Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Keep Going by Austin Kleon - reviewed by Emma Perry

'Keep going' a phrase uttered a more than a few times during the ups and downs of a writer's journey. Key phrases from my WONDERFUL writing buddies include 'you've got this' and 'hold your nerve' - because we all need that sort of support from time to time.

Keep Going from Austin Kleon is like a hug from your best-est writing buddies wrapped up in book form.

Austin Kleon's little gem is packed full of nuggets of wisdom which inspire creativity. It delves into the reasons you create in the first place. What drives you? What keeps you going? Going back to the source of the reason to create is brilliant - it helps you to really get back in touch with that driving passion.

Most of us create because that is what fires us, it sparks joy. But. Sometimes that spark is a little dim, the fire needs a bit more stoking to get it going again. And that's exactly what Kleon's book achieves.

Kleon draws on wisdom from several varied sources, presenting snippets of great quote alongside his own thoughts and feelings.

"Disconnect from the world to connect with yourself."
 Kleon brilliantly addresses social media in this book - it's impact on mental health and the benefits of handling it wisely. He also encourages readers to re-connect with the reasons for being creative in the first place. He reminds his readers to enjoy the journey, enjoy the process - "When you ignore quantitative measurements for a bit, you can get back to qualitative measurements."

"No artist can work simply for results: he must also like the work of getting them." - Robert Farrar Capon
Wishing you all have wonderfully creative week xx

Emma Perry is a children's author, Primary School teacher & founder of MyBookCorner.
Twitter: @_EmmaPerry 
Instagram: @EmmaPerry


Monday, 10 June 2019

Malamander, by Thomas Taylor

(Very sorry - this is late!)

Malamander is positively drenched in the atmosphere of a seaside town in winter. Storms blow in, sea mist drifts through the streets, and in Cheerie-on Sea, the first two letters fall off the town sign. In the Grand Nautilus Hotel, Herbert Lemon is busy – ish – in his job as Lost-and-Founder, with responsibility for sorting and storing lost stuff. Then, one day, a girl scrambles through his window. She’s in a panic, because she’s being chased by a sinister figure, a man in a long sailor’s coat that’s drenched in sea water, with a large iron boathook where one of his hands should be.

And so it begins. The girl is called Violet Parma and she’s searching for her parents, whom she and everyone else lost when she was only a baby. The place she lost them was this very hotel, and now she wants Herbie to help her find them – after all, he’s a Lost-and-Founder, isn’t he? She won’t take no for an answer, and soon Herbie is caught up in her adventure, and the story of the mysterious malamander and its search for its lost egg. And Boathook Man? Well, you’ll have to read the book to find out where he fits in.

This is a lovely rich fantasy, permeated with the atmosphere of the seaside in winter. There’s a terrific cast of characters, many of them with names that continue the theme – the hotel staff are Mr Mollusk, Lady Kraken and Amber Gris. Then there’s Jenny Hanniver, who keeps the Eerie Book Dispensary, and Mrs Fossil with her Flotsamporium. It’s a tale full of mystery, danger and treachery, but though you’ll catch your breath sometimes, you always know that Herbie and Violet, brave, loyal and funny, will eventually triumph.


Monday, 3 June 2019

THE MAGIC HOUR by Ian Beck. Reviewed by Adèle Geras

A couple of years ago, I contributed a version of the Pied Piper story to the OUP series called Greatest Stories, part of their Tree Tops Reading Scheme. My editor, Maxine Howells, asked me by email who I would choose to illustrate it. I answered without hesitation: "Ian Beck, but he'll probably be far too busy. He's in demand."
Reader, he agreed. And I was thrilled to bits and my Pied Piper is gorgeous. Before that, Ian illustrated a version I wrote for David Fickling Books of The Six Swan Brothers.  So, as so often with my reviews, I know the person whose work I'm commending to you and admire him enormously. I am, however,  not in the least embarrassed  to be highlighting another book by him.  This one, whose cover is below, I was particularly interested in, because it's a sort of wonderful artistic footnote to one of my favourite paintings. Which also, I read, turns out to be a picture which obsessed the young Ian when he was, in his words, "a callow art student."

Below is  the picture Ian and I both love: it's by John Singer Sargent and it's called Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose and it lives in Tate Britain. If you can get to see it, you should. You won't be disappointed. Ian tells us in his book that the Magic Hour of his title is  dusk, when the light is just right. 

The story is  a simple one of two sisters, Lily and Rose. Rose is younger and does everything slightly behind  her sister, following her everywhere. A sort of refrain is set up: First Lily, then Rose...

