Thursday, 19 September 2019

The Stolen Spear by Saviour Pirotta, reviewed by Chitra Soundar

Set in the Stone Age, The Stolen Spear is the first book in the Wolfsong Series written by Saviour Pirotta and illustrated by Davide Ortu. This series is published by Maverick Publishing.

In this story, Wolf struggles to fit into his tough and strong community. He is kind and sensitive and ridiculed by his peers. Everyone including his older brother know their calling and their place in the society while Wolf stumbles through life with his spirit guardian and dog Shadow.

When Wolf befriends a girl from the faraway island, disaster strikes. Their sacred ground is raided and the spear is stolen. When his community blames his friend, Wolf vows to find the real culprit and bring back the spear.

The adventure that ensues not only shows Wolf’s grit and determination, but also how his kindness is returned by strangers. With the help of Shadow, he travels on the sea that many have never crossed and eventually he finds his calling.

This is my first historical read set in the Stone Age. The author has weaved in the details and places we know about this generation into the story, while also keeping the language fresh and contemporary. The story is engaging and exciting for young readers and the details of the world will make them curious to find out more.

Weaving this tale of adventure for young people, the author has managed to bring out important themes of being different, being an outsider, how some might exploit others and the value of friendships. The story shows the reader that some things are universal through time. We forge friendships, we get jealous, we are scared of the unknown and how we deal with these is how we define ourselves.

Young readers like Wolf will recognise these patterns of emotions in their real life and see the parallels. This is a great book not just to teach history in a fun way, but also to discuss contemporary issues with the readers.

I can’t wait to read this book to my nephew and I’m sure he’ll ask for Book 2 and 3 soon after.

Chitra Soundar is the author of over 40 books for children. Find out more at and follow her on Twitter at @csoundar


Sunday, 15 September 2019

Brain Fizzing Facts by Dr Emily Grossman (illustrated by Alice Bowsher), reviewed by Dawn Finch

 First the blurb...
Why is your elbow called your funny bone? How could you escape the grip of a crocodile's jaw? Which animal can breathe through its bottom? And how do these things all link together? This brilliant book by the science expert Dr Emily Grossman will have eyebrows raised and jaws dropping as it uncovers the amazing scientific explanations behind all sorts of questions that can pop into our heads. Can an egg bounce? How can a giraffe's ridiculously long neck contain the same number of bones as a human's? How much does the Internet weigh?

I was drawn to this book first by the brilliant illustrations by Alice Bowsher. The loud and bold illustrations on the cover drew my attention and, throughout the book, they punctuate and emphasise the superbly fascinating facts. I know that it is an oft-repeated phrase that “I couldn’t put it down”, but this is so true with Brain Fizzing Facts! I have bored my family and friends with endless “Did you know…?” moments.

I love Dr Emily Grossman’s work, and this book is completely addictive. Thirty VERY IMPORTANT science-related questions are asked (such as which planet stays dark for 21 years at a time, or what the centre of the milky way tastes like) and explained in detail via a whole bunch of other interesting stuff. These are not hastily dumped facts, these are all beautifully and memorably explained, and wrapped around those eye-catching illustrations.
Who wouldn't want to know this?!
This book should live on every teacher’s desk, and every school librarian’s so that you can randomly read bits out. It should be in every kitchen for random reading aloud moments, every car for breaking up boring journeys, and every bathroom for those..ermmm…. longer stays…. It’s the kind of book that’s worth carrying around in case of quiet moments, or if you know a kid who needs regular fascinating distractions.

I know it’s early to think about this, but drop this in every Christmas stocking and you’ll have a festive period peppered with someone launching conversations with, “did you know Mount Etna is slowly sliding downhill towards the sea?”
I did not know that, but I do now!

Brain Fizzzing Facts by Dr Emily Grossman, illustrated by Alice Bowsher is published by Bloomsbury Children's Books.

Reviewed by Dawn Finch, author and children’s librarian.


Wednesday, 11 September 2019

ISAAC CAMPION by Janni Howker. Reviewed by Ann Turnbull

 "Now then, I was twelve, rising thirteen, when our Daniel got killed..."

     This story, told in retrospect in the voice of a very old man remembering his youth, grabbed me from the start. Isaac is the youngest son of horse-dealer Sam Campion - a harsh, violent man whose life revolves around his feud with rival dealer Clem Lacy. Daniel is Campion's favoured eldest son. He's a confident lad who's afraid of nothing and can give as good as he gets. Isaac, by contrast, can do nothing right for his father.

     These are feelings that any child could relate to, and the storytelling has an intimacy that draws the reader in. "I'd have given my heart to my father," Isaac says. "I was no different to any other lad. I wanted his good opinion more than anything else in the world."

     When Daniel dies in an accident, Isaac's father blames the Laceys, using his grief to fuel his own hatred of his rival and plan revenge. Isaac is forced to leave school and take his brother's place. How he gains control of his destiny and finds a life and future of his own makes for a powerful story.

