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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Monday, 30 April 2012

Magical Monday: Review of Crossing Over by Anna Kendall

Enjoyable fantasy focused on an unusual gift.

Author: Anna Kendall
Title: Crossing Over
Genre: Fantasy
Series: this is the first in the Soulvine Chronicles trilogy
Publisher: Indigo
Published: Jan 2012
Source: kindly sent for review by the publisher

Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK

Goodreads description:
Whether it's a curse, or a blessing, or an ability, the fact remains: whenever Roger is injured or in enough pain he crosses over to the land of the dead. Once there, there are rules: only the newly dead will talk, for example, and nothing will raise the longer dead from their tranquillity.

There are rules in the land of the living as well; rules which would have Roger hanged for witchcraft if he was ever caught. But refusing to cross over isn't an option. His uncle depends on Roger to hide under the table in their fairground act, listen to the recently bereaved asking questions of their dear departed, and then cross over to find the answers. It's a hard way of life, made all the harder as his uncle's fists usually provide the trigger for Roger to cross over.

It's not the only way of life, though, and when Roger sees a chance to escape he fights for it - little knowing that love, loss, shocking revelations and, ultimately, war lie ahead of him.

Just because Roger can cross over into the land of the dead doesn't mean he wants to.

My verdict: fascinating world-building, intriguing concepts. I need to read books 2 and 3 now!
This is a classic fantasy in some respects: vaguely medieval-type setting, magical elements, strong sense of a class divide. At the same time, none of these are exactly as expected: the 'land of the dead' is an original idea (as far as I can tell), and the society is matriarchal - the characters find it completely bizarre that in other societies men rule, as women clearly should be in charge as the givers of life. Roger's gift/curse/ability is a unique product of this unique world and is the main point of interest in this novel.

Roger narrates his own story and his voice convinced me as that of a relatively young teenager, although I was slightly jarred out of the story by his many references to erections. I also found his love for one of the court ladies irritating, as she was clearly a silly individual, but this didn't strike me as necessarily unrealistic. Teens (of both sexes) do develop what they experience as strong lurve feelings for inappropriate people, after all.

The land of the dead itself was not at all what I expected, and this was refreshing. Strange things occur in this land in the course of the novel, and I'm sure there is much more to be discovered about how it works in the rest of the trilogy. Roger himself doesn't really know much about it all, but he is beginning to be curious in this book, so perhaps he will find people who can explain it all to him in his travels.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel. It resolved the main plot issues, whilst leaving enough mystery about Roger's gift and the bigger picture to resolve in the rest of the series. I'd recommend this to teen fans of paranormal fantasy who are looking for something different to vampires, werewolves, angels and fairies.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Family Friday Review: A Mystery for Megan by Abi Burlingham

Magical animals, friendship and fun - this lovely read for the 6-9 crowd launched yesterday.

Author: Abi Burlingham
Title: A Mystery for Megan
Genre: fantasy adventure
Series: Buttercup Magic, no. 1
Publisher: Piccadilly Press
Published: 26 April 2012
Source: purchased

Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK  

Goodreads description:
When nine year old Megan moves to Buttercup House, she has no idea how special the house is. With her new best friend, Freya, who lives next door, they find out all the wonderful secrets about her new home, and she meets the magical animals that live there: some very clever mice, Dorothy, the mysterious black cat, and a very special dog called Buttercup. A book about friendship and magic, aimed at 6-9 years.

My verdict: a lovely comforting read for the 6-9 bracket
My 8yr old read this in bed before I could get my hands on it. Her excited babbling about it in the mornings was a joy to hear. She reads nightly in bed, but we don't always get such a reaction. I hope this special little book gets the recognition it deserves.

Megan is a great main character. We meet her at a vulnerable point, as she's moving house, which is unsettling for many children. It's easy to empathise with her worries and her nerves about leaving her friends behind, but her new house soon begins to win her over with its mysteries and exciting features like a treehouse. Her new neighbour, Freya, tells her fantastic tales about magical mice and a cat with an extraordinary lifespan and Megan's curiosity is roused, as is ours.

The story is sweet and charming, whilst avoiding sentimentality. It will undoubtedly appeal to girls - magic and animals, what's not to love? - but it doesn't succumb to the cloying girliness sometimes thrown at this age group. Abi Burlingham respects her young readers and doesn't insult their intelligence.

