Posted in children's fiction, contemporary, review

928 Miles From Home – Kim Slater

“Daydreaming is cool because you don’t have to work out a fool proof plan of how you’re going to do stuff or wrestle with the problems that might come up. You can just flash-forward to the good bits.”

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Blurb: “Fourteen year old Calum Brooks has big dreams. One day, he’ll escape this boring life and write movies, proper ones, with massive budgets and A-list stars. For now though, he’s stuck coping alone while his dad works away, writing scripts in his head and trying to stay ‘in’ with his gang of mates at school, who don’t like new kids, especially foreign ones. But when his father invites his new Polish girlfriend and her son, Sergei, to move in, Calum’s life is turned upside down. He’s actually sharing a room with ‘the enemy’! How’s he going to explain that to his mates?”

Calum Brooks loves writing screenplays but he never puts them down on paper. He lives on a tiny estate in Nottingham where nothing interesting every happens so thinks his dreams of becoming a screenwriter for those big blockbuster movies are a waste of time. At school, he’s fallen in with the wrong crowd and while he doesn’t actively take part in the bullying, he still stands back and watches. The common recipient of the taunts from his friends is a polish boy called Sergi. But when Sergi and his mother move into Calum’s home, things are about to take a turn.

Calum is a character I think anyone can relate to at some point in their lives. We’ve all been brought up knowing what is right and wrong, that bullying is unacceptable and what to do if we see if happening. In theory, that seems obvious and easy to do. But in reality, it can be a lot harder to find your voice. Calums friends are the school bullies and, while he claims he doesn’t actively bully anyone, he stands back and watches while the group dish out unwanted attention to unsuspecting students. While he acknowledges that he knows this behaviour isn’t right, he’s afraid of speaking up in case that attention falls on him.

Kim Slater has always made an effort to slip important topics into the narratives of her stories: her previous book A Seven Letter Word features the protagonist’s friend being the victim of islamophobia. 928 Miles From Home takes into account our current political climate which at first I thought might be too heavy for a children’s book but quickly realised it makes perfect sense to include. The popular victim of choice is a boy called Sergi who is polish. He receives all manner of stereotypical hate that can be expected and with experiencing this and listening to stories from his own father, believes that people like Sergi are here sponging off society. It can get very intense to read at times but that’s the point of it: it needs to make an impact.

A character I didn’t expect to see play as much of a role as she did is Amelia who lives on a narrowboat. She and her family move around a lot on her boat and settle in places for a period of time before they are moved on. As Calum starts to build an unwilling friendship with her, his racial biases start to merge when he makes comments about Sergi that are interchangeable with her life and doesn’t understand why she takes some of them to heart as she’s “different to Sergi.”

It is the range of the characters that really are what make this story so amazing to read, mainly because a lot of them exist today and I can even identify some of them in my own life. It highlights the importance of educating yourself, not taking things at face value, and that not saying anything can be just as harmful as being the one doing it.

The narrative flits between prose and short screenplays with the latter being used to showcase hypothetical situations or events in the way Calum believe they took place. This shows hi creativity and adds the undertone of him not believing he’s good enough.

There are so many different elements to this story in addition to the ones I’ve focused on and it just leaves me in awe with every book Kim slater writes.

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Posted in children's fiction, fairytale retelling, fantasy, review

The Land Of Stories: Worlds Collide – Chris Colfer

“Think about how wonderful this world could be if we all saw it through the eyes of a child.”

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Blurb: “ All of the Land of Stories fairy tale characters–heroes and villains–are no longer confined within their world! With mayhem brewing in the Big Apple, Conner and Alex will have to win their biggest battle yet. Can the twins restore order between the human and fairy tale world?”

In the sixth and final instalment of The Land Of Stories series, Alex is missing and it’s down to Connor and his band of fairy-tale friends to find her. Meanwhile, evil is brewing as the literary army and a group of witches, among many other evil villains, descend on the real world.

