The Way Past Winter by Kiran Millwood Hargrave // swapping the tropics for snowy forests

Today on the blog, I’m reviewing a book I read all the way back in June and am so excited to be able to talk about more!

way-past-winter-hb-no-bleedAuthor(s): Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Publisher: Chicken House Books
Publication date: 4th October 2018
Source: I received an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to changes in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Mila and her sisters live with their brother Oskar in a small forest cabin in the snow.

One night, a fur-clad stranger arrives seeking shelter for himself and his men. But by the next morning, they’ve gone – and it looks like Oskar has joined them. Twelve-year-old Mila can’t believe her beloved Oskar would abandon them. But then she never believed her father would abandon them either, and he disappeared years ago. 

Then she learns that all the boys in the village have gone. Except one – an outcast mage called Rune. To discover the truth, Mila and Rune set out in a dog sleigh to find Oskar and bring him back. Even if it means facing a wilderness full of dangerous, magical things. Even if it means going all the way to the frozen north… 

Kiran Millwood Hargrave is having a bit of a moment. Already a published poet and playwright when her first children’s novel The Girl of Ink and Stars was picked up by Chicken House Books, it was shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award, declared Children’s Book of the Year at the British Book Awards and won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. Her second children’s book, The Island at the End of Everythingwas shortlisted for a Blue Peter Book Award and the Costa. The first book in a feminist YA series, Bellatrix, which will see her working with fellow Costa nominee Kit de Waal, is slated for July 2019. A buzzy 13-way auction for rights to her first adult novel The Mercies (previously known as Vardø) earlier this year was eventually won by Picador, with publication set for 2020.

What, then, of The Way Past Winter, which seems to bridge a critical moment between Millwood Hargrave’s children’s fiction and a transition to work for older audiences? Has this relatively short adventure been left in the dust in the rush to get to other projects? It certainly seems like a break with tradition when compared to The Girl of Ink and Stars and The Island at the End of Everything, which both feature long titles, only children, and sun-drenched tropical island settings. The characteristic girl heroine and male villain remain, and islands are to an extent still places of wonder for this writer, but the trading of sand for snow and sun for ice has the effect of conjuring a world as fresh and sharp as the air after a storm. It seems that Millwood Hargrave has found the means to step further away from the formula set by her first book – and her plunge into this wintry landscape is often brilliant.

Mila’s quest to find her brother is one of snowy forests and eerie mountain cities, breakneck chases and perilous encounters, fierce creatures and mesmerising wilderness. As their close-knit sibling group splinters and older sister Sanna concludes that Oskar was desperate to take any opportunity to abandon them – perhaps an expression of her own frustrated longing to see the world beyond the forest – Mila is sure there’s something more to his disappearance. She is joined in her search by mysterious boy-mage Rune, bright-eyed younger sister Pípa, and loyal canine companions Dusha and Danya. Theirs is a world which awaits a far-off spring; one of superstition and stories, like that of Bjorn, bear protector of the forest. I would’ve liked slightly deeper exploration of certain plot threads or secondary characters, but on the whole, simple devices are woven into an effective, engrossing adventure.

It is not unexpected that nature should prove fruitful literary ground here (“Cold hovered like a carrion bird”; “it was the way of the mountains to carry on outdoing each other”), or that there are poetic influences (“A dark fizzing, like a hot coal spitting”). More important is that Millwood Hargrave is hitting her prose stride. The Way Past Winter features a compelling goal, exciting action and well-defined structure. Some of my favourite lines were character-centric (“Oskar had grown up so fast it seemed he had left loving them behind”; “She felt empty, like a hand that is dropped when it is used to being held”), but some came even when the story was at its simplest. When it was speaking of “a pane of ice, thumb thick”, or “watching as the flour and water performed their small alchemy”, or “listening to her breathing, which seemed the best sound ever made.” It is in these moments that The Way Past Winter shines.

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The Way Past Winter is simple, evocative, and captivating. Its pacy adventure and flashes of rich imagination will appeal to fans of Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder and Abi Elphinstone’s Sky Song. One of Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s best books yet.