As an adult reader, I was perfectly able to enjoy the story and didn't find it predictable (as you sometimes can when you're not the intended reader). It was reminiscent of my own childhood reading: plenty of Enid Blyton, sprinkled with a little fairy tale magic.

Overall I found this to be a highly successful read-alone for my 8yr old and can imagine snuggling with a younger child to enjoy it together.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Thrilling Thursday Review: Drive By by Jim Carrington

Thanks to @EmmaCBradshaw from Bloomsbury and Kirsty (@overflowingklc) at The Overflowing Library for this great YA.

Author: Jim Carrington
Title: Drive By
Genre: Contemporary YA
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Published: 1 Mar 2012

Source: received as 'early bird review' prize in the British Books Challenge

Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK

Bloomsbury says:
Johnny and his friends have finished school for the summer. One sweltering day, on their way back from a water fight at the park, they spot an old lady who has wound them up by bursting their football. They make a bad decision. The boys pedal up to the old lady's parked car and commit a drive-by soaking, before pedalling away as quickly as they can.

Revenge isn't all that's on Johnny's mind, however, as he spots an impossibly cool, black-clad, pale-skinned girl on the bus. He can't stop thinking about her, but has she even registered his existence?

When Johnny discovers that the old lady suffered a heart attack after the drive-by and subsequently died, he is totally guilt-stricken. And when Johnny wakes up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, feeling a presence in his room, he believes that he's being haunted and the strain starts to show . . .

An incredibly dramatic, pacy novel about getting in over your head, guilt and facing up to your decisions.

Jim Carrington is fast establishing himself as an accomplished writer for teens. New and existing fans alike will devour his latest offering.

My verdict: great voice, many surprises. This is a many-layered, thought-provoking thriller for teens and up.
I enjoyed this book so much. The blurb intrigued me and - although it is a great premise - the book delivers so much more than the premise offers. What you get is a novel with real depth meditating on themes of responsibility and guilt via a pacy and thoroughly enjoyable read.

The novel is told via two first person narrators: Johnny, our hero, and Summer, the girl on the bus. Their voices and interactions are convincing as contemporary British teens, and it's easy to feel for them both as characters. Jim Carrington clearly has a good ear for dialogue, allowing him to create characters who get under your skin and have you rooting for them, in spite of their flaws. Johnny's friends are also effectively characterised and differentiated, and allow an exploration of a range of reactions to the same event. I also enjoyed Johnny's relationship with his annoying little brother - a further light touch that adds colour and shade to Johnny's character.

It's hard to classify this in terms of genre. It unfolds in a contemporary setting, over a summer holiday, and has elements of thriller and ghost story as well as romance. All these threads are expertly woven together to create a book that I would definitely recommend from young teens upwards.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Magical Monday: Here Be Dragons

Since it's St George's Day, I thought I'd celebrate with some dragon lore.
How cute are these wallpapers?
The story of St George and the Dragon is very similar to that of Perseus and Andromeda. A beast (in this case the dragon) is appeased by the people by means of a regular sacrifice. In the St George story, this was a sheep, then two sheep, then eventually humans were offered, chosen by lots. When the Princess was selected to be offered to the dragon, the King pleaded for it not to be so, but it had been his decision to use lots and the people were unsupportive, since many had lost their own children. It is at this point that St George appears and steps in. Some stories simply state that he killed the dragon and the people then converted to Christianity, (presumably since George was such a great example) but in some versions he requires people to be baptised into Christianity before he will slay the dragon, effectively holding them hostage to his demands. The dragon can therefore be seen  as an allegory the devil, or of the 'false' way of paganism. This religious appendix is not present in the Perseus and Andromeda myth.

I suspect that for most Westerners, dragons are fire-breathing winged lizards with four legs, but there are also stories of water dragons, often known as 'worms' (or wurms, or wyrms), which are more snake- or eel-like and are not credited with fire power. In stories like that of the Lambton Worm, such creatures can emerge from water and attack livestock and children. In this legend, John Lambton caught the worm when he was fishing and was warned not to throw it back, but he dropped it down a well instead. Trapped, the creature grew huge and the well water became poisoned and murky. Eventually, it grew to full size, left the well and wrapped itself around a hill, leaving only to attack livestock until the villagers realised that they could appease it with a regular offering of milk. After seven years of this, John Lambton returned from the Crusades to be told by a wise woman that he was the only one who could kill the worm. He had to get special armour made, covered in spikes, and was warned that once the worm was dead, he must also kill the "first to cross his path" to avoid cursing his family. He arranged to blow his horn three times as a cue for his dog to be released so that he needn't kill a person. Of course, this didn't work out as he planned and his father ran out to greet him before the dog was released. He killed the dog rather than his father and seems to have triggered the curse, as many generations of Lambtons after met unnatural ends.

