Children’s Lit Round-Up: Historical Fiction Edition

This week on the blog, I’m taking a quick detour away from YA with some marvellous historical fiction children’s books!

17350491Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Publication date: 7th March 2017
Source:
Purchased
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Found floating in the English Channel in a cello case after a shipwreck when she was a baby and taken in by the kindly Charles, it seems almost impossible that Sophie’s mother is still alive – but that means it is still possible, and you should never ignore a possible.

When the Welfare Agency threatens to send Sophie to an orphanage, she flees to Paris to follow the only clue she has: an address on the inside of the cello case. There she meets Matteo and his network of rooftoppers, who open her eyes to a world above the streets, close to the sky. They must find her mother before Sophie can be caught and sent back to London – and before she loses hope.

I’ve talked about how much I like Rooftoppers before (for instance here, and most recently, here in my review of Katherine Rundell’s latest novel The Explorer) but I think I should just say again how much I adore this book. I don’t even think I have quite the words to describe how much. It is wonderful children’s fiction. It’s wry and funny and self-aware (“Your powers of observation are formidable. You are a credit to your optician”) and atmospheric and clever and just a little magical. It reaps the rewards of an adept writing style but bears traces of an old-fashioned children’s classic.

It’s set in the late nineteenth century, and is very much a book of two halves: its English scenes are warm and bookish while its Parisian scenes are both grimy and starry. The book’s eccentric family focus was perhaps my favourite parts of the novel. Young heroine Sophie is tomboyish, plucky and daring (“It is difficult to believe in extraordinary things. It is a talent you have, Sophie. Don’t lose it”). Her guardian Charles is unconventional but incredibly kind (“He was thirty-six years old, and six foot three. He spoke English to people and French to cats, and Latin to the birds”). The enigmatic Matteo and his ragtag collection of street urchins add notable texture and grounding to the book’s landscape. I only wish the novel’s ending wasn’t quite so rushed. That said, while there are a lot of children’s adventure stories out there (in fact The Explorer is one of the best of 2017) but Rooftoppers remains a masterstroke. 5stars-fw

Rooftoppers is a wonderful work of elegant plot, pacy adventuring and wry humour. Katherine Rundell is fast becoming one of my favourite writers of children’s books.

34045334The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Publisher:
Chicken House Books
Publication date:
4th May 2017
Source:
Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Ami lives with her mother on an island where the sea is as blue as the sky. It’s all she knows and loves, but the arrival of malicious official Mr Zamora changes their world forever: the island is to be made into a leper colony. Taken from her sick mother and banished across the sea, Ami faces an uncertain future in an orphanage. There she meets a honey-eyed girl named for butterflies, and together they discover a secret that will lead her on an adventure home. Ami must go back to the island of no return, but will she make it in time?

A pattern is emerging in Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s children’s books: both The Girl of Ink and Stars and The Island at The End of Everything have – to name just a few similarities -long titles, young female protagonists, tropical island settings, and officious male villains who use bureaucracy to ruin that tropical island home. However, while The Girl of Ink and Stars is magical realism or light fantasy, her second standalone novel certainly leans toward historical fiction. The Philippine island of the title, Culion, was a real leper colony for over ninety years (though it should be noted that in the book ‘leper’ is seen as a slur and the word ‘Touched’ is use to describe those who have contracted the disease). Set in the early twentieth century, it makes use of such implied isolation to create a microcosm that could seem ghastly (as the reader is aware of the seriousness of the illness) but has the capacity to amaze, particularly as Ami discovers the butterflies of the cover.

The Island at the End of Everything is a very bittersweet book. It echoes with a (perhaps not-unexpected) melancholia that saps some of the potential magic of the prose. I liked the descriptions, the kindness of several of its characters and the interesting twist in perspective that comes just over halfway into the book. I would’ve liked a stronger plot and a more memorable cast, but Millwood Hargrave writes with an effective and descriptive style. If you liked The Girl of Ink and Stars (my review of which can be read here), this one is worth checking out.

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A relatively short and often bittersweet second novel, with an unusual choice of subject and an effective, descriptive writing style. 