The Land of Stories was a series that initially took me by surprise. Like many when it comes to “celebrity” books, I didn’t expect it to be any good and Colfer was quick to prove me wrong. This universe that has been created is so cleverly woven together in a way that makes it impossible to find any glaring cracks. Each book has slowly added more players to the game, building up to Worlds Collide where… well… worlds do exactly that. I will admit that I’ve found the series to shaky overall. For me it really peaked at The Grimm Warning which left me quite worried when it was announced that the sixth book would be the finale. Thankfully, Colfer finds a brilliant way to bring everything together, tie loose ends and make it a very satisfying finish overall.

I felt like this was the perfect time to change the game and combine the fictional and real worlds together, giving the good guys some advantage over the impending threat. I loved the insight into the government trying to cover up the magic that was taking over the city (and frankly doing a terribly job of keeping it quite). It’s another book that sees Alex and Connor going down separate paths and focused a lot more on Connor than was expected. But this worked really well. It was nice to spend that time with Connor as an individual, rather than the duo with his sister, and watch him grow as a character and stand up as a leader. The fairy-tale characters such as Red continue to prove those hilarious scenes that remind you just why this series works so well.

The only big issue I have is that with building up the world so much prior to this book, it means there are a lot of characters. All of the characters that played significant roles in the previous books are present in the same city in this one which makes it rather overwhelming at times. It could be argued that this works in showcasing the scale of the problem that Connor faces, but at times it was very hard to tell who was who and at times even remember who was on which side.

Overall, not entirely perfect but an incredibly satisfying end to a series if you really do love it.

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Posted in children's fiction, review

There’s A Monster In Your Book – Tom Fletcher

“Oh no! There’s a monster in your book! Let’s try to get him out.”

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Blurb: “Bestselling author of The Christmasuarus, Tom Fletcher, has written a brand new picture book perfect for bedtime, where a mischievous monster has invaded the pages of your child’s book!”

There’s A Monster In Your Book was the first project that Tom Fletcher decided to work on. Unfortunately this was pushed to the side when an idea for a series of picture books about a pooping dinosaur blossomed and then a Christmas dinosaur got its own full-length novel. Now Fletcher makes his return to picture books with this latest release.

This book is self-explanatory: there’s a monster trapped in the book and the aim is to help set it free. To achieve this, the reader I encouraged to spin, tilt, shake and even shout at the book. It really is something that anyone can enjoy.

Tom Fletcher continues to add creativity and excitement to his books and There’s A Monster In Your Book is another fantastic addition to his written works.

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Posted in children's fiction, fantasy, review

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Hufflepuff Edition) – J.K.Rowling

“He’ll be famous – a legend – I wouldn’t be surprised if today was known as Harry Potter day in the future – there will be books written about Harry – every child in our world will know his name!”

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Blurb: “Harry Potter’s life is miserable. His parents are dead and he’s stuck with his heartless relatives, who force him to live in a tiny closet under the stairs. But his fortune changes when he receives a letter that tells him the truth about himself: he’s a wizard. A mysterious visitor rescues him from his relatives and takes him to his new home, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.”

As part of the Potter generation, it only seems fitting that I re-read at least one book from the series every year and as this year marks the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, it only felt more prevalent. There are not enough words to fully convey what this this world and its characters mean to me but I’m sure any potterhead out there will be able to relate.

I try to avoid buying different copies of the same book unless it’s a rare occasion and this was certainly one of them: as part of the celebrations, brand new editions were rolled out, both in hardback or paperback, styled specifically for each of the four Hogwarts houses. Being an unapologetic Hufflepuff, it’s obvious which one I went for. Unlike other anniversary editions I’ve purchased, this one was definitely worth the money. There’s addition material from Rowling talking about the history of the Hufflepuff house, information that the common room along with the house ghost, head of house and noteable Hufflepuff characters from the universe.

To those unaware, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is the first book in a seven-part series following an orphan boy called Harry who learns that he is wizard. He is taken away from his evil aunt and uncle to a magic school called Hogwarts where he quickly learns that he is famous.

The wonderful thing about this series is that, no matter how many times I read it, I always come back to it and discover something new or I’m reminded of things I’ve forgotten. I fall head-over-heels in love with this book every time I read it. While not my favourite out of the whole series, it’s impossible to deny the creativity and craft that went into this book and it paved the way for a growth of characters and a worldwide phenomenon.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a truly magical story that continues to teach the importance of making your own choices and the value of friendship. A lesson everyone can benefit from.