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The Lost Magician by Piers Torday // genre-hopping storytelling with some subversive twists

Today on the blog, it’s time for more children’s lit!

40126361Author(s): Piers Torday
Publisher: Quercus Children’s Books
Publication date: 6th September 2018
Category:
children’s
Source: I received a Netgalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to change in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

They may have survived the Blitz, but when Simon, Patricia, Evelyn and Larry step through a mysterious library door, it is the beginning of their most dangerous adventure yet.

There they discover the magical world of Folio, where an enchanted kingdom of fairy knights, bears and tree gods is under threat from a sinister robot army. The many stories of the Library are locked in war, and the children’s only hope is to find their creator – a magician who has been lost for centuries… 

Piers Torday’s The Lost Magician emerges from the same school of fiction that recently produced Patrick Ness’ Release and Katherine Rundell’s Into The Jungle. It is a writing back to a classic, even canonical, work in the form of a novel aimed at a young audience. While Ness took on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Rundell squares up to Rudyard Kipling, Torday tackles C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. 

In terms of critical acclaim, Torday certainly has clout. His first novel for children was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Award and nominated for the Carnegie Medal, while its sequel won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. Not content with merely interrogating one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, Torday also takes the opportunity here to explore themes of war, knowledge and the power of the written word.

There are nods to Narnia everywhere. Four children go to an old house, the home to a professor, to escape the effects of the Second World War. The youngest child stumbles into a magical world, which seems a bit choosy about when it can be accessed, and is not believed by their older siblings. Smaller allusions are scattered throughout the book. Larry, Evelyn, Patricia and Simon even share the same initials as the Pevensie siblings.

But it is not a retelling. Rather than a landscape of perpetual winter full of talking animals and Turkish delight, the reader is greeted with a subversive and surprising note which casts a niggle of doubt over the entirety of the magical proceedings which follow. The world of Folio is a sprawl of larger-than-life fairytale figures (ironically in the case of Tom Thumb) and vaudeville villains. Torday’s bold, brash approach draws on a wild variety of characters and styles, allowing the Three Bears to appear in the same chapter as a War of the Worlds-esque amassing of the forces known as Unreads. The core, rather unsubtle conflict is between sides known as Reads (who represent a rich tradition of human storytelling), Unreads (robots who prefer the concrete and abhor imagination) and Never Reads (the most dreaded of all).

For me, The Lost Magician was a little didactic and the genre-jumping occasionally jarring, but it’s a book many will extol. I liked the book most when it was rooting itself in historical fiction. It teases out familial relationships and acknowledges details sometimes not seen elsewhere, like dyslexia not being a barrier to love of storytelling. For all its outlandish technicolour, the prose was perhaps at its best when at its simplest and most grounded: “It was a kind of manor house, of which there were many in that part of the world, and to the children it just looked very old and very smart. The stone was honey coloured, blazing in the afternoon sun, and there were roses clambering up the side…”

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Piers Torday’s interrogation of a children’s classic combines magic and adventure with subversion and a swirl of historical fiction. It’s not the most subtle of books, but will find fans among children and adults alike (and have more clued-up readers wondering, “Which one is supposed to be Jesus?”). 

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Take Five: The Storm Keeper’s Island blog tour Q&A with Catherine Doyle

Today on the blog, I’m hosting a quickfire five-question Q&A with Catherine Doyle as part of the blog tour for The Storm Keeper’s Island! You can read my review of the book, which went up yesterday, here!

As ever, my questions are in bold, with Catherine’s answers in plain text.

thumbnail_Headshot1Catherine Doyle grew up in the west of Ireland. She holds a first-class BA in psychology and a first-class MA in publishing. She enjoys movies, running and travelling. She is the author of the Blood for Blood trilogy (Vendetta, Inferno and Mafiosa) for young adults. It is often described as Romeo and Juliet meets The Godfather. Her debut middle grade novel, The Storm Keeper’s Island an adventure story about magic, bravery and self-discovery set on the island of Arranmore, where her grandparents grew up.

1. Your new children’s book, The Storm Keeper’s Island, is a big departure from your previous YA series, Blood for Blood. What prompted the leap?

