Siobhan Dowd Trust here, or see some recommendations here).

However, it may be time to dust off your dust jackets (see what I did there) and remind yourself of the crime-solving abilities of Ted Spark, as modern ace of historical kid detectives (these lines just write themselves) Robin Stevens has been tasked with writing a sequel. The Guggenheim Mystery isn’t the first book posthumously drawn from Dowd’s work, either. It joins stunning Carnegie-Greenaway winner A Monster Calls, written by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Jim Kay, and this year’s repackaged short story The Pavee and the Buffer Girl, newly illustrated by Emma Shoard. While you can read this as a standalone, and I’d recommend leaving a solid amount of time between the two to make any shifts in style or approach less jarring, reading The London Eye Mystery will fill in backstory and explain references.

It may have been ten years for readers since Ted solved the mystery of how his cousin Salim got into a pod on the London Eye at 11.32 a.m. and vanished before it touched the ground again at 12.02, but for Ted it’s only been three months. He’s travelled to New York with his mother and sister to visit Salim and Aunt Gloria, who’s now working at the world-famous Guggenheim Museum. Keeping the fan-favourites of the cast gives this story its core and several benefit from being fleshed out, particularly Kat, who’s revealed as a budding fashion designer. Stevens adds plenty of minor characters of her own as suspects, however, and while there are probably too many (they aren’t exactly memorable or compelling), efforts are made to subvert gender roles (such as having female characters in the museum’s maintenance-construction crew) and it gives Ted lots of leads to chase.

The mystery of the title is an interesting one, as Ted, Kat and Salim race to solve an art heist. More than the eventual villain(s) or culprit(s) – you’ll get no spoilers here – it’s the puzzle of the mystery that catch the eye, as Ted works through the many possibilities of the theft. I was intrigued by the choice of painting, too. Kandinsky’s In The Black Square (an abstract Bauhaus painting from 1923), is valuable yet relatively unknown, and seems to suit the story. As Stevens’ writes in her author’s note: “I thought that Ted would enjoy the weather in In The Black Square – it would stretch him in exactly the right way, and make him think about art, and why we value it so much.”

The return of Ted’s direct, distinctive first-person narration is the most obvious continuation of The London Eye Mystery. Usually, book folk (including me!) are pretty good at noticing tell vs. show, but Ted is all tell. It can be grating at times, particularly if you’re used to a more subtle or woven prose, but Stevens embraces it entirely, while occasionally dropping in details that the reader will pick up outside of Ted’s recognition. Everyone’s a bit nicer, too, with more closeness and kindness in Ted’s immediate family (mostly from Kat and their mother, as their father remains off-page in London). It’s also worth noting that the diagnoses made in the first book have fallen somewhat out of favour (autism spectrum disorder now seems more used than ‘high-functioning Asperger’s’), though Stevens makes an effort to flex an established framework in order to focus on Ted’s personality, talents and New York adventures. That said, the plot slides along a little too easily, characters spill just the right explanations to a bunch of kids at the drop of a hat, and the dialogue is very static. The book needed more complex secondary characters and the traditional detective-reveals-all speech still looks clunky in prose, but it undoubtedly sits squarely in upper children’s fiction.

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A solid read which will undoubtedly draw in fans of The London Eye Mystery, though the prose is perhaps overly idiosyncratic at times and Stevens’ Murder Most Unladylike books are still unrivalled as recent kidlit mysteries with broad appeal. 

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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
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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.

3Stars.fw

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

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