I may need to launch into an entire series re-read now.

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Posted in children's fiction, review

Demon Dentist – David Walliams

“That fateful afternoon the boy vowed he would never ever go to the dentist’s again.”

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Blurb: “Darkness had come to the town. Strange things were happening in the dead of night. Children would put a tooth under their pillow for the tooth fairy, but in the morning they would wake up to find… a dead slug; a live spider, hundreds of earwigs creeping and crawling beneath their pillow. Evil was at work. But who or what was behind it?”

I’ve been slowly making my way through all of David Walliams’ books and Demon Dentist marks the third stop on this adventure.

The story follows a boy called Alex who has avoided going to the dentist even since he suffered an unfortunate incident there. As a result his teeth are brown and rotten. It can be no coincidence that children wake up to gifts of dead frogs, eyeballs and creepy crawlies from the tooth fairy just as the new dentist, Miss Root, moves to the town.  The strange occurrences encourage Alex and his new (friend that’s a girl, not girlfriend!) Gabz to investigate what’s exactly going on.

When I was a child I was terrified of the dentist and to be honest, not much has changed and the darker – while still comical – tone of this book really does re-affirm why my fear of the dentist is quite legitimate… okay maybe I should book a dentist appointment. In addition to the regular Walliams humour you can find in his books, Demon Dentist features “made up words” which just adds to a more hysterical reading experience. It’s a small thing but packs a big punch.

Miss Root is a truly suspicious character that had me on edge throughout the story; you never really can work out what her deal is. Alex faces a lot of hardships (outside of his rotting teeth) because his dad is in a wheelchair, making Alex his sole carer. I thought this was a wonderful addition to the story as there are real-life cases where children are put in situations where they have to look after family members. It centred the story more in the real world and provided some representation to those children who may pick up this book.

What I’ve discovered with Walliams’ books is that the minor characters are always the one that make the biggest impact. In Demon Dentist that role is taken on by Winnie; a social worker sent to look after Alex’s dad. There’s one scene where she chases Alex through the school on her moped to try and make him go to the dentist. I laughed so hard my stomach hurt!

Demon Dentist is the best of Walliams’ works so far and if you’re looking for somewhere to start, this is the best one to dip your toe in the water.

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Posted in children's fiction, contemporary, review

Awful Auntie – David Walliams

“Aunt Alberta is the most awful aunt who ever lived. Would you like to meet her?”

 

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Blurb: “From larger than life, tiddlywinks obsessed Awful Aunt Alberta to her pet owl, Wagner – this is an adventure with a difference. Aunt Alberta is on a mission to cheat the young Lady Stella Saxby out of her inheritance – Saxby Hall. But with mischievous and irrepressible Soot, the cockney ghost of a chimney sweep, alongside her Stella is determined to fight back… And sometimes a special friend, however different, is all you need to win through.”

The story follows Lady Stella Saxby who wakes up from a coma to find that her wealthy parents are dead and she is left in the care of her horrid Aunt Alberta and an owl called Wagner. As Stella starts to adjust to a world without her parents, she soon learns that maybe everything isn’t how it first seemed and soon plots an escape with the help of her ghost friend Soot.

All I can say is that I finally understand why David Walliams is constantly topping the charts and making himself comfortable there. Awful Auntie is an injection of fun and downright goodness. It reminded me a lot of Roald Dahl’s The Twits and was a fantastic mix of humour and mystery.

The characters are well-fleshed out and the forgetful butler, Gibbon, had me rolling in my seat at times. I just loved how he wandered around completely unaware of the situation going on around him.

If you’re looking to get into David Walliams’ work and unsure of where to start with his incredible catalogue, Awful Auntie is a sure winner.

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Posted in children's fiction, contemporary, review

See You In The Cosmos – Jack Cheng

“My name is Alex Petroski and my house is in Rockview, Colorado, United States of America, Planet Earth. I am eleven years and eight months old and the United States is two hundred forty-two years old and Earth is 4.5 billion years old. I’m not sure how old my house is.”