     Janni Howker's writing is always a joy to read. Here, for instance, is Isaac watching the horses:
      "...most of all I loved to see all those unbroken yearlings and mares my father brought back from Ireland, galloping together in a field, bunching together like a shoal of great fish. I loved them when they were like that - brown and black, roan and piebald, all different shades of colour, running together, with the big muscles in their shoulders and their tails flicked high... Oh, I'd the wrong idea of horses to be working in my father's stable yard. I wanted to see them galloping away over the hills. My father wanted them broken to his command at the end of a long rein."

     This short book is such a pleasure to read that I want to quote all of it! But I'll restrain myself and just urge you to get hold of a copy and see for yourself.


Saturday, 7 September 2019

Potter's Boy, by Tony Mitton, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

This book is very different; different from the assured funny rhyming texts and thoughtful poems we’re used to from Tony Mitton, and different in character from what is usual in current children’s novels. 

 Ryo is the Potter’s Boy, son of a village potter but enamoured of the brilliant fighting skills demonstrated by a stranger to that village who sees off a group of bandits. Waiting a year to be sure of what he wants, Ryo then sets out, first to meet a wise old hermit who begins teaching him the mental and physical skills he longs for. Ryo moves on to a training camp where he joins other young people. But tragedy puts an end to the dreams he had set his heart on. It’s a stay with a wise woman hermit that steers him back to his home and decides him to become the best potter he can, imbuing his work with the beauty and wisdom he had learned. But it isn’t the events of this story nearly as much as how it is lived that matters.

This is a quiet, slow-paced book, its story very much ‘told’, often in the almost formal voice of a traditional storyteller. It is a story that gives one much to think about, particularly so for young people steering a course into adulthood. It is set in an unspecified time and place, but a place of mountains and rice and plums and wheat tea, where a powerful emperor makes his power apparent. Very different from the physical place and busy society where our young people are growing up now, but the meditative thoughts and guidance as to how to make choices, how to control oneself, how to be at ease within the world, are highly pertinent.

This is going to be a very special read for particular children. I urge school librarians to read it, and then pair it with the children who want something gentler and deeper than the slam-bang action of so many YA books. For thoughtful people of perhaps nine upwards.


Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Star In Your Own Story - from Little Tiger Press - Reviewed by Damian Harvey

Little Tiger Press have just published four books under the 'Star In Your Own Story' banner. Two aimed at children from 1 - 3 and two aimed slightly higher at 3 - 6 year olds.

'The Ballerina' and 'The Firefighter', both written and illustrated by Danielle McLean and Sebastian Braun respectively, are aimed at 1 - 3 year old. These are solid, sturdy board books with rounded corners to prevent any injury for very young children that like to really sink their teeth into a book. A cardboard insert in the cover can be removed so that the child's name can be added - thus personalising them. Each of these titles contain a single line of text and build nicely to the final conclusion/punchline. 

I like that 'The Firefighter' is gender neutral so can appeal to boys and girls - rather than calling it The Fireman. Unfortunately this isn't the case with 'The Ballerina' which has a couple of 'her' references in the text. 

The titles aimed at the slightly older age range of 3 - 6 year olds work very well and provide more for the reader. 'Drives and Digger' - written by Danielle McLean and illustrated by Kathryn Selbert, and 'Saves the Day' - written by Georgiana Deutsch and illustrated by Vicki Gausden are nice sized hardbacked picture books.

Rather than simply writing your name on a cardboard insert, these two titles come with a sheet of brightly coloured stick on letters. In 'Drives a Digger' the crocodile hero of the story likes nothing better than digging holes with the big yellow digger. When  something is discovered buried under the ground, the digger gets broken. Our hero has uncovered a huge treasure chest - perhaps there's something inside that can help. 

The fourth book, 'Saves the Day' features a plucky squirrel superhero 'looking for an adventure'. Wolf comes running along calling for help as there's something making a terrible noise in the forest - and 'it might be a monster.' Delighted at the chance of having adventure, our hero heads off towards the forest, meeting other worried and frightened animals along the way. The search for a monster in the forest soon turns into a rescue mission and needless to say, the hero saves the day. 'Saves the Day' is nicely illustrated and story reads well - young children will love having the character named after them.  

 Thanks to Little Tiger Press for sending me these books to review...


Saturday, 31 August 2019

THE LOST TREASURE OF AQUAE SULLIS by Lynne Benton. Reviewed by Penny Dolan

Earlier this month, I visited the Roman Baths in the city of Bath: a most interesting site which was crowded with frequently screen-fixated viewers, and would have been better seen at night, according to the experts, if only our time had allowed.

As I mingled around in the gloom, I wondered quite what a modern KS2 child would get out of the experience. What would help them to see or to remember this place?

I have always believed that both a little knowledge and a light touch of imagination are needed to light up such places in the mind, whether before, during and/or after a visit. 

One way into such historical imagining is through fiction.

