Wednesday, 22 May 2019

A Pinch of Magic by Michelle Harrison, reviewed by Dawn Finch

Image copyright Simon and Schuster

First the blurb...

Three sisters trapped by an ancient curse.

Three magical objects with the power to change their fate.

Will they be enough to break the curse?

Or will they lead the sisters even deeper into danger? ...

Okay, so that's a pretty short blurb, but was more than enough to tempt me into reading this. Covering my tick list pretty efficiently here. An ancient curse, tick. Magical objects, tick. Sisterhood, tick. Danger and adventure, tick.

The only thing that held me back from reading this book sooner was the huge number of superlatives being thrown around in other reviews for it. "Phenomenal", "spellbinding", "brilliant", "breathtaking", "glorious"... the list goes on, and that kind of makes me hold off a bit. I hate being told I'll love something.

The trouble is.... THEY ARE ALL RIGHT!!

This book is absolutely wonderful. It is a perfect example of how to unfold a story. There is exactly the right balance of description and dialogue and every character feels well-rounded and well-placed. The dialogue is natural and at times I was so swept away by the story that I properly lost track of time. I had those wonderful times when I sat down to read and hours later I looked up and found the room in darkness and my tea cold (don't you love it when that happens?!)

I suppose I should give you more detail about the story, but I really don't want to ruin it. The story of the Widdershins sisters doesn't need a longer blurb than the one above and I hate reviews that spoiler. All you need to know is in those few lines above. This fairytale/Grimm type story feels traditional, but with a whole load of new ideas and sparkling adventure. It never veers into stuffy or dull and will make a great novel to read aloud and share. This is exactly the kind of book that you will start reading aloud, and your audience will quickly be sneaking it off to read ahead!

Another thing worth mentioning is the stunning cover of this book. The design is by illustrator Melissa Castrillón and her work also peppers the text with tiny silhouettes and a fantastic map. I love it when a cover acts as a teaser for elements of the story, and this one really does make the book the full package. It makes such a difference when a publisher takes the time to make a book a desirable physical object. Book ownership is an important part of the journey to becoming a lifelong reader, and making printed books a glorious thing to own is vital.

A Pinch of Magic has the quality and feel of a classic children's book, and I hope it will take its place among the best of them.

A Pinch of Magic is written by Michelle Harrison (and illustrated by Melissa Castrillón). It is published by Simon and Schuster.
Review by Dawn Finch, children's author and librarian.


Saturday, 18 May 2019

Have You Seen My Blankie? by Lucy Rowland and Paula Metcalf, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

What small child doesn't have their favourite blankie or snuggly or clothie or any number of other named bits of comforting cloth they love to snuggle to sleep with? For some its a muslin square they met on their mother's shoulder when they were being burped after a feed. For some its a shred of old blanket with a silky ribbon edge to rub. For one child I knew it was a whole swimming costume! But for Princess Alice it's a checked cloth that looks almost like a table cloth.

The name 'Alice' of course rhymes nicely with 'palace', and the whole of this lovely story text romps along with rhythm and rhyme skill equal to a Julia Donaldson text.
Alice's blankie goes missing, so she sets off in search for it, finding her brother, then a giant, then a witch who have all used the blankie in different ways, but have then passed it on.

And now the blankie is with a dragon. Is that wonderful blue dragon scary? No, and neither are the witch or giant. But the dragon has a problem. It needs the blankie for its own comfort. Alice and the dragon are both sleepy and weepy, and neither can get to sleep without a comforter. So clever Alice finds a new comforter for the dragon ...

...And you'll have to read the book to find out what that is!

Paula Metcalf's pictures with their colour palate of oranges and blues are a delight. And the big handsome hardback book with shiny gold lettering and crown and fruit and sandals on the cover makes this feel a very special book indeed. To be treasured as if it was a blankie!


Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Ducktective Quack and the Cake Crime Wave by Claire Freedman and Mike Byrne - reviewed by Damian Harvey

I love a picture book that will appeal to older readers (and listeners) and Ducktective Quack and the Cake Crime Wave will do just that. Claire Freedman's rhyming text works well and keeps the story moving along nicely and is perfectly complimented by Mike Byrne's detailed, witty illustrations which give the reader plenty to look at.

There's a thief in town - someone has been steeling cakes and doughnuts from the cafe's - and it's up to Ducktective Quack to get to the bottom of it. What makes this book work well is the fact that the reader is encouraged to get involved and help Ducktective Quack in her investigations by spotting the clues.

At the Police Station there is already a board full of evidence and clues that Ducktective Quack has gathered but as the book progresses, the reader is presented with more clues and red herrings hidden on every page. Along with the clues are little notes to encourage the reader to think about what they have seen as they try to find out who is responsible for the cake crime wave.
The first reading of this book (and solving of the crime) will undoubtedly provide children with the most entertainment, however, the text is good enough to stand many re reads and each page is so full of detail that children will undoubtedly enjoy going over it time and time again.  


Friday, 10 May 2019

Superbat by Matt Carr, reviewed by Sarah Hammond

Who doesn’t love a good superhero? Who doesn’t love an engaging animal protagonist? I have read this picture book to youngsters in several of my writing workshops and it goes down a treat. Even the title strikes a chord with these audiences. 

In this story, we follow the journey of Pat the bat who cannot sleep because he yearns to be a superhero. Yet even though he makes himself a costume (struggling to keep his wings out the way of his sewing machine), the other bats need more convincing. What are his superpowers exactly? 

Pat has super-hearing! But so do the other bats. Pat can fly! But so can the others. Pat has echolocation! But so do all his bat friends (and, inadvertently, the reader learns what echolocation means). Carr weaves in animal facts and learnings as this issue is debated. For interested readers, there is a section of Batty Facts in the back matter of the book, too.

Dejected, our hero returns home. Perhaps he is no superhero after all. 

Carr injects humour, both for adults and children, throughout the book. The opening sentences are simple but funny (and informative about animal behaviour): It was the middle of the day and Pat the bat could not sleep. He was bored of hanging around in a dark cave.

There are also jokes in Carr’s comic-book style illustrations. Readers enjoy spotting them, such as the slogan picture on the wall that reads Cave Sweet Cave.  

The adult reader also has cause to smile as we hear the commentary of the residents of the city looking up at Pat flying across the skies. Is it a bird?  Is it a plane? Er… I think it’s a BAT in a funny little costume!

However, all is not lost. Suddenly Pat detects a faint cry from the other side of town. Someone is in danger! And now we see a real superhero, rushing to the rescue in a ‘blur of fur’. Pat’s superpower is ultimately, we discover, his courage. The young audiences in my workshops found this ending very satisfying and relatable. As one girl told me afterwards, ‘courage means you do the right thing, even though it’s hard.’