The change happened organically. I had been spending time on Arranmore Island, exploring the rugged landscape and delving into its incredible maritime history, and I realised quite suddenly that I had to write a story set in this incredible place. When I sat down to begin The Storm Keeper’s Island in earnest, eleven-year-old Fionn’s voice was already firmly in my head, ready to go. His story unfurled and I went along with it.

2. The story of the SS Stolwijk and its connection with 1940s Arranmore is an important feature of The Storm Keeper’s Island. But what made you want to write it into a fantasy novel and not, say, historical fiction?

By writing the events of the SS Stolwijk into a fantasy novel, I was able to have Fionn take part in the adventure, reliving his ancestor’s bravery and witnessing it first-hand. As someone whose great grandfather was part of that rescue mission, I can’t think of anything more inspiring and exciting than being able to do this. That day was magical in its own right already – adding a little bit extra seemed like the right decision.

3. The book is set on the Irish island of Arranmore and involves Irish mythology. What kind of research informed your approach to this side of the book?

I grew up on a steady diet of Irish lore and legend. So much of it was already simmering in my head. I ended up pulling strands from my favourite myths and weaving them together with some new magic of my own making.

366347654. Did you find anything unexpected or surprising in the process of writing The Storm Keeper’s Island? What did you enjoy most about it?

I found it to be a deeply personal experience for me. Arranmore is my ancestral home and some of the historical events within the story happened to members of my family, so I felt extremely connected to Fionn’s journey, and certainly more emotionally involved than I usually am while writing books. I enjoyed the undercurrent of realism, and the historical grounding, because I think these lend their own kind of magic to what is already a fantastical adventure story.

5. Can you tell us anything about what’s next for Fionn, and for you? Do you feel that your time with YA is done? And when will readers get to return to Arranmore?!

Readers will get to return to Arranmore next July, where Fionn will be on an urgent quest to summon the merrows to help protect the island from the rising threat of Morrigan. As for me and YA – who knows what the future holds!

And now, just for you: thanks to the folks at Bloomsbury’s publicity department (especially the lovely Emma Bradshaw, though she has just moved to publishing pastures new), you can read the first two chapters of The Storm Keeper’s Island right here!NameTag2.fw

The Storm Keeper’s Island by Catherine Doyle // Doyle comes home with island tale

Today on the blog, it’s time to dive back into middle grade with this latest review…

36634765Author(s): Catherine Doyle
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication date: 12th July 2018
Category: children’s fiction, middle grade
Genre(s): fantasy, magical realism
Series or standalone?: series (#1)
Source: I received a proof copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to changes in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Fionn Boyle and his older sister Tara have been sent to stay with their grandfather on the tiny Irish island of Arranmore for the summer. Fionn has never met his grandfather before – an eccentric old man who lives in a cottage brimming with candles – though he knows his islander ancestors have long lived in tandem with the sea, a force city-born Fionn is afraid of.

Unbeknownst to Fionn, an old magic is stirring deep inside the layers of Arranmore. A dark storm is coming. The same kind of storm that took his  father twelve years ago. To protect his family, Fionn must embrace his destiny as an heir to the storm keepers, for their island is calling out to him…

Catherine Doyle made her début as one of the bolder contributors to Irish young adult fiction with the Blood for Blood trilogy, a teen twist on movies like The Godfather set in the dark, dangerous underworld of the Mafia, but her first middle grade offering, The Storm Keeper’s Island, couldn’t be further from the blood-soaked streets of Chicago. With the temperamental skies and sea-salt tang of the island of Arranmore, it seems that Catherine Doyle has come home.

The island setting is undoubtedly one of the book’s stand-out features. Doyle offers up vivid, whirling descriptions, adding to an already interesting landscape an ancient mystery which stirs as soon as Fionn sets foot on its windswept shores. On Doyle’s Arranmore, tea is a must and magic is everywhere. This elemental magic is protected by a storm keeper and, in one of my favourite touches, gathered amid memories in the colourful array of candles Fionn’s grandfather Malachy makes by hand. The island is steeped in history, from miraculous lifeboat rescues to strange caves.