In a lot of recent fantasy literature, dragons are portrayed as wise creatures with positive attributes. I haven't read much with dragons lately. Anyone got any good recommendations for dragon novels?

Friday, 20 April 2012

Family Friday Review: The Queen by Richard Brassey

Since it's the Queen's (actual) birthday tomorrow, it seems a good time to review this lovely new children's book all about her.

Author: Richard Brassey
Title: The Queen
Genre: Illustrated non-fiction (children's)
Publisher: Orion
Published: April 2012
Source: kindly sent for review by the publishers

Find it at Amazon UK

The blurb says:
She has two birthdays, eleven corgis and a Commonwealth of two billion people. Find out what it's like to be 'The Queen'.

My verdict: Lively in both the facts selected and the illustration, this is bound to appeal to a wide range of children.
What I like most about this is that it covers the Queen's whole lifetime (and a little family history too), yet still manages in pack in all sorts of quirky facts. This is the secret of Brassey's appeal for children, and also means that the book presents the Queen as an individual, whilst also conveying something of her responsibilities. Crucially, it is also a very respectful presentation, without being sober and dull.

Children will learn some aspects of the Queen's life that they are perhaps less likely to encounter elsewhere. Brassey has taken a chronological approach and provided quite a bit of information about her childhood and young adulthood before she became Queen. For example, it's a small thing, but my youngest (8) hadn't connected WWII as being in living memory, but learning how the young Princess Elizabeth had been in the Women's Army and learned to change truck tyres really brought that home for her. This is the kind of thing children often struggle with, in learning about history - putting it all together. This book does a great job of contextualising the Queen's lifetime and her reign without feeling particularly instructive. While it clearly is a non-fiction book, it's the sort of book that kids would pick up out of interest, learn from and enjoy. The quirky yet realistic illustrations (people are easily identifiable) add to the book's appeal and to its ability to provide interesting information.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Thrilling Thursday: Review of Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler

My thanks to Nikki-Ann at Notes of Life who hosted a Bryant and May giveaway that introduced me to this excellent and quirky crime series.

Author: Christopher Fowler
Title: Full Dark House
Genre: Crime (adult)
Series: Bryant and May 1
Publisher: Transworld
Published: 2003
Source: won in a giveaway on Nikki-Ann's great Notes of Life blog

Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK

The blurb says:
Arthur Bryant and John May of the Met's little-known Peculiar Crimes Unit are London's longest-serving detectives. When a bomb claims Bryant's life, it ends a partnership that has lasted for over half a century.

Desperately searching for clues to the killer's identity, May becomes convinced that the answer is to be found in their very first assignment together. It was in London, during the Blitz, and it all began when a beautiful dancer in a steamy new production of Orpheus in the Underworld was found without her feet...

And it was an investigation that would plunge the two young detectives into a bizarre gothic mystery - in pursuit of a faceless man who stalked the theatres of a nervous, beleaguered city already full of myth and rumour.

From the acclaimed author of Roofworld and Spanky comes a deliciously sinister drama in which two of British fiction's most enigmatic detective heroes - Bryant and May - take centre stage in this, their first great case.

My verdict: Engaging plot, fabulous characters - great introduction to a series
It's rare that a series opener can get away with killing off a main character, but Christopher Fowler pulls off exactly this. The bomb which kills Bryant becomes May's first case without him and takes him - and, of course, us - back to their first case together. This enables us to experience the beginning of May and Bryant's relationship with the benefit of hindsight, looking back on what we know to have been a successful partnership for over fifty years. Occasionally this backward-looking angle is made explicit in observations made about Bryant's or May's behaviour or their way of working.

The two investigations are woven in together, both narrated in the third person with a focus on different characters at different times. Both mysteries are satisfyingly twisty and tangled and there was more than enough to keep me turning pages. Since the two mysteries are over fifty years apart, there are plenty of differences in setting and circumstance to prevent us getting confused, and switches only happen at chapter breaks.