Monday, 6 May 2019

Hotel Flamingo by Alex Milway, review by Lynda Waterhouse

This illustrated first chapter book is about a young girl, Anna Dupont, who inherits a dilapidated hotel from her aunt. The Flamingo Hotel is for animals and when Anna arrives it is being run on a shoestring by T. Bear and Lemmy the lemur. Anna is fearless and sets about trying to clean and tidy up the place and return it to its former glory as ‘the sunniest hotel in town.’  The Hotel Flamingo is a place where all kinds of animals are made welcome and treated with respect, cockroaches, warthogs and all!
They recruit some more staff including Sella the giraffe maintenance officer, Hilary Hippo a cleaner with a dust allergy and Madame le Pig, the terrifying but brilliant chef. Everyone must learn to co-operate and work together with good humour to make the hotel into a success. Mrs Fragantri’s flamingo theatrical troupe join for a working holiday. She charmingly articulates one of the themes of the story,
‘‘One thing I’ve always found in this business,’ said Mrs Fragranti, gesturing flamboyantly with a wing, ‘is that you need friends to succeed. Look after your friends, darling, and your friends will look after you.’’
The gentle jeopardy is provided by Ronald Ruffian the owner of the rival Glitz Hotel who tries and fails to belittle Anna as well as get the hotel closed down. There is an undercover visit from a hotel inspector to contend with.
The book is beautifully written with a rich vocabulary and a warm, humorous tone that is a delight for a child to read alone or to have read to them. The pink and grey illustrations by Alex Milway that appear on every page reflect the fun and energy of the text.
If you study the map (I’m a sucker for maps) of Animal Boulevard you can find the exact location of the hotel as well as other delights such as Port Whisker, Tusks Cinema and the rival Glitz Hotel. There are even twenty snails to discover as well as a recipe for lettuce soup.
A delight from start to finish with another book in the series coming soon.
ISBN 978-1-84812-775-3
Published by Piccadilly Press


Friday, 3 May 2019

Song for a Dark Queen by Rosemary Sutcliff. Reviewed by Ann Turnbull.

"So we would ride through the neck of the forest, and down to the black skin boats waiting among the reeds. The Queen wrapped in an old wolfskin cloak against the chill of the water-mists, and no sound as we journeyed but the salty lap and suckle of the water among the sedges, and somewhere a bittern booming in the night..."

Rosemary Sutcliff was one of the most popular and admired authors of historical fiction for children in the 1950s and 60s. Surprisingly, I never came across her books as a child, and have since read only a few. Song for a Dark Queen (1978) is one of her later novels and benefits from the re-kindling of interest in Boudicca and in women's history generally. It tells the familiar story of the queen of the Iceni tribe in what we now call Norfolk, and the revolt she led against Roman rule. Rosemary Sutcliff envisages the Iceni as having a matriarchal royal line, so it is Boudicca, the queen, rather than Prasutagus, her husband, who is the ruler of her people.

The story is narrated mainly in the voice of Cadman, Boudicca's harper, a man who had known and attended upon her since she was a child, but who himself seems ageless and without personality. He is there simply to record her life and deeds, so that he can make a song of it for future generations.

The style is epic, well-suited to the story of a great queen. But in the latter part of the book a different voice appears from time to time: that of a young tribune whose chatty letters to his mother in Gaul are a welcome contrast. These not only give information about the Romans' tactics, but provide a down-to-earth voice to balance the heroic narrative of Cadman.

The Iceni were horse-breeders and farmers, and there is beautiful, detailed description throughout of the countryside, seasons and animals. The story has excellent pace and tension. It recreates the lives of the British tribes and their religion and makes sense of some of their seemingly barbaric practices. All this detail is woven into the story so that it illuminates rather than weighs down the feelings and actions of the characters.

This book should appeal to readers of 10+ who respond to its style and descriptive power.


Wednesday, 24 April 2019

‘Mo, Lottie and the Junkers’ by Jennifer Killick Reviewed by Sharon Tregenza

Mo Appleby's life changes dramatically when he and his mum move across the street to live with his new step family. When weird things begin happening, Mo realises they’re something to do with the odd woman who his moved into his old house. Why does she always keep the curtains drawn? What’s her association with the strange new people in town? And what’s the connection with the mysterious disappearance of his father?
     Mo and Lottie, his spirited new step-sister, join forces to solve these mysteries little knowing the danger they will soon find themselves in.

This is a joyful book. Funny, heart-warming and also at times genuinely scary. It’s populated with all manner of weird and the wonderful characters that keep the story bouncing along at a thrilling pace. It’s a great read – entertainment for sure, but with some thoughtful themes that give an extra bite. I will be reading more by Jennifer Killick. A quick shout out for Gareth Conway’s exuberant cover too.

I give this book: 

Paperback: 220 pages
  Publisher: Firefly Press (18 April 2019)
  ISBN-10: 1910080926
  ISBN-13: 978-1910080924