The book’s higher powers, Dagda and Morrigan, are plucked straight from Irish mythology, and while the pairing is not a new one, the appeal of the dichotomy is understandable (if you’ve read this post, you’ll know I have something of a soft spot for The Dagda). There are hints of fantastical worldbuilding – water-dwelling merrow, a flying horse identifiable to those literate in Irish mythological cycles – but there’s definitely a sense that this is an opening gambit written with laying groundwork in mind. Any sequels worth their salt will delve deeper into the rich and complex seam of myth teased here.

The story is enchanting enough to keep you reading through info-dumping and erratic pacing; explaining the fate of the SS Stolwijk before Finn sees it play out, for instance, sucks the tension out of what would otherwise be a strong sequence. As I was reading I couldn’t help feeling that I knew there was a plot in there somewhere, but it just kept getting caught up in an ill-defined structural muddle. It needed more textured secondary characters and more developed motive for the villains. One seemed to be mainly characterised as ‘bearded’ (“Where is he off to with a beard that big, anyway?”). And, while this may be a bit niche, making more use of the Irish language could have added to the magic, as the real-life Arranmore, just off the coast of Donegal, is known for its Irish-speaking.

Still, The Storm Keeper’s Island is a fast read and practically unputdownable. I liked the focus on the relationship between Fionn and his grandfather (I’d only recently written this post about grandparents in YA and teen fiction). I was racing to get to any scenes which expanded on Fionn and his father, Cormac, one of the book’s most compelling emotional cornerstones. A dramatic, action-packed finale – always one of Doyle’s strong suits – provides hope of a series with plenty more to give.

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The Storm Keeper’s Island isn’t the most subtle of books, but it is a vivid, energetic adventure with a great setting. This is magical realism-turned-fantasy for younger fans of Martin Stewart’s Riverkeep, Dave Rudden’s Knights of the Borrowed Dark and Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor. 

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Interview: Jenny McLachlan talks Wuthering Heights and writing teenage romcoms

Earlier this month, I reviewed Jenny McLachlan’s Truly, Wildly, Deeply – you can read all about it here – and this week, I’m delighted to host Jenny on the blog for an interview! My questions are in bold, with Jenny’s answers in plain text marked JM.

ujyeymoe_400x400Jenny McLachlan did English at university as an excuse to spend time reading, and fell into secondary school teaching for much the same reasons, only this time with more funny teenagers. Amid all this, she got married, travelled the world, had two children, went swimming in the outback and was chased by an angry elephant (and a pack of dogs), though not necessarily in that order. Her first book, Flirty Dancing, was published by Bloomsbury in 2014. It was followed by three sequels, known as the Ladybirds series, and her first standalone, Stargazing for Beginners, in 2017. She is represented by Julia Churchill at A.M. Heath.

36178510Hi Jenny! To start with, if you had to entice a new reader to pick up Truly, Wildly, Deeply using fifty words or less, what would you say?

JM: When Annie starts college she knows that the freedom she craves is within her reach. But then Fabian appears (all six foot two of him) and turns her carefully controlled life upside down – and spinning towards the Yorkshire moors…

All of your books can be considered funny contemporary fiction for younger teens. What draws you to this particular kind of YA?

JM: I began writing this type of YA because the students I taught at a secondary school were always asking me to recommend funny ‘realistic’ books. There weren’t a huge amount around – at the time, there was a trend for quite serious issue-led stories for teens – so I decided to write one. It helped that I can vividly remember being a teenager and it was a time in my life that was full of comic potential. Also I was a shy teenager. I spent a long time watching my peers, unwittingly conducting research for my future books!

Truly, Wildly, Deeply’s protagonist Annie not only has a disability but is half Greek, while love interest Fabian is Polish. Did you always intend to feature heritage and culture in the book? And more broadly, how did you approach research?

JM: My previous books have featured a range of young female protagonists that I hope my readers can identify with. They’re all romantic comedies, and I wanted to write a rom-com where the lead character was disabled, but where the plot did not revolve around her cerebral palsy.