This is no high-speed thriller, but an intelligent crime story with real depth. Operating within a complex and exciting plot, the characters hold genuine interest in their own right and ensure that further stories in the series will be eagerly read.

I hadn't read any of Christopher Fowler's books before and I will definitely be seeking out the rest of the Bryant and May books at least. Thanks go to Nikki-Ann for holding this giveaway - it's certainly worked to bring Bryant and May a new reader!

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

In My Mailbox 12

In My Mailbox is a meme run by The Story Siren, in which bloggers can share a peek at the lovely books they've acquired over the past week (or month, as the case may be ...)

In this instalment of IMM, the lovely ladies at Orion have sent me the following books for review:
Chomp by Carl Hiaasen, which sounds hilarious: reality TV, the Everglades and a TV star with an unrealistic self image.
The Queen by Richard Brassey - this was great fun and deceptively informative. The review is coming up on Friday.
Adventure Island 7: The Mystery of the Dinosaur Discovery by Helen Moss. I'm reading this with my 8 yr old at the moment, and we're loving it. Classic adventure-mystery for kids.
Adventure Island 8: The Mystery of the Drowning Man by Helen Moss
These all came from Orion Children's Books, are out now and are for under-12s. The Gathering Dark: The Grisha 1 by Leigh Bardugo is coming from Indigo at Orion in May and is a major US YA fantasy, published in the US as Shadow and Bone.

I've won:
Pendragon Legacy: Sword of Light by Katherine Roberts. This came from a contest at the fabulous Feeling Fictional blog and I was so excited to win it, as I've been watching the promo for this one for a while. It's an Arthurian fantasy, focused on the newly-invented Rhianna Pendragon (daughter of Arthur, who's been hidden away with the fairies). A grand fantasy adventure with a cool heroine - what's not to love?!

I've received (for Mother's Day)
The Retribution by Val McDermid (the latest Tony Hill novel)
The Calling of the Grave by Simon Beckett (the latest David Hunter)
Both of these are continuations of crime series that I enjoy (such well-trained children!) and I'm looking forward to curling up with these soon.

The Kindle Spring Sale was rather  helpful for enabling me to pick up some lovely YA novels that had come to my attention already. I was so excited to find these:
The Swan Kingdom by Zoe Marriott
The Girl in the Mask by Marie-Louise Jenson
Mortal Chaos by Matt Dickinson
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

I've purchased:
A Mystery for Megan (Buttercup Magic) by Abi Burlingham

and my daughter was thrilled to receive signed cover art from Abi (who is lovely. Follow her on Twitter: @AbiBurlingham)

I'll be reading and reviewing this too, once the little one's finished with it (which won't be long, I expect - she's loving it!)

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Review: The Comic Cafe by Roger Stevens

Author: Roger Stevens
Title: The Comic Cafe
Genre: Mystery/adventure/humour (children's)
Publisher: Frances Lincoln
Published: April 2012
Source: Won from the publisher in a Twitter competition

Find it at Amazon UK

The blurb says:
Accidentally abandoned in a rundown seaside cafe, how are Will, Elizabeth, Jaz, Briony and Sammi going to endure the summer?

Ghostly sounds, oddball visitors and a mystery surrounding the cafe's previous owner all conspire to sabotage their grand reopening plans in this laugh-out-loud comedy of errors from one of the UK's leading children's poets.

My verdict: Genuinely funny; suitable for Scooby Doo fans (i.e. everyone!)
Lots of aspects of this book reminded me of Scooby Doo including potential ghosts, mystery elements and zany characters (most of whom you can't help but suspect of something). The story is highly improbable, and yet you can't help but be drawn in. It succeeds entirely in casting that story spell which prevents you from questioning any of the bizarre events or characters.

Will narrates this story and his quirky (but natural) voice is definitely part of the appeal. Who can help but love a narrator who has a thing for words and uses particularly interesting ones, like "surmised", at points in the story? And don't worry for the child readers - since Will speaks to us in a direct way, he explains all of these fascinating words. It's a great way of characterising Will.

