MGFiction Review: The Storm Swimmer by Clare Weze

Cover image by Paddy Donnelly, published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books,
19th January 2023

The Storm Swimmer is a contemporary Middle Grade novel with a fantasy element which explores issues of homelessness, family secrets and the importance of communication.

This is primarily the story of Ginika, an eleven year old of Nigerian heritage who in the summer between primary and secondary school finds herself unexpectedly ripped away from her familiar London landscape and sent to live with her maternal grandparents at their boarding house, Cormorant Heights, in Bridleways Bay. She had been looking forward to a carefree summer in the shadow of the Docklands Light Railway, rehearsing dance routines with her best friend Alisha, but now must adapt to life in a seaside town three hundred miles away. Moreover, she fails to understand why she cannot live with her parents in their camper van after their eviction from the flat that she has always known as home, and feels that she has been abandoned rather than given a chance to escape some of their hardships. Ginika realises that her parents are in more trouble than they are telling her, but the lack of communication results in fractured trust between her and the adults caring for her, leaving her full of frustration and resentment.

Spending the first day of her enforced “holiday” lying on the sand close to the water’s edge, Ginika spots a strange looking boy gliding through the waves with the ease of a dolphin. As subsequent days pass, she begins to develop a tentative friendship with this boy who appears to live in the sea, communicates in clicks and odd sounds, is dressed in seaweed and has webbed fingers and toes. A conversation with her grandad introduces her to the local legend of sea people who are said to visit the bay and thus begins aa adventure with Peri which will force Ginika to confront her deepest fears.

Integral to the narrative are two other tweens; Scarlett whose parents run the holiday park and Ted who is on an organised holiday at the park with other young hospital patients and their families. Ted is using a wheelchair as he recovers from treatment for a tumour on his spine and can empathise with Ginika’s feeling of being “other” in the small seaside community where she is the only person with black skin and Afro hair. On the surface Scarlett appears overly confident, always talking, always surrounded by a posse of three Olivias who are all on holiday at the caravan park and manipulating them and Ginika for her own convenience. However, as her story is explored, readers begin to see that she is probably quite lonely, with her parents and older sister working non-stop all summer to put on the best service for their guests; reliant on temporary friendships with holiday makers and manifesting her own rejection in controlling behaviour. We get a glimpse into her underlying kindness when she reprimands the Olivias for their inappropriate behaviour in commenting on and touching Ginika’s hair in one incredibly claustrophobic scene.

My impression is that the novel is written in an interestingly fractured style which I think highlights the sense of dislocation that Ginika is experiencing and that Peri must encounter to a far greater degree when he is transported from his usual environment to explore the town’s attractions with his human companion. (The book designers have kindly provided a map – always a positive feature for me – which is helpful during this section of the story). The slow process of working out how to communicate is a reflection of the need for Ginika to work out a way to communicate with her own family and the best friend that she has left behind in London. The undercurrents of secrets and unspoken fears swirl around the story and are as likely to knock the protagonists off balance as the undertow in Bridleways Bay. I liked the way that Ginika’s fears about predators which might harm Peri ran in parallel to her parents’ problems with loan sharks. The tension in the final third of the story blows up with the rapidity of a summer storm and the resolve of all three young protagonists is stretched to the limits as they try to reunite Peri with his family.

This is a story which is ideal for children of 11+ and really nicely fills the crossover gap between the final terms of primary school and the first year of secondary school. I would recommend it to Year 6 and Year 7 teachers for classroom book choices and the both primary and secondary school librarians. There is a short section at the end of the story where author Clare Weze provides background information on the natural history and science which underpins the adaptations that could allow Peri and the sea people to survive in a saline environment. This is pitched at just the right level to be understood by children in Year 6 and above and I am sure will interest those readers who have a fascination with science and the natural world.

I am most grateful to Bloomsbury Children’s Books and Liz Scott for sending me a copy of The Storm Swimmer in advance of publication on January 19th 2023.

Beat the Backlist Challenge 2023

Image created by Austine Decker
Children’s Books Backlist Shelf
Adult Books Backlist Shelf

I read about the Beat the Backlist Challenge on Mary’s Book Craic blog at the turn of the year and thought that the relaxed rules and chance to read the books that are still sitting on my shelves from last year sounded very appealing! The challenge was created in 2017 by Austine Decker and the full details are laid out in this blog post.