 

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Blurb: “11-year-old Alex Petroski loves space and rockets, his mom, his brother, and his dog Carl Sagan—named for his hero, the real-life astronomer. All he wants is to launch his golden iPod into space the way Carl Sagan (the man, not the dog) launched his Golden Record on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977. From Colorado to New Mexico, Las Vegas to L.A., Alex records a journey on his iPod to show other lifeforms what life on earth, his earth, is like. But his destination keeps changing. And the funny, lost, remarkable people he meets along the way can only partially prepare him for the secrets he’ll uncover—from the truth about his long-dead dad to the fact that, for a kid with a troubled mom and a mostly not-around brother, he has way more family than he ever knew.”

*This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review*

See You In The Cosmos follows Alex Petroski who is making recordings on his ipod which he plans to send into space via SHARF (Southwest High-Altitude Rocket Festival). He shares stories from his life along with “in the moment” narratives, accompanied by his dog Carl Sagan, named after “one of the greatest astronomers of our time.”

The narrative is told as if the reader is the one listening to the recordings – with each chapter indicated by “new recording” and the time length of the recording – and that is an aspect that really works to this novel’s advantage. From the outset it instantly feels like you’re connected to Alex as he shares stories from his life and the build up to this festival where he plans to end his collection of recordings. It feels, in a way, as if you’ve stumbled upon someone’s secrets and you’d been entrusted with them and that’s a feeling I haven’t experienced in fiction for a very long time.

It was nice to see the online community for space lovers transfer into the reality when Alex arrives at the festival and notes which people he recognises online because it’s always been wonderful when that’s happened in my personal life and just shows how much you can build up relationships online with people who share the same interests.

Given how much the importance of the rocket festival was stressed, it threw me off when that event took place a quarter of the way into the story. The main bulk is more of a road trip where Alex starts to have new, exciting experiences, make new friends and find ways to glue together the pieces of his broken family.

Fundamentally See You In The Cosmos is an example of just how quickly life can change but that doesn’t mean you should be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone because you never know what you might find… and it’s pretty cool to have a dog companion join you for the ride.

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Posted in children's fiction, review

The Midnight Gang – David Walliams

“Midnight is the time when all the children are fast asleep, expect of course for… the Midnight Gang! That is the time when their adventures are just beginning.”

 

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Blurb: “When Tom gets hit on the head by a cricket ball, he finds himself at Lord Funt Hospital, and is greeted by a terrifying-looking porter. Things go from bad to worse when he meets the wicked matron in charge of the children’s ward… But Tom is about to embark on the most thrilling journey of a lifetime!”

David Walliams’ success when it comes to writing children’s books only seems to be getting bigger and bigger. I’ve lost count of how many times he’s topped the charts and made himself quite comfortable there, and during my brief period working at a book store, I saw first-hand just how well loved he is by the intended audience for his books. I had many children tell me that he’s their favourite and they love his books, along with many parents telling me he’s gotten their recent children into reading. On top of that, he’s often referred to as the “new Roald Dahl.” Though I hate these kinds of comparisons being used, it’s very easy once delving into his writing to see why those comparisons have been made.

The Midnight Gang follows a boy called Tom who is admitted to the Lord Funt hospital with a nasty lump on his head. He is placed on the children’s ward – looked after by a horrible child-hating matron- where he meets Robin who is recovering from an eye operation, Amber who has broken both arms and legs, George who’s had his tonsils taken out and Sally who is so ill she’s lost her hair and sleeps a lot. When night falls and midnight rolls around,  Tom catches the children leaving the ward and follows them which leads him to discover The Midnight Gang which was created by the first child who ever stayed at the hospital and has been passed down through every child patient. The aim of The Midnight Gang is simple: make every child’s dream come true.

At its core, The Midnight Gang is a fun, heart-warming tale of friendship and the power of simple good deeds. The humour accompanied by Tony Ross’ illustrations created hilarious scenes and witty moments for those readers who are a bit older.

By far my favourite character is the Porter who, at first glance, appears to be an adversary to the children and quite scary with his unconventional looks but once the pages start being peeled away the reader will be able to see just how much this character cares for the patients of the hospital. The porter is a fantastic testament to why you should do your best to never judge someone by how they look because you may be missing out on someone pretty great.

The Midnight Gang is a wonderful story that, despite being 478 pages long, feels as if it’s over far too soon.