His sisters are all sharply characterised too and it's easy to distinguish between them. They all have a part in dealing with the weirdness of being accidentally abandoned, in preparing for reopening and in working on the mystery. I can't imagine that any child would fail to find someone they empathised with in this motley crew of child characters.

The parents are also well drawn. It isn't easy to create sympathetic characters out of parents who accidentally abandon their five children, but Roger Stevens does so effortlessly. It's partly a factor in the general craziness of the story, and partly because the parents are drawn almost entirely through the loving eyes of their children.

Overall, the general craziness of this tale make it a genuinely funny read, easily accessible by both genders of around 8 and up.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Review: Writing for Children by Linda Strachan

For Words on Wednesday during this Week of Children's Books, it seems fitting to review a title for writers on the children's book market.

Author: Linda Strachan
Title: Writing for Children
Genre: Non-fiction - writing manual
Publisher: A & C Black
Published: 2008
Source: purchased on my Kindle

Find it at Amazon UK or Goodreads  

The blurb says:
Many people want to write for children but are often unaware of the wide variety of markets to choose from or how to find the right publisher for their idea. Aimed at both established and aspiring writers, this book aims to offer advice on the whole publishing process from initial idea through to final publication and beyond.

All the key areas of children's publishing are covered: picture books, fiction, poetry, plays, non fiction, educational books, books for reluctant readers. There will also be useful advice for the newly published on publicity, setting up a website, tax and accounting, and handling school/library author visits.

My verdict: Comprehensive overview with many nuggets of great advice.
This book's range really is its strength. Most books on writing for children (and writing more broadly) assume that the reader is only interested in fiction - and probably only novels in the 9-12 or teen ranges. It can be difficult to find advice on breaking into non-fiction writing, picture books or the educational market. All of these (and more) are covered here, and all from the author's own experience, lending the book an air of reliability. Linda Strachan has published in many different age ranges, genres and markets and her experience is generously shared here, although she is careful to avoid presenting the way she works as some sort of set of rules.

It is true that the book deals with so many different areas that it cannot be a full and complete guide to any of them, but her basic advice to read examples of the type(s) of book you want to write, coupled with her practical comments on submission, contracts, tax matters etc, provides enough to get you going in a wide range of fields. I think sometimes we seek out writing handbooks assuming they will hold The Key to Publication, which of course doesn't exist. To my mind, a writer is likely to be able to judge what any given type of book 'should' be like by studying published examples. The 'insider info' that I was seeking was exactly what I found in these pages. You rarely find such additional advice as dealing with tax, school visits, author websites etc, so this was great to see (and will hopefully all be directly relevant one day!).

Overall, a very good buy for anyone looking for a broad career in writing for children, or for someone seeking publication in any of the fields less covered in other similar guides.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Review: My Own Special Way by Mithaa Alkayyat, retold by Vivian French

Author: Mithaa Alkayyat
Retold by: Vivian French
Illustrator: Maya Fidawi
Title: My Own Special Way (Early Reader)
Genre: Family story (children's)
Series: no
Publisher: Orion
Published: Mar 2012
Source: kindly sent for review by the publisher

Find it at Amazon UK

The Orion website says:
Hamda feels left out. She wants to be like her four sisters. One evening she makes a decision, and nobody can change her mind. She wants to wear the veil like her sisters. Each sister puts forward her own suggestion based on what worked for her. But it is up to Hamda to work out her own unique way to wear the veil making it a part of her active and happy life.

My verdict: Charming story about being small and wanting to be like older siblings.
Although this story is explicitly focused on Muslim experience (wearing the veil), there is plenty here that is universal, in Hamda's feelings and her relationships within the family. Little Hamda is lively and wants to do what her older sisters do, like making necklaces, going shopping and baking cakes. Hamda decides she wants to be a big girl and realises that wearing the veil when she goes out is a way to achieve this.

As an Early Reader, the story is straightforwardly told, with no excessively long sentences for beginner readers to get lost in. At the same time, it's an interesting enough story to be worth reading and it isn't patronisingly simple. I can also picture UK primary schools using it as a prompt to discuss cultural differences.

It's also illustrated in full colour, with the family wearing boldly patterned and brightly coloured clothes, and the various scarves Hamda tries offering further texture and colour to the visuals. The illustrations have a quirky quality that is appealing and produces endearing characters.