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The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine
Publisher: Egmont
Publication date: 4th June 2015
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

When a priceless and bejewelled clockwork sparrow is stolen from the glamourous London department store known as Sinclair’s, shop girl Sophie finds herself on the trail of some of the city’s most dastardly criminals. Joined by rookie porter turned aspiring detective Billy and extroverted, beautiful chorus girl Lillian, she must crack codes, devour iced buns and vow to bring the villains to justice…

This is the opener in what looks set to be a marvellous historical mystery saga – there are already several sequels and I can’t wait to read them. Woodfine builds an Edwardian London of great contrast, from the shimmering luxury of the shop to the shady backstreets of the city’s criminals. I loved the choice of time period and the setting, which give the mystery a really distinctive feel, and there are some fabulous panoramic scenes in the store. The plot is engaging and an intriguing mystery brings a quick pace. Its young characters are neatly individualised, particularly heroine Sophie and runaway Joe, and there are some interesting adult secondary characters. There was one over-long exposition scene, but the writing is otherwise strong.

Fans of Robin Stevens’ cracking Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries (I recently reviewed each of the books so far) will find plenty to like here – though the busy Edwardian shop floor contrasts sharply with a 1930s boarding school, and Sophie and Lillian are very much accidental detectives. There’s a sense that a series-long villain is on the cards here, while Stevens’ mysteries are decidedly more self-contained and murderous. Woodfine’s work probably bears more resemblance to glossy period drama Mr Selfridge, as Selfridge’s is clearly the inspiration for Sinclair’s, from its opulent displays to its gregarious American owner. (Of course, these books being aimed at kids aged 9-13, it skips out on the television series’ rampant adultery and, alas, the absurdly beautiful Grégory Fitoussi.)

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An engaging, pacy mystery with a terrific historical setting and fantastic series potential.
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*I’d like to make it clear that the stars are for the book, not just the Grégory Fitoussi gif.

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The Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries by Robin Stevens // cracking kidlit capers

29080992Today on the blog, I’m doing something a little different – a series review!

Publisher: Corgi
Category: children’s
Genre(s): mystery, historical fiction
Source: Purchased, library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Deepdean School for Girls, 1934. When Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong set up their very own secret detective agency, they struggle to find mysteries to investigate (unless you count the case of Lavinia’s missing tie).

Then the science mistress, Miss Bell, is found dead in the gym. Hazel thinks it a terrible accident, but when she and Daisy return to the scene five minutes later, the body has disappeared. Now they know a murder has taken place – and there’s more than one person at Deepdean with a motive. The Wells and Wong Detective Society has its first real mystery, but do Daisy and Hazel have the skills to solve the clues and the crime?

Robin Stevens’ début children’s book slotted in to the UKMG shelf like it had always been there, and no wonder, for there’s a deliberately classic feel to Daisy and Hazel’s escapades. Nods to famous writers like Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle – observant, gung-ho Daisy serves as the series’ Sherlock, while Hazel, who narrates their cases in her notebooks, becomes its Watson – are backed up by knowledge of the genre and well-planned plots. There’s a sense of familiarity to the structure and trappings of each book, but Stevens’ throws in plenty of red herrings and, importantly, enough detail to push readers to think, to stretch them a little bit. Complex feelings of friendship, belonging and identity are certainly recurring themes, and with two more books slated for the series, they’

It was the distinctive style and voice of Murder Most Unladylike that struck me most. I’d heard praise beforehand but it’s still unexpectedly charming and funny (“I thought at first it was a torture device,” remarks Hazel on discovering eyelash curlers. You and me both, Hazel). I loved that some details went straight over Hazel’s head but meant more to the reader – it’s a mark of a really clever children’s writer. I guessed the solution fairly early on, but its boarding school setting, historical slang, and bunbreaks make for an atmospheric crime-solving caper. Daisy and Hazel are imperfect young characters (in Daisy’s case partly due to a lack of awareness of her own faults) and I would’ve liked their friendship to be a bit more equal, but it’s a cracking opener. Also, this is the book that introduced us to Head Girl King Henry, which is a frankly brilliant nickname.