These are the essential rules:

  1. The book must be published in the previous year or earlier (for the 2023 challenge, anything published in 2022 or earlier counts).
  2. You have to start and finish the book in 2023.
  3. And that’s it!

Sharing on social media? Don’t forget the #BeatTheBacklist tag!

The challenge runs from January 1, 2023 to December 31, 2023.

I’ve decided to concentrate on one shelf of children’s books, the majority of these are books that I purchased but haven’t managed to read as I prioritised books sent to me to review. The second shelf are adult books which are approximately a 50:50 split between purchases and gifts. I belong to two book groups; three of the above books are on one of the reading lists for this year, so I should at least manage these!

On with the challenge!

MG Review: Albi the Glowing Cow Boy by Georgia Byng, illustrated by Angela Cogo

Cover image by Levi Pinfold, published by Uclan Publishing,
5th January 2023

This novel written for a middle grade readership defies categorisation, encompassing themes which encourage all readers to think about the way we treat our planet and the life forms on it. The unusual dual narrative takes readers on a year long journey in the company of Albi, the glowing cow boy of the title and Rufus, a twelve year old human boy with a heart-breaking back story. Georgia Byng has written a beautiful tale which transported me into the minds of two very different protagonists, leaving me with much food for thought. 

The story begins with magical snowflakes descending from a cold January night sky and infusing the earth with a glittering of magical energy, some of which is absorbed by an albino new-born calf, Albi. In the opening chapter we are given an introduction to Albi’s herd of cows and through their voices learn about the sadness of cows and calves when they are separated as a routine part of the food industry. In contrast to the close maternal relationships exhibited by the cows, a human family living just a few miles away demonstrates the awful situation that arises from rejection and neglect of a child by his parents. Rufus Chumley is a twelve year old hunter who has learnt to survive independently since early childhood. He has been rejected by his affluent parents, his teachers and the other children at school because a metabolic disorder has caused him to grow far larger than his peers, resulting in complicated expectations and misunderstandings of his abilities. He lives an isolated life, shooting and cooking small mammals and dreaming of winning the Worldwide Hunting Association’s hunting competition in America to prove his worth to his parents.

These two narratives are intertwined when Albi responds to a magical sixth sense after eating milky white mushrooms, and leads the young bullocks in a breakout from the slaughterhouse owned by Mr Chumley. Rufus spies the glowing albino calf crossing a field in the moonlight and decides to run away from home, track the otherworldly animal and turn it into his hunting competition trophy. Thus begins an epic journey which takes the hunter and his prey on a journey across Europe and Asia, encompassing encounters with aurochs; visits to ancient sites and caves; and encounters with people who both love and exploit animals. The brutality of the traditional running of the bulls in Pamplona is shown in marked contrast to the treatment of cows in India. 

The interconnectedness between all life on earth is represented in this story by the milky white mushrooms which infuse Albi with his luminescence and his intelligence and fill Rufus with self-esteem for the first time in his life, gradually changing the way he thinks about other creatures. The tendrils which connect all life forms and create ecological balance are surfaced in this magical tale which encourages readers to think about the way that industrial scale farming damages the environment. The power of kindness is shown as a superpower in the words of one of the mother cows:

The more you care about others, the stronger you get.

Page 244

Publishing in January, a time when we are often encouraged to think about reducing the amount of meat in our diets, I think this story will encourage debate around animal welfare and meat consumption in upper key stage 2 and key stage 3 classrooms and I would highly recommend it to all school librarians. Aside from this, it is a story that I am sure will be enjoyed by many children who love animal stories and for whom it can sometimes be difficult to find books in this genre once they move beyond the early chapter books.

I am grateful to Uclan Publishing and Antonia Wilkinson for my review copy received in advance of publication on 5th January 2023.

Non-fiction from Noodle Juice Books – January 2023

I was super-thrilled to return home from work on my last day before Christmas leave and find a second package of books waiting for me courtesy of the new children’s publisher NoodleJuice Books. The two books within fully captured my attention, and I think that they will make excellent additions to primary school libraries or classroom collections or home book collections when they are published in January.