But it's the younger Rose who sees the light in the next door garden, at dusk.  She thinks that fairies might be in the garden. The girls go exploring and find their neighbours,  John Singer Sargent and his wife, though they're only referred to as The Man and the Woman.  And of course they don't find fairies but they do hear a nightingale singing and the lanterns that they mistook for fairy lights. 

The story is less important here than the glorious illustrations, spilling over double pages for the most part, as in the picture below, where Lily and Rose are depicted with long hair.  This is cut later on, but I am sure that the decision to show long hair in the first few spreads and on the cover is because Ian Beck wanted to paint the flowing tresses. He may correct me if I've got this wrong.

Every spread is suffused with colour and the blues and greens sing off the page. You could spend hours looking at the wild flowers, at the sky, at how the words are arranged on the page and trying to work out  how painting the dusk works. You do exactly this in front of Sargent's original painting. How did he make those lanterns glow like that? It's miraculous! The book has been very well produced by Tate Publishing, who know how to make books that come out under their name as perfect as possible. The typography, the quality of the paper, the colour reproduction: they're all beautiful. And I am always thrilled to bits when a book has endpapers. Here they are below and they're splendid. I'm glad the fashion for them has spread to much modern hard-backed fiction.  Do try and see this book in real life. It's wonderful in every way. And best of all, it will lead you to look again at the work of John Singer Sargent. 

PS. I checked with Ian before putting this up, and yes, he did have the long hair at first because he wanted to paint it.
PPS. The book was designed by Ian's son, Laurence Beck, who was too modest to have his name appear. Well, I reckon designers are the unsung heroes of the book world and I try to credit them wherever I can. Laurence Beck....huge applause to you! 


Tuesday, 28 May 2019

THE EXACT OPPOSITE OF OKAY by Laura Steven. Review by Penny Dolan

Young Adult Contemporary Books"You probably bought this book because you read the blurb about how I'm an impoverished orphan and also at the heart of a national slut-shaming scandal and you thought "Oh great, this is just the kind of heart wrenching tale I need to feel better about my life" but, seriously, you have to relax.

 I am not some pitiful Oliver Twist meets Kim Kardashian type figure If you're seeking a nice cathartic cry, I'm not your girl."

I went into my local independent bookshops, Imagined Things, after a title for a mid-teen reader that was neither dystopian, historic, fantasy-led nor -  just as importantly - too depressive and was offered this YA title: THE EXACT OPPOSITE OF OKAY by Laura Steven.

The smart, confident voice of the main character, Izzy, invites you into this novel. Izzy is an almost-eighteen would-be comedy writer with plenty of attitude and a spirited take on life. 

She has lived with Betty, her hard-working, strong-minded grandmother since Izzy's parents were killed in a car accident when she was young and I really enjoyed the bond between them all the way through to the end. 

We meet Izzy and her best friends, Danny and Ajita, who have supported each other all through high-school life. This year - with freedom ahead and choices to be made - is unsettling them. Moreover, Izzy knows she doesn't have funds for a college education. Yet, when Izzy's eccentric drama teacher encourages her to enter an important script-writing competition, all seems to be going well.

That is until, after a reckless, drunken party, someone starts sharing compromising photos of Izzy online around everyone at school. At first, Izzy can do nothing but act confidently, ignore the slut-shaming from other girls and ignore the remarks of various leery boys until things quieten down and the next small scandal comes along.

Unfortunately, someone sets up an "Izzy" site. Gradually a wider group of adults gets involved, and attitudes and consequences darken. Not only has Izzy's body and story become "public property", but she realises that someone she knows well is clearly promoting the harmful images as well as pushing the online comments to stir things up. 

Who is it that hates her so much? And who can she trust? Or know will stand beside her as consequences pile up? With life unraveling around her, Izzy needs all her spirit to get through the notoriety. Her new fame is certainly no fairy tale and the adults around her cannot or, worse, do not all choose to help her when reputations are at stake.

I thought THE EXACT OPPOSITE OF OKAY is a very powerful portrayal of what happens when someone - almost innocently - is caught by the consequences of internet publicity.  The reader is always on the side of Izzy and, when troubles arise, one feels for her. The novel does not blame her, siding with Izzy's own thoughts that her actions were rather silly, unwise but basically harmless. 

However, there is no mistaking the cost that Izzy's unwilling "fame" takes of her initially happy-go-lucky nature, nor the way that mistrust eats into her friendliness and her belief in the world around her.  Eventually, Izzy gets through it all, but not lightly or easily, especially when her real enemy is revealed.

Moreover, the novel did not read, to me, as a pious morality tale but as quiet support for those girls who end up on the wrong side of gossip and righteousness.
Penny Dolan


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.