29235345Arsenic for Tea moves from Deepdean to the crumbling country pile of Fallingford (Daisy is, after all, the Honourable Daisy Wells, daughter of Lady Hastings and scatter-brained Lord Hastings). A compelling mystery ensues when a much-disliked guest at Daisy’s birthday party appears to have been poisoned. The confinement of the grand house is a standard mystery device; for Daisy, it raises the stakes of finding the culprit and highlights some already tricky Wells relationships. The tumbledown grandeur of Fallingford makes for a terrific backdrop (there’s something of the Old Professor’s House to it, maybe a whiff of P.G. Wodehouse’s Blandings or Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle, though thankfully not too much of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle). While Hazel also comes from a wealthy background in Hong Kong, she’s a relative outsider to the idiosyncratic customs of England’s upper classes, which occasionally provides a dose of more dispassionate observation. Notable inclusions: Bertie’s Pre-Hipster Ukulele-Playing, Lord Hastings’ terrific “Daughter! Daughter’s friend!” line, and Uncle Felix generally.

23479358First Class Murder is Stevens’ homage to Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express. When a bloodcurdling scream leads to the discovery of a murdered passenger and a missing ruby necklace, Daisy and Hazel are faced with their first locked-door mystery. Despite a promise to give up sleuthing, Hazel and Daisy can’t help but try to crack a case when they see one. True to form, all the adult passengers – including a magician, a spiritualist, an heiress and more – seem to have secrets (and a reason to try to obstruct meddling teenagers, some more sourly than others). The Orient Express is described in suitably plush detail and noteworthy newcomers are to be found in fellow teenage detective Alexander and super-cool Miss Livedon (who also appears in a very spoilerific manner in the previous book). Three books in, Stevens’ prose is still engaging. I leave here an image of Kenneth Branagh’s mustache in the upcoming remake of the Christie original so it may be seared into your eyes:

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27030027Jolly Foul Play sees Daisy and Hazel return to Deepdean, and at this point it must seem like trouble is following them around like a particularly dogged haunting, for lo and behold, there’s another murder. Now fourth formers and up against a horrid new batch of Big Girls, this is the most challenging book for Daisy and Hazel’s relationship. Hazel is becoming more self-confident, whereas Daisy has always been the dynamo; by book four, you’re really sensing that they need to check the imbalance. We get to see them navigate more of their friendships with Alexander and with fellow boarders Kitty, Lavinia and Beanie (and her outrageous climactic villain-wrangling). If I had to pick a least favourite of the books, it would probably be this one (I want Daisy and Hazel to be happy! I’d like to see them solving more non-fatal crimes!), but they’re all pretty solid and Stevens continues to twine themes with clue-solving. The series’ covers are so striking too, especially side-by-side.

29979535I’m beginning to think setting really is right up there in Stevens’ forte, because the wintry Cambridge of Mistletoe and Murder is amazing. There are so many delectable details: the old buildings, the Chelsea buns, the secret society of rooftop climbers (reminiscent of Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers). The mystery is a real corker, with not one but two linked crimes and a plethora of suspects, and it was here that I really noticed how much Stevens’ prose and skill have improved; I would’ve liked a tiny bit more humour but there’s a level of mastery of her form here. She notes the disparity between the extravagant men’s colleges and the underfunded women’s colleges, and illustrates how much harder the fictional Amanda has to work than any of the male students, including Bertie, just to be accepted. Hazel’s growing sense of identity (“It really is not rude to exist, whatever anyone else says”) is touched upon when she meets students Alfred Cheng and George and Harold Mukherjee. Hazel has some romantic inklings in the book (she, like Daisy, is now almost fifteen) but Stevens foregrounds plot. I am also a decided fan of Aunt Eustacia. This one is pacy, fantastically twisty and really keeps you guessing.

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Distinctive, clever and memorable, the Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries are detective stories which will appeal to fans of children’s fiction of all ages. Lively leading ladies and well-written, often funny prose meets sharp pacing and careful plotting in one of the best ongoing series for older children on the shelf. 

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The Trials of Morrigan Crow (Nevermoor Book One) by Jessica Townsend // pleasingly fun and utterly immersive

dfp1adkuqaaos5lAuthor(s): Jessica Townsend
Publisher: 
Hachette/Orion Children’s Books
Publication date: 12th October 2017
Category: children’s
Genre(s): fantasy, adventure
Series or standalone?: series (#1)
Source: I received an e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Quotes from this copy may be subject to changes in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Morrigan Crow is cursed. Born on the unlucky day of Eventide, she’s blamed for all local misfortunes from hailstorms to broken hips. Worst of all, the curse means that Morrigan is doomed to die on the next Eventide – until, that is, a strange and remarkable captain named Jupiter North appears. Chased by black smoke-hounds and shadowy hunters on horseback, he offers her the chance to escape her draughty, unwelcoming manor and enter an unpredictable but magical city called Nevermoor.