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Posted in children's fiction, review

Furthermore – Tahereh Mafi

“Colour was life. Colour was everything. Colour, you see, was the universal sign of magic.”

 

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Blurb: “In a world brimming with colour and magic, Alice’s pale skin and milk-white hair mark her as an outcast. For the people of Ferenwood, colour and magic are one and the same. Alice is determined to prove her magical abilities and solve the mystery of her father’s disappearance. To do so she’ll have to travel into the mythical, dangerous land of Furthermore. But nothing there is as it seems, and Alice may never find her way home.”

Ferenwood is a place which is alive with colour. It’s a land rich in the natural resources of colour and magic. Every citizen was born with some kind of magical talent, given to them by the land. If they want any more magic then they have to buy it. Alice is a girl completely without colour except for her eyes; a fact which makes her stick out like a sore thumb. Every year the Surrender comes around which gives children of the age of twelve the opportunity to present their magical talent in exchange for a task to prove themselves. This year is Alice’s turn and she’s hoping it will give her the chance to find her missing father. Her adventures take her to the land of Furthermore which has countless rules where breaking them means death. Thankfully, Alice doesn’t have to face this alone as she finds a companion in the form of Oliver a boy with the power of persuasion.

This book has a very whimsical feel to it and that comes across in the writing style. However, at time I found it hard to picture and understand things and even had to re-start the book a few times to make sure I could fully understand the world. As the story gets more and more into the plot it’s a lot easier to follow. The chapters are quite short and then become longer once Alice reaches Furthermore which I felt reflected how Alice was engaging more with the world around her and gains more of a purpose.

Alive is a character very set in her ways and quite stubborn at times, especially when in Furthermore. I don’t think she could’ve done this adventure without Oliver (who I found annoying at times but he did have all the answers).  Though I loved the character of Alice, the one scene that really stood out to me is when she dances. It was written in such a vivid, beautiful way that it was like watching her perform before my eyes.

The ending is much like being brought to a halt. It’s abrupt and while answers a lot of questions, doesn’t give that feeling of closure because it is so unexpected for the story to just end.

The moral of this story is important. It showcases the fact that you should take what you consider to be a weakness and turn it into a strength.

A wonderful little adventure story that will satisfy the magic-minded.

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Posted in children's fiction, review

The Christmasaurus -Tom Fletcher

“This story starts like all good stories do, a long time ago. Not just a long time ago, but a very, very, very long time ago.”

 

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Blurb: “Forget everything you thought you knew about the North Pole, pop a crumpet in the toaster and get ready to meet: a boy called William Trundle, Santa Claus, an elf named Snozzletrump, Brenda Payne; the meanest girl in school (possibly the world), a nasty piece of work called Hunter and a most unusual dinosaur…”

The Christmasaurus is the first full length children’s novel from Tom Fletcher, known for his best-selling picture book series The dinosaur pooped…

It’s now a new year and if you’re missing Christmas then this book is the perfect read to keep the festivities alive for just a little while longer.

The story follows a boy called William Trundle who loves Christmas but nowhere near as much as his dad who has a decorated Christmas tree in his cupboard and wears Christmas jumpers all year round. William also loves dinosaurs and wants a real one for Christmas and it just so happens that the elves at the North Pole have dug up a dinosaur egg.

It’s rare that I find a book where I can’t uncover any faults but The Christmasaurus is one of those books.  William Trundle is in a wheelchair which is so important to have represented, especially in a book aimed for children, as it shows that anyone can have an adventure. The Christmasaurus struggles to cope with the fact he is the only dinosaur left and through a series of magical events, he ends up in William’s house on Christmas Eve.

This book is definitely written in a way where it’s meant to be read aloud (there are some words in bold, big font or italics for emphasis).  There are lots of rhymes too as that’s the way the elves speak which provides opportunities for Tom to showcase his song writing abilities. This book also features the most beautiful illustrations I have ever seen. Shane Devries does a fantastic job of bringing the story to life with an extra bit of magic. I somehow felt closer to the characters by seeing the scenes depicted in drawings alongside the story.

The Christmas song from the announcement video for this book also makes a relevant appearance in the book along with sneaky references to one of Tom’s previous books.

The Christmasaurus is a testament to the fact that you can enjoy any books at any age.

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