Overall, this is a sweet story about younger children's desire to be more grown up.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Funky Non-Fiction for Kids

Like the books featured in my post yesterday, these non-fiction titles all make liberal use of quirky humour to engage their child audience (and any adults lucky enough to get a look in as well!). I was extremely fortunate to be one of the winners of this bundle on Non-Fiction Day last year, and this review is sadly long overdue.

The books cover three broad topic areas: Maths, Science and History, and all have been at least dipped into over the past few months by both my daughters (aged 8 and 13). In all cases, an initial dip has lead to a longer reading session than originally intended, and a series of "Did you know that ...?" type comments. What more could you ask of kids' non-fiction? :)

The Murderous Maths of Everything by Kjartan Poskitt takes a narrative approach and can be read cover to cover. It uses a framing story of a visit to the Murderous Maths Organisation to give the reader a tour of some fascinating mathematical ideas, concepts and quirks. As a tour type book, it covers different areas including weird arithmetic, interesting geometry and quirks in measurements. It proved interesting to my fairly maths-averse daughters and certainly succeeds in showing how maths can be fun without getting dangerously geeky.

The two Horrible Science books are quite different, and have both been enjoyed in quite different ways. The Horrible Science Annual features experiments as well as explanations of concepts and comic strips of discoveries and facts. As an annual, this is an assortment of various types of science topic rather than having a theme. My youngest particularly enjoyed the 'Make a Freaky Face' page, which has kids doctor a photo of themselves to make the eyes and mouth upside down. Looking at this picture upside down is fine, but the right way up is really freakish. Naturally, this would be a fun thing to do with pictures of everyone in the family, and maybe some celebrity pics from magazines or newspapers ... [NB I've also seen this done on QI with a hideous version of Alan Davies, so it's not just kids who enjoy this.]

How to Draw Horrible Science has probably been the most revisited of all these titles, and both kids have been pleased with the results they've had in following the instructions in this book. I particularly like the care with which this has been produced: the book is wire bound, so it always lies flat open and it's easy to work from. Lots of different styles of people and animals are included, as well as essential and scientific additions like gaseous emissions, indications of speed, bodily excretions of all types and ways to indicate temperature and movement in drawing.

The first History title is the Horrible Histories Annual which, like the Horrible Science Annual, dips into lots of different historical topics rather than taking a theme. It serves as a perfect introduction to the Horrible Histories series or adds extra content to an existing collection. In typical annual style, it features puzzles and comic strips on suitably gruesome topics such as the Witch Trials, poverty in the Victorian period and 'Revolting Revolutions'. And, being the 2012 annual, there is also a section dedicated to games and sports with the Olympics and similar events.

How to Change the World with a Ball of String is an easily browsable volume that covers scientific as well as historical information. Its organising idea is the arbitrariness of important discoveries and events, and introduces many key world events by drawing attention to their randomness. Headings such as "Discover a Continent ... by going the wrong way" and "Fight a War ... by sitting still" will entice children to read about Columbus's discovery of the Americas and the lack of movement in the Western Front of WWI.

Overall, these volumes are great examples of enticing and intriguing non-fiction for children which capitalises on kids' natural curiosity. Each of these titles clearly starts from an assumption that children want to find out about things, rather than working from a list of what kids 'should' know.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Quirky Kids' Series

All of these funny series feature oddball characters, and all are favourites of my youngest daughter (aged 8). All focus on a female lead character but are not 'girly' in the sense of pink and sparkly. I would happily give most of these to boys to read, with my only slight hesitation the Daizy Star series. All are also strong in terms of voice: most are first-person narration, and all characterise effectively using voice and dialogue. The characters all have funny sayings or catchphrases and/or are prone to hilarious turns of phrase.

Kes Gray's Daisy series
Daisy, the star of picture books, now has a series of younger reader chapter books about her too. All are called "Daisy and the Trouble with" something, and in each she's in (unsurprisingly!) some kind of trouble, which you usually don't know the details of until some way into the book. Each is narrated by Daisy herself, and she addresses the reader directly. She doesn't mean to get into these scrapes, but genuinely doesn't understand the implications of her actions at first. She's easy for kids to relate to and has a friendly, quirky voice. Daisy's 'troubles' are rooted in real life, but are quite extreme for children to delight in, not being things that normal kids would typically do.