Jupiter believes Morrigan could contend for a place in the city’s most prestigious organisation: the Wundrous Society. If she can pass four difficult and dangerous trials, she will have a chance at a future full of strange adventures. But there are hundreds of children with extraordinary talents in Nevermoor, and as far as Morrigan is aware, she hasn’t got a gift anyone would want. Morrigan will need to discover more about who she is, and more importantly, who she could be – or she’ll have to leave the city and confront her fate, once and for all.

Having only recently read Katherine Rundell’s terrific historical standalone The Explorer, I was itching to dive into more new children’s fiction  – but whatever I expected when I picked up this book, it probably wasn’t something quite as wonderful as Nevermoor. It took me a few chapters to get into it, but once I had, I raced through it in a couple of hours. This is charming, utterly immersive stuff.

As Eventide draws near, the last thing cursed eleven-year-old Morrigan Crow expects is for a magical and magnificently dressed Captain called Jupiter North to offer her a chance to escape the fate she thought she’d been resigned to long ago. Exciting and rhythmic but not overstuffed, the plot is one of discovery and cleverly placed detail. It doesn’t reinvent the literary wheel but almost every page features something interesting or memorable. Townsend’s use of familiar tropes, like the whisking away of a downtrodden child hero to a secondary world or the appearance of an unconventional pseudo-father figure, is highly effective. There are requisite foes in a compelling conflict with a Big Bad called The Wundersmith and some lesser enemies made at a very intense garden party. While the final showdown is a bit anticlimactic (it’s cut short and the stakes don’t quite make an impression), there are some suitably spooky, atmospheric moments in the build up which show the shadowy side of the Republic and even of the otherwise glittering Nevermoor.

It is in worldbuilding that this book really shines. Startlingly inventive and entertaining, the sheer imagination and delight at play is astonishing. There are hints at the workings of a broader fantasy world – it is, for example, run on Wunder, a mystical medium few truly understand, and opens in the gothic ‘Great Wolfacre’ – but much of the novel spills over with inexplicable and varied magic simply because it can. Because it’s fun. There’s a logic and yet an immense expressiveness to it. There are rooms that redecorate themselves for different occupants; carriages built like nimble metallic spiders; shadows that can wander on their own. Violinists who pickpocket entire audiences while playing; a clock with a sky for its face. Fireblossom trees and mesmerists and snowhounds and a gigantic talking cat.

Plunged into a city where the impossible seems positively ordinary, self-effacing, black-clad Morrigan is startled to realise that it is a place in which she might be able to feel she belongs. The Hotel Deucalion is full of colourful, eccentric characters. The charismatic, gregarious Jupiter North was undoubtedly my favourite, but trouble-making dragon rider Hawthorne was a close second. Even minor characters like Martha and Dame Chanda have their moments. One of the finer details of the book is that many of the core cast feel like they could be the hero of their own story, and one imagines there are thousands of untold escapades just waiting to spill from the mysterious Wundrous Society (“Tales from the Wundrous Society” is totally the title of a short story spin-off collection).

The best of the book’s prose comes from its descriptions (“Days of splashing in the sun-drenched Jasmine Courtyard pool gave way to balmy nights of ballroom dancing lessons, barbecue dinners and long lounging sessions…”, “an enormous rose-coloured chandelier in the shape of a sailing ship, dripping with crystals and bursting with warm light”). The writing is fairly undemanding, but it’s accessible and surprisingly funny (“the first day of Morningtide, Spring of One, Third Age of the Aristocrats. Weather: chilly but clear skies. Overall city mood: optimistic, sleepy, slightly drunk”). I would’ve liked a positive female friendship for Morrigan or more useful guidance from Jupiter rather than seeing her be kept in the dark, but these are small quibbles. A lack of hugely expansive explanation leaves this one feeling very much like a series opener, but then it is a story readers will likely be thrilled to return to. There is such tremendous potential in this energetic, appealing piece of storytelling.