From the ‘little book Big Idea’ series, What is Money? will provide answers to the most inquisitive child who wants to explore this topic. The format of the two books that I have now had the pleasure to read from this series, makes the information easily accessible for children of 6 years and above. Each double page spread poses a question, exactly the sort of query asked by curious children when perhaps they’ve heard something on the news or overheard an adult conversation and want to know: what are taxes? how does money grow? or is money good? The explanations begin with a very short paragraph written in plain English which is then enhanced by small blocks of text accompanied by eye-catching illustrations. The range of questions on the subject of money is comprehensive, ranging from the purely factual to the more philosophical aspects of the good and bad outcomes that individuals can create depending on the way that they choose to use their money.

This combination of Sarah Walden’s age appropriate, clear explanations and the engaging artwork of Katie Rewse allow children the time and space to explore the topic of money and allow them to take the first steps in understanding this complex and essential factor of human society. I am so impressed at the ambition of this book and can see it being enjoyed by certain children in Key Stage 1 and used extensively in PHSE and citizenship lessons and discussions in Key Stage 2 of primary schools. It will certainly be a valuable addition to any school or home collection.

All the World’s a Stage: A Celebration of the Value of Creativity is a glorious, practical guide to performance and fills a big gap in children’s library bookshelves. When I was a primary school librarian and was trying to build a non-fiction collection which catered to the interests of all the children in school, I longed to find a book such as this which would appeal to the talented and creative individuals who loved performing at talent shows or in assemblies, or attended dance classes or music classes or showed flair for art or creative writing. Despite having a scientific background myself, I have been appalled at the low value which seems to have been placed on arts education in recent times. I believe that the UK has fostered creativity in all the arts for many years which in turn has made huge contributions to the prosperity and culture of our nation. This book does a wonderful job of encouraging children to see the value in creativity; presenting information on all forms of performance, from open mic nights to opera. There are timelines of famous musicals; facts about different stage types and famous theatres; and comprehensive details about the film and television industries.

I was particularly impressed by a section towards the end which zooms in on the many different career options available in both film and TV. Starting with a spread entitled: It’s not all greasepaint and applause there then follow pages which detail career options, explaining what the role involves and outlining the skills required for success in the role. This content is presented in coloured blocks with distinctive illustrations, very attractively and clearly laid out in a way which is guaranteed to engage readers of all ages. Readers can learn about a broad range of roles including: being a director, a writer, a set designer or location scout, a special effects technician or a costume designer amongst others. The book ends with straightforward, practical advice on how to make your own film and suggestions of websites for further reading.

I not only applaud Sarah Walden’s ambition in writing this book which is beautifully illustrated by Hannah Li, I give it a standing ovation! I would suggest that it is an essential addition to primary school libraries, Year 6 classroom libraries and Key Stage 3 libraries and drama departments in secondary schools. It would also make a beautiful gift if you happen to know a child who enjoys any kind of performance or creativity.

Both What is Money? and All the World’s a Stage: A Celebration of the Value of Creativity will be published by Noodle Juice Books on 12th January 2023 and I am most grateful to the publishers for my review copies in exchange for an honest review.

2022 Reading Highlights

So here it is; I offer you my highlights from newly published books that I’ve read this year. It is always so difficult to pick out just a few, but these are the books that have stayed in my head and my heart long after I finished reading them. I offer them to you, in case you are looking for a bookish gift and are still wondering what to choose from the huge and tempting selections on the bookshop shelves. From the sixty or so books that I’ve read this year, here are my favourites by age category.

Picture Books: For the youngest readers, this selection provides gentle stories combined with gloriously vibrant illustrations to enjoy every time the covers are opened. Read my reviews for the two Tatty Mouse stories and The Marvellous Doctors for Magical Creatures.

Illustrated Chapter Books: For any young readers who are just gaining their confidence in reading independently, the books in this selection offer entertainment presented in short chapters with the text broken up by illustrations. You can read full reviews of each story by clicking on the links: Wildsmith, The Little Match Girl Strikes Back, Rainbow Grey Eye of the Storm, Edie and the Flits in Paris and Breakfast Club Adventures The Beast Beyond the Fence.

MG Highlights: Three of my favourite MG stories were sequels and so well written that I thoroughly enjoyed them, despite not having read the first in each series: The Unexpected Tale of the Bad Brothers, The Butterfly Club: The Mummy’s Curse and Amari and the Great Game. I hope that Seed might have a sequel, the story certainly ended on a note that cries out for a follow up. Wished by Lissa Evans is absolute perfection, she is one of my favourite authors of both adult and children’s books and I love this story.