The Lost Treasure of Aquae Sulis (The Britannia Mysteries Book 3)
Lynne Benton, a writer friend, who lives close to the Bath, has written just the sort of adventure that would help young readers to “see” the site as it was in Roman times. 

Moreover, curriculum-wise, the book slips neatly into the “Romans in Britain” study category.

Lynne’s children’s novel, THE LOST TREASURE OF AQUAE SULLIS, is just the kind of pacey story that will entice a junior reader. Though the historical details are there in the setting, the history never overwhelms the plot or the main characters. 

In addition, Lynne’s ex-teacher awareness of language makes the pages highly readable. (She is also an author of several early reader books for KS1 children so knows how to make her words work within a text.)

The two young heroes are Felix, son of a murdered Roman officer, and Catrin, a once enslaved Celt with second sight. Having survived peril and trouble in earlier books, this contrasting pair are now the loved and adopted children of a Roman General and his wife.

Now, in THE LOST TREASURE OF AQUAE SULLIS, Felix and Catrin accompany their mother to the great city. She intends to visit old friends in their villa but also wants to go to the temple. There she will beg for a cure for her baby son - the children's sibling -  by making offerings as the Healing Waters shiver with the Great Goddess’s presence.

Of course, life within the busy city is anything but peaceful or simple. Mysteries flourish: a precious vase is stolen from a locked room, terrible accusations are made, trusted slaves and servants disappear and dissemble and even the sacred baths prove perilous – but, by the end, the children have solve the mystery and saved most of those in danger.

THE LOST TREASURE OF AQUAE SULLIS is a nicely dramatic story with brave and “identifiable” heroes, introducing young readers glimpses of Roman life while providing excitement and entertainment on the way.

This novel is the third of Lynne’s “Britannia Mysteries” trilogy; The first THE CENTURION’S SON is set in Caerleon, South Wales, while the second novel DANGER AT HADRIANS WALL. follows the Legion to the north. Both of these should still be available from Coppertree Press.

Penny Dolan


Monday, 26 August 2019

In That Time of Secrets by Ann Turnbull reviewed by Adèle Geras

My usual disclaimer: I've been a friend of Ann Turnbull's for decades and we've also both written books for the  Historical House series, from Usborne books, together with Linda Newbery. So I couldn't be more partial but as I often say: I can't help it if lots of my friends are good writers. No one chides Nigella for being friends with Diana Henry, or worries if artists praise one another. So I'm going ahead and recommending this book.

Turnbull is a most rare sort of writer in these fast, internetty times. If I had to choose two words to describe her, they would be 'quiet' and 'elegant.'  She is the opposite of flashy and sensational, and yet the subjects she often writes about are laden with emotion and conflict and turmoil which she manages to make both moving and resonant, through the deliberately careful and rational unfolding of the narrative. We are, in this book, in a beautiful house in the Midlands, called Lyde Hall. Mary works as a seamstress and embroiderer in the great house, which we learn from the first scene is the home of a recusant family. Recusants were the Catholics who did not agree to worship in Protestant churches after the Reformation. They hid priests in corners of their houses; they kept the old Faith, and this was a very dangerous thing to do. Anyone caught sheltering priests, or worshipping in the old ways was subject often to terrible tortures and even death. 

For anyone who doesn't know about the Gunpowder Plot, the surprises in the narrative will be genuinely surprising and the skilful way in which Turnbull weaves the known history with a very touching love story is one of the joys of this book. If, like me, you can see  trouble coming from the first page, you will not be amazed at the way things turn out.

Mary falls in love with a young man called David, who is Lady Chilton's secretary. It's only later that she learns David is on his way to France to train as a Jesuit priest. Her love for him is doomed, but she persists in hoping...
Her brother, Rob, is caught in the backwash of the Gunpowder Plot. Turnbull is not one to dwell on the horrors of hanging, drawing and quartering but there's one paragraph where she spells out the details. Rather, she's the sort of writer who says a lot through understatement. For instance: He flinched when she touched him, either from pain or the fear of it.  There's a world of horror behind those words.

 The best thing about this book is the way Lyde Hall is brought to life. We meet its inhabitants, we are shown how life is lived there without an overloading of description. Turnbull is economical and spare and yet we see everything. I particularly liked the embroidery details which are again, very few but very telling.  I don't often quote long passages from books I'm reviewing, but as an example of Turnbull's restrained and yet resonant style, I'm quoting this, so that readers can glimpse something of the tone of this fascinating and moving novel. Mary is remembering the church she attends at home, in Dudley.  "There, between the base of the wall and an oak upright, where the whitewash petered out in rough brush strokes, you could see a woman's shoe, and over it the folds of a robe- green with a black and gold border, looped up over a kirtle of faded rose. The end of a gold belt or tassel hung down, and higher up was the trace of a hand. A saint, my mother said. But which one?"
Which one turns out to be very important, of course. No word or description is there merely for the sake of ornament. Do click on this link and buy it. You will not regret it, I promise.