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Vivid, imaginative and surprisingly funny, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow is a dazzling children’s fiction début. 

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Laurel Remington talks weddings, classics, and Confetti & Cake

Today on the blog, I’m hosting a guest post from Laurel Remington to celebrate the release of her second MG book, Confetti & Cake (out from the lovely folks at Chicken House Books). I was delighted to be asked to be part of this mini blog tour (and add some choice gifs to the post!). You can read my review for The Secret Cooking Club here, or read on to see author Laurel Remington chat about her favourite fictional weddings. Warning: Jane Eyre spoilers abound!

download (1)I was a child when I attended a wedding for the first time. A girl called Lisa, the daughter of a neighbour, was marrying her high school sweetheart, a boy called Richie. I have few memories of that day – vague images of a church, a crowd, and a girl in a white dress – but the one thing I do remember is a single moment when bride and groom were standing at the altar, and the priest asked Richie if he would take this woman, Debbie, to be his wedded wife. This unfortunate slip of the tongue caused gasps from the crowd and hasty shouts of ‘Lisa!’, including from the groom himself. The fact that the groom’s ex-girlfriend was called named Debbie didn’t do the priest any favours!

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I’ve been to many weddings since – lovely affairs, all of them – but nothing sticks in my mind quite like the Lisa/Richie/Debbie moment. While photographs and videos may record all the things that went right, I suspect that for many guests, the most memorable moments are the ones where things went wrong. This certainly seems to be borne out in fiction, where some of the most famous romances are ones that didn’t come off quite right – or, in fact, went totally pear-shaped.

Jane Eyre’s journey sees her go from governess to fiancée of the lord of the manor, Edward Rochester. Jane’s promised wedded bliss comes to an end at the altar, as two strangers enter the church to ‘declare the existence of an impediment’, namely that Rochester is already married. When Jane finally returns  at the end of the book, when Rochester’s first wife has died and he has been blinded by a fire, a now much wiser Jane limits the description of her new circumstances to ‘Reader, I married him.’ What a powerful example of ‘less is more’!

While Jane Eyre had a belated ‘happy ending’, another classic bride-to-be was less fortunate. In Great Expectations, Miss Havisham is swindled out of her fortune and left at the altar by her brother’s friend Compeyson. She spends the rest of her life dressed for her wedding day, frozen in time. As her white dress rots from her body, and the wedding feast is devoured by mice, we see Miss Havisham take out her rage and hurt through her adopted daughter Estella, thus destroying the happiness of even more people in the process. While Dickens’ prose may admittedly fade from our minds, the image of an old woman living each day surrounded by dreams of her ghostly white wedding day is one that sticks with us.

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It’s interesting to note that the queen of Regency classics, Jane Austen, often downplayed descriptions of weddings in her novels. For her, the delight was in the romance and ‘the chase’, rather than in weddings themselves. Elizabeth and Jane Bennet’s weddings aren’t described in Pride and Prejudice, the day simply being marked as that ‘on which Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters.’ Jane Austen herself never married, and while she did once accept a proposal, she changed her mind the next day. Perhaps it was enough for her to be married to her art and her profession. Or could it have been wedding jitters? We’ll never know for sure.

secret-cooking-club-confetti-cake-657x1024In Confetti & Cake, Scarlett’s cooking club has succeeded beyond anything she could have expected, bringing new friends and new chances, including judging charity bake-offs! But when Scarlett’s mum announces she’s getting married and will be appearing on a  TV wedding show, let’s just say things don’t go quite to plan. Between trying to make the perfect wedding day feast and juggling her newfound sort-of fame, Scarlett feels like she’s riding a roller coaster that’s going far too fast. Can the Secret Cooking Club save the day with food, fun, friendship, and a lovely wedding cake – or will it all end in tiers?

Happy reading (and baking)!

Laurel Remington

Laurel Remington’s second book, Confetti & Cake, is out now. Her first children’s book, The Secret Cooking Club, was the winner of the Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition 2015, and through it she hopes to inspire young readers to try their hand at cooking and baking. She lives in Surrey with her partner and three daughters.

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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.

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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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