Young Teen Highlights: I highly recommend these outstandingly well-crafted novels to readers just moving on from primary to secondary school, looking for immersive and enjoyable reads with rich underlying themes. Reviews are available by clicking the links: War of the Wind, The Raven’s Song, Ghostlight and The Haunted Hills.

The YA books that I have read this year indicate to me that there has been a huge improvement in the scope and quality of books for this readership. These three are superb; a story full of righteous anger told in free verse, a reimagining of Greek myth and a deeply moving reflection on grief. Read my full reviews by clicking on the links: Activist, Her Dark Wings and Aftershocks.

Adult Books: The majority of books that I read in my bookclubs this year were not newly published, Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr I think was published just at the end of 2021, so I am perhaps cheating a little by including it here, but it held me enthralled throughout and I loved the way that the multiple narratives were pulled together at the end. Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus was a birthday present and dredged up some long forgotten knowledge from undergraduate studies, made me laugh, made me cry and was the perfect summer holiday read and I can’t even begin to describe the work of genius that is Super-Infinite.

I shall end by thanking the wonderful blogging community that I am a part of, for constant inspiration and encouragement. Thank you to the authors, illustrators and publishers who constantly strive to create books that appeal to all tastes, and grateful thanks to the book PRs who send me review copies. I hope that you’ve enjoyed some of my reading highlights from this year, let me know if you have read any of these in the comments. Wishing all my readers a very happy and peaceful Christmas, however you choose to celebrate during this festive season.

Review: Filippo, Me and the Cherry Tree by Paola Peretti, translated by Denise Muir

Cover illustration David Dean, published by Hot Key Books,
August 2022

This slim novel, translated from Italian, speaks volumes in the most beautiful sensory language. It is a coming of age story, narrated by thirteen year old Mafalda who is coming to terms with sight loss, a shift in the family environment and her unfolding feelings for Filippo. Written by Italian author, Paola Peretti, who herself suffers from a genetic illness which causes progressive loss of vision, the synesthetic descriptions hold authentic power.

Each chapter begins with Mafalda dictating her dreams, nightmares and emotions into her voice recorder which adds another level to the empathy generated by the narrative. She has been plunged into two levels of darkness. The first is the literal removal of light and colour from her world as her illness has taken away her sight. On top of this is the metaphorical shadow thrown over the family unit by her father Giovanni’s unemployment. As he lies in bed day after day her mother works longer hours to pay the bills and Mafalda can no longer detect any hope in Dad’s voice:

I usually imagine words of hope, or just nice words in general, to be the colour blue. Dad’s words have no colour.

page 11

Fortunately for Mafalda, she can always rely on her best friend Filippo to support her. He walks her to and from school, meets her at break and lunchtimes and is available in the evenings for homework or pizza. Hints are dropped throughout the story about his struggles with school work and unconventional approach to school, and eventually his dyslexia is revealed. The mutual support of two characters who are each isolated by requiring additional support at school is sensitively handled. All is not plain sailing for their relationship however as “mean girl” Debbie begins to tease Mafalda about her “boyfriend” and then tries to drive a wedge between them. This in turn encourages Mafalda to interrogate her true feelings for Filippo.

Additional relationships unfold for Mafalda during the story. She begins to help her initially grumpy, aged upstairs neighbour Mr Rossi, who in exchange helps her unravel the meanings of the classic novels for which she has to produce book reports. Thus we are presented with some clever juxtapositions of Dickens’ characters with Mafalda’s situation. Secondly is a slightly mystical relationship with a free-spirited, homeless character, Elsa, who encourages Mafalda to follow her dreams. Throughout the narrative there are references to the cherry tree which grows beside the school and is a place of sanctuary for Mafalda, providing physical and emotional refuge, and for cat lovers, I am sure that her relationship with Ottimo Turcaret will be very familiar.

This is a gorgeous story that I think would appeal to mature readers in Year 6 as well as children in the early stage of secondary/high school who are at the same stage of emotional development as the main protagonists. Reading it has made me realise how infrequently I read texts which have originated in languages other than English and I have just ordered the prequel, The Distance Between Me, and the Cherry Tree to start redressing that imbalance. I must give credit to the translator Denise Muir, as the story flows perfectly with no hint of inconsistencies in the vocabulary.

