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, 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, fantasy, review

Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix – J.K.Rowling

 

“He felt as though his heart was going to explode with pleasure; he was flying again, flying away from Privet Drive as he’d been fantasising about all Summer, he was going home… for a few glorious moments, all his problems seemed to recede to nothing, insignificant in the vast, starry sky.”

 

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Blurb: “Harry Potter is due to start his fifth year at Hogwarts school of Witchcraft and Wizardry. His best friend Ron and Hermione have been very secretive all summer and he is desperate to get back to School and find out what has been going on. However, what Harry discovers is far more devastating than he could ever have expected…”

It’s taken over a year but I have finally finished my re-read of Harry Potter (in the fancy new UK editions). It’s not the first time I’ve re-read the series and I have no doubt it won’t be the last. This is the fifth book in the series, so you can clearly tell I didn’t re-read the series in order. One thing I have discovered is that every time I pick up one of the Harry Potter books and read them again, I become even more disillusioned by the films. I understand that changes need to be made etc. when it comes to an adaptation, but I just feel like you miss out on so much if you haven’t read the source material.

Like I said, this is the fifth book in the Harry Potter series and the longest; reaching exactly 800 pages in this edition. What I really like about this book that following on from the events in Goblet of Fire, is that everything has the “calm before the storm” feeling. Horrible things are looming that people are trying their hardest to ignore, but for the most part there’s enough warmth and joy that it makes you feel like, for now, things are continuing as normal.  You have Fred and George up to their usual antics, new and exciting classes and creatures, contrasting with Harry’s negative battle with being left out of situations, being left with no information and no contact with his friends. This book is when he starts to internalise a lot of what he’s going through and becomes quite bitter. He gets upset, he gets angry (and not just over exams) and that only gets worse when the Ministry of Magic appoints Dolores Umbridge as the new Defense Against The Dark Arts teacher. Her character is insufferable as she grows in power throughout the plot, but one thing I will say is that she is tame in the movie adaptation compared to this book. She gave me headaches. A lot.

A while ago, someone said to me that J.K.Rowling is a “good storyteller, but not a good writer.” At first I was utterly flabbergasted. I think everyone can agree that Harry Potter has been hugely successful and continues to be long since the last book was released. However, upon my overall re-read, I’ve learnt that the person who made those comments is right. Maybe it’s because I do a lot of editing, or maybe it’s because I’m a writer myself, but I found myself saying “I would have cut that”, “oh that’s oddly presented” although you cannot deny that the world she has created is something that will fall into the classics of the future.  She paved the way for stories about magic schools and child wizards.

There’s so many subplots in this book that just root you back into the world, despite not wanting to admit that certain people may be making their return, such as Quidditch, St Mungos hospital, the prefects and Hermione becoming essentially a House Elf Activist. And may this is because I love learning, but it was interesting to see the characters stressing over exams and how the actual exams took place.

Overall, it’s another solid addition to the series and where I feel Rowling starts to get stronger. It’s moved its way up into my top 3 Harry Potter books.
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