As a privileged able-bodied woman writing about a disabled teenager, I was aware that I must question all my decisions about Annie. Of all my characters she is the one who changed the most during the planning and writing process. For example, when I planned the book, Annie used a wheelchair because although she could walk, she was self-conscious of how she looked. But as I started writing, this struck a false note. Annie is confident, witty, and challenging. Being embarrassed of her walk didn’t sit comfortably with her character, plus this was an assumption I had made as an able-bodied person that fed into the comforting ableist notion that ‘normal’ is desirable. Before I began to write the book, I spoke to teenage girls who have cerebral palsy, read books written by disabled women – articles and fiction – and watched films made by teenage vloggers who have cerebral palsy.

Fab was inspired by a student I once taught. He wasn’t Polish, but he did move to the UK from another country in Europe and, like Fab, he appeared exceptionally confident and happy in his own skin. My sister-in-law is Polish so I was able to quiz her about being a teenager in Poland (basically it’s the same as being a teenager in the UK!), Polish food and weddings. I asked her a lot about the weddings!

28502699Your début Flirty Dancing and its sequels focused on four girls. Truly, Wildly, Deeply features one key female friendship (Annie and Hilary) but noticeably more boy-girl friendships (Annie and Jim, Oli, Mal, and Jackson). How and why did you go about focusing on those friendships in particular?

JM: I think this was because Truly Wildly Deeply begins when Annie starts college. Starting sixth form was the time when my friendship group changed and I made a lot of friends who were (very funny) boys. I loved this time of my life and I seemed to laugh all the time. Like Annie, I finally felt able to be myself. It’s a shame girls and boys sometimes drift apart as friends during secondary school. I think all-girl friendship groups can be a bit intense!

Annie and Fabian are in some ways very different teenagers – Annie is witty and defensive, Fab is exuberant and generous – but the building of their relationship, and finding common ground, is central to their story. What was your favourite thing about writing their romance?

JM: For a romance to work, you need two characters who are particularly appealing to the reader, and a very good reason for why they can’t get together. Every romance is a basically a version of Cinderella and a lot of the interest for me is seeing how far I can manipulate the genre. Fab’s love of romance and Annie’s suspicion of it is at the heart of the story. Annie and Fab’s romantic journey was particularly fun to write because right from the start they are clearly drawn to each other, but never at the same or the right moment.

One of the big debates in Annie and Fab’s English class is over Wuthering Heights – specifically whether the book should be considered sweepingly romantic or dangerously volatile. Where do you fall on the argument?! (I personally am Team ‘Heathcliff Can Get In The Bin’…).

JM: When I read Wuthering Heights as a teenager I was Team Heathcliff all the way! I somehow glossed over the terrible abuse he dished out to characters. Rereading it as an adult, I’m much more aware of both Heathcliff’s shockingly cruel treatment of his wife and the abuse he suffered as a child. But annoyingly, I’m going to sit on the fence with this one, as I think Wuthering Heights’ brilliance comes from Heathcliff’s complex and contradictory personality; Emily Bronte’s ability to make the reader love and hate him at the same time is fascinating.

Annie’s mother has commendable taste in television. Did you find that copious amounts of research was necessary for this particular story detail…? 

JM: Annie’s mother’s taste in television is closely aligned to my own. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a man in a big floppy shirt standing on a cliff. It should be noted that my husband comes from Cornwall, although he does not own any big floppy shirts (yet).

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And finally, can you tell us anything about what readers can expect from you next (or failing that, what’s next for any of the characters in the book)?

JM; I can tell you what happens next to Annie and Fab: Annie takes Fab to meet her nan in Greece. Can you imagine?! Unfortunately there are no plans to put this holiday in a book, but it all exists in my head! Recently I’ve been working on something completely different and it’s been a lot of fun to write.

And there you have it! Thanks to Jenny for the fabulous interview – if you enjoyed it, feel free to comment down below!

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Flying Tips for Flightless Birds by Kelly McCaughrain // début leaps – and sticks the landing

Today on the blog, we’re taking to the trapeze with this début novel…

ftipsAuthor(s): Kelly McCaughrain
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication date: 1st March 2018
Genre: contemporary
Category:
upper MG, teen fiction
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: own
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Teenage twins Finch and Birdie Franconi are stars of the flying trapeze. Circus tricks are practically in their blood.