Tamsyn Murray's Stunt Bunny series
Harriet Houdini is Stunt Bunny. She lives with the Wilson family as their pet and enters Superpets Live, a series of TV competitions for talented pets (a different competition is the focus of each book). Harriet also tells us her own story, and shares her thoughts about the competitions. Stunt Bunny, unlike Daisy, faces dangers in her stories: she is always at risk of being bunny-napped, and she has stiff competition from other Superpets.

Joanna Nadin's Penny Dreadful series
Penelope Jones, nicknamed Penny Dreadful by her father, also gets into scrapes based on real life. This is an anarchic funny series focusing on the Jones family and Penny's friends. Again, Penny narrates her own adventures in her distinctive voice and offers her own slightly off-centre views on things. These books are easier for their young readers to navigate, as each volume features three separate stories, rather than a single longer plot. In our house, these are current favourites for re-reading in bed as comfy blanket reads.

Kjartan Poskitt's Agatha Parrot series
In Agatha Parrot we have another less-than-perfect girl explaining her adventures to us. This series focuses more on Agatha's friends than her family, with the first in the series being school-centred and the second more of a family story. These oddball stories feature an introduction to the gang at the start of the book, which helps children to figure out who's who. Agatha's narration is also aware of the reader and she carefully contextualises events and people for us.

Maudie Smith's Opal Moonbaby series
This is the odd one out here, in that it's not a first person narration. It still belongs, though, as adjectives like madcap and zany apply to it as much as the others here. It's also the least real-world of these series, as Opal Moonbaby is an alien, and a lot of the humour here comes from Opal's misunderstandings of our world. Only Opal Moonbaby is currently available, but we have heard that there will be others featuring her human friends Martha and Robbie. I reviewed Opal Moonbaby in January.

Cathy Cassidy's Daizy Star series
Daizy Star is the only truly girly one of these series, perhaps because its audience is pitched slightly older (Daizy is in Year 6 and therefore aged 10-11, whereas Kes Gray's Daisy has her seventh birthday in Daisy and the Trouble with Zoos). This series focuses on the effects on Daizy as her father is going through a mid-life crisis which prompts and interferes with Daizy's various schemes for stardom. Again, Daizy tells us her own story and injects her narration with plenty of her own personal thoughts and feelings. School friends and other family members also feature in the stories, and Daizy has a personal nemesis in Ethan Miller, an annoying boy who her best friends both have a crush on.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Review: The Giants and the Joneses by Julia Donaldson

Author: Julia Donaldson
Title: The Giants and the Joneses
Genre: Fantasy adventure (Children's)
Series: no
Publisher: Egmont
Published:  March 2010
Source: purchased on my Kindle

Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK

The blurb says:
Most giants don’t believe in iggly plops and, down on earth, humans don’t believe in giants either. But a real girl giant is on her way down the beanstalk, and the Joneses are about to find themselves in BIG trouble.

My verdict: A thrilling adventure to read with children 6+
This is not a gentle bedtime story. Rather, it is an exciting adventure with violence (almost) worthy of the Grimms. I read it with my (then) 7 year old and there were gasps and tears in a couple of places, and I was a bit surprised at some of the peril the human children found themselves in as toys of the giant girl Jumbelia. This is not to say that it's inherently a problem, but it is perhaps better as a shared read for younger or more sensitive readers. To be honest, it's probably more of a statement about how sanitised many kids' stories have become, and it's certainly true that the violence in this story is easily matched by many cartoons, but somehow it is more surprising enacted on human characters in a book.

The story features an invented language for the giants, with a glossary at the back. (Although for us, reading on a Kindle, we didn't really see this until the end.) Most of the words are guessable in context anyway, and when there are whole songs or sayings in the giant language, the English translation is given in the main text. This language is fun, playful and inventive, and I'm sure most child readers will bring some of the giants' words into their play as my daughter did.

For all the excitement and adventure, there is a moral core to this story which encourages children to think before making pets or toys of wild creatures. Children will not experience this as moralising, but they will absorb the messages about how the children are treated by Jumbelia, who doesn't mean them any harm, but also doesn't quite see them as living creatures who can be hurt.