But when Birdie suffers a terrifying accident, Finch must team up with the geeky new kid, Hector, to create an all-boys double act and save the family circus school. Teetering on the high-wire that is school social hierarchy while juggling the demands of family, first love and facing up to who they are is a lot for two confused clowns to handle. Will their friendship, and the circus, survive?

Flying Tips for Flightless Birds was another of those pleasant surprises in my spring reading this year. It’s again from that spot between fiction for older children and for early teens (11-14s), making it particularly suited to those looking to take more steps into the YA section. There was a spate of circus books in YA in 2017, but they all seemed to have a supernatural – Caraval by Stephanie Garber, The Pack by Kate Ormand – or dark thriller edge – Show Stopper by Hayley Barker, even Flight of a Starling by Lisa Heathfield, which is also about a trapeze double act and a new acquaintance who alters two siblings’ lives – but with Flying Tips for Flightless Birds, Kelly McCaughrain manages to draw together both storytellers’ evident fascination with the circus and a much-needed lightness of touch.

When trapeze artists Finchley and Bridget Sullivan are in the air, they become Finch and Birdie Franconi, the latest in a long line of circus performers, including high wire walkers, barrel riders, jugglers (and one very health and safety conscious dad). While their ancestors flung themselves over Niagara Falls and travelled the world, their parents have opted to run a circus school just outside Belfast – though it still means having a mother who can tightrope walk, a little brother who wants to be a fire eater and a foul-mouthed grandmother, Lou, who used to walk across the ridges of roofs to freak out the neighbours.

Birdie and Finch have inherited a taste for daring. They dress flamboyantly and find themselves subconsciously juggling nearby objects during everyday conversation. But with Birdie starting to wonder if there could be life outside the circus and Finch struggling in her absence, they are believable. New boy Hector is enthusiastic but clumsy; at first the student of a reluctant Finch, his friendship becomes invaluable, and I really liked the exploration of their changing relationship. Elsewhere in the cast, there’s Freddie, known as Py (“Fire dancer, fire juggler – you name it, I’ll put lighter fluid on it”) and Janie, a foster kid and aerialist who’s so good at dangling from reams of silk she finds it calming.

McCaughrain’s prose is straightforward and fairly unshowy, though she conjures evocative details – the thrill of heights, the calluses on circus performers’ hands, even sitting in the safety net beneath the trapeze to get your breath back – and handles setting with subtlety, focusing on the circus warehouse as an adopted home for its eclectic residents. Finch’s narration cleverly interspersed with distinctive blog posts from Birdie, and there are moments of incisiveness (“Be that as it may” is “adult for ‘whatever'”; there’s “something lonely about an empty spotlight, like a big white hole in the world”). One of her major themes is what it means to stand out, but she also touches on things like found family and school struggles. She balances not-unrealistic elements of homophobia with quite a sweet coming-out story, too.

On the downside, there’s little urgency or pace to an already fairly standard plot, though it revolves around what you’d expect to be quite an urgent matter, that is, trying to save the circus school from closing. Some of the conflict gets resolved with very little action from the protagonists. I would’ve liked there to have been more actual trapeze scenes in the first half – we often hear more about it than see it take place – and there’s almost no character depth or development to Birdie and Finch’s other siblings, leaving them effectively faceless for the length of the book.

However, the most surprising feature of Flying Tips for Flightless Birds for me was its sense of humour. That was what kept me reading, whether it was in lively asides (“We’ve put a lot of effort into taming Jay, but we think it’s unfair to do it to more intelligent creatures”), mining humour from strife (“the only difference between a playground punch-up in Year Eight and one in Year Eleven is that everyone’s a bit taller and has better hair”), or quips in dialogue (Finch’s parents on marriage: “Ah, crap, I knew there was something we forgot to do.” “Do you think we should return all those gifts?”). It livened up the prose and turned this solid début into a really enjoyable one.

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Flying Tips for Flightless Birds is unexpectedly funny, often enjoyable and, at its best, oddly moving. This is a début which juggles the sweet and the sombre, and is ideal for 11-14 readers. I’m intrigued to see what McCaughrain writes next. 

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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
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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.