Overall, I'd recommend this for fans of Donaldson's picture books who are ready to move onto chapter books at bedtime. For the more delicate among them, though, her Princess Mirror-Belle adventures might be more suitable.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Review: Road to London by Barbara Mitchelhill

Author: Barbara Mitchelhill
Title: Road to London
Genre: Historical (children’s)
Series: none
Publisher: Andersen Press
Published: April 2012
Source: kindly sent for review by the author

Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK

The blurb says:
When Thomas flees to London in search of life in the theatre, he meets his hero, William Shakespeare, and thinks his dream has come true. But Elizabethan London is a dangerous place full of scoundrels, treachery and murder. Thomas and his friend, Alice – a feisty girl with ambitions of her own – soon find themselves caught up in a treasonous plot to kill the queen. The question is: will they be able to find the villains without putting their own lives at risk? And what will happen to William Shakespeare if they don’t?

A galloping adventure with all the stink, grime and noise of Elizabethan London.

My verdict: a great historical adventure for kids.
I really enjoyed this one and am certain that confident readers will love it too. It would also make an enjoyable shared bedtime read for developing readers. The historical detail really brings the era to life: a child would learn a lot about the Tudor period by stealth as they enjoy Thomas’s adventures.

Thomas narrates the story and his charming voice quickly endears him to us. We first see him in his normal routine: attending school, interacting with his family, doing his chores and, of course, daydreaming of an acting career and idolising Shakespeare. These familiar activities, although the details are very different to modern children’s lives, will help contemporary child readers to relate to him as a young, ordinary lad with big dreams. He is rather naive and trusting, and this is highlighted more strongly once he meets and teams up with Alice, who is much more worldly wise. I really appreciated this dynamic, and the opportunities the plot provides for discussing gender issues. This is undoubtedly a book that will appeal to both genders, avoiding gender stereotypes and creating positive representations with believable and sympathetic characters.

The plot moves quickly, pulling us with Thomas and Alice into London as they dodge villains and struggle to survive. Characters are efficiently drawn and it is easy to feel you ‘know’ even quite peripheral characters. The presentation of Queen Elizabeth is deliciously disrespectful and a shining example of Thomas’s lively and realistically childlike voice.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this book to readers of around 8+ who enjoy adventure or are already interested in the Tudor period, Shakespeare or London. This book almost made me wish I taught younger kids so I could recommend it to them, or find some way of sneaking it into the curriculum. I shall content myself with recommending it here, and adding it to my daughter’s shelf.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Coming Up: A Week of Children's Books!

6-12 April 2012

From Good Friday, we're going to celebrate the wonders of children's books for a week here at Thoughts from the Hearthfire. I've got reviews of some great titles, some just releasing and some a little less recent, as well as a couple of broader posts featuring several titles.

Here's what's coming up:
Good Friday (6th April)
Kicking us off on our children's book adventure is the fabulous new release, Road to London, by Barbara Mitchelhil.

Easter Saturday (7th April)
A slightly older title for our second day of children's book fun is Julia Donaldson's standalone MG novel, The Giants and the Joneses.

Easter Sunday (8th April)
A bumper post of recommendations from my 8yr old will come next. She really enjoys offbeat funny stories and is not a particularly girly girl, so this post will focus on the series she enjoys reading solo.

Easter Monday (9th April)
For the central day of our week, I'm going to share mini reviews of a bundle of fabulous non-fiction books which I won in a Twitter competition from Scholastic for Non Fiction Day last year.

Holiday Tuesday (10th April)
A new title to review here: My Own Special Way, an early reader story retold by Vivian French.

Wednesday 11th April
For the Words on Wednesday series, a review of Linda Strachan's Writing for Children.

Thursday 12th April
To round the week off, another new title review: Comic Cafe, by Roger Stevens.

There will be other children's book-related posts this month. Tomorrow, I'll be back for Words on Wednesday thinking about gender representation in picture books, and later on in the month we'll be reviewing Richard Brassey's The Queen (sneak preview: my 8yr old loved it), and Francesca Simon's fabulous The Sleeping Army.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Good luck to the A-Z Bloggers!

As the first of April, today marks the beginning of the A-Z blogging challenge, in which bloggers commit to producing a post a day except Sundays in April, covering all 26 letters.

I took part last year, and covered a range of topics through the month, but many bloggers approach this in a more logical themed way. There's a list of some of these themes at the A-Z blog.

I'm not participating this year, but I did want to wish everyone all the best with it. The A-Z blog has a list of the 1600+ participants.

Why not visit a few and see what they're blogging about?
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