I am most grateful to Antonia Wilkinson PR and Hot Key Books for sending me a review copy of Filippo, Me and the Cherry Tree in exchange for my honest opinion.

Review: The Mummy’s Curse by M.A. Bennett, illustrated by David Dean

Cover illustration by David Dean, published by Welbeck Flame

A time-travel adventure so enthralling that the hours will appear to stand still as you read; this second Butterfly Club adventure is not to be missed!

I must start this review by admitting that I have not read the first Butterfly Club adventure, The Ship of Doom (which I plan to remedy very soon) but this in no way impacted on my enjoyment of The Mummy’s Curse, which contained all the elements that I have sought in stories since I was in the readership age for this new MG novel. The blend of actual historical details with a brilliantly imagined time travel scenario and writing that flows like the River Nile, carrying the reader along effortlessly, conspired to ensure that this book was an absolute pleasure to read.

The three child protagonists, Luna, Konstantin and Aidan are all children in the Victorian era and members of The Butterfly Club, a secret organisation which meets weekly in a hidden chamber at the Greenwich Royal Observatory. There, they use a time train invented by H G Wells to travel forward in time and collect artefacts which will speed up the progress of human invention, hence their label as “the time thieves”. In The Mummy’s Curse, the time thieves are sent from 1894 to November 1922, in the company of medical doctor turned detective novelist, Arthur Conan Doyle. Their mission is to ensure that of the multitude of archaeologists seeking the tomb of Tutankhamen, the British team led by Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter is successful, and to ensure that whatever is discovered is claimed for The British Museum.

The way that M.A. Bennett combines the actual historical facts and fleshes out real personalities from history is astonishingly skilful. As a reader I was utterly transported to the dry, gritty heat of The Valley of the Kings and could sense the delight of the famous writer as he uses his skill with the written word to instigate the rumour of the curse of King Tut and achieve his goal. The fictional children are totally believable, each acting in ways which appear totally natural given their backgrounds. I particularly loved the elegant and honourable Prussian character Konstantin who arrives in 1922 with no knowledge of the role of many of his countrymen in WWI. He is horribly insulted and ostracised by Lord Carnarvon but uses this experience to empathise with and build a supportive friendship with the Egyptian tea boy, Abdel, who plays a heroic role in the fictional and real story. Another aspect of this story that I adored was the dash of humour injected by the constant enquiries about the author’s motive in killing off Sherlock Holmes; no matter which era Arthur Conan Doyle happened to find himself in. I found this to be both amusing but also interesting given the nature of Ancient Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife.

I will not discuss any more plot details as I would not wish to ruin anyone’s enjoyment of the way this story unfolds. Suffice to say that I found it utterly satisfying and I know that I would have loved to read this at the age of nine or ten. The juxtaposition of Victorian attitudes to plundering the cultural and economic capital of other nations, with the determination of a newly independent nation to retain their own cultural artefacts is presented in a way that will encourage young readers to debate these issues and could lead to some interesting classroom discussions. I whole-heartedly recommend The Mummy’s Curse to all primary school and secondary school librarians, I think this is a book that will engage readers from nine to early teens. I should also mention that there are some lovely greyscale illustrations by David Dean, within the chapters. I especially appreciated the hieroglyphics during a brilliantly tense escape room episode!

If you enjoy The Mummy’s Curse as much as I did, there is a third book in the series due in April 2023, The Mona Lisa Mystery, and you will find a short extract at the end of this book!

I would like to thank Antonia Wilkinson and Welbeck Flame for sending me a review copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

2022 Halloween Recommendations

image created using Canva

As in previous years I have put together a shortlist of books that I have read this year which would make excellent treats for young readers this half-term holiday as we approach Halloween 2022.

Winnie and Wilbur: Winnie’s Best Friend by Valerie Thomas, illustrated by Korky Paul

Always a delight for children of 5-7, the Winnie and Wilbur series are wonderful books to share with a young child. The stories are fun, Winnie is probably the most colourful and accident-prone witch in children’s fiction and there is so much to see and talk about in every one of Korky Paul’s brilliant colour spreads.

Midnight Magic: The Witch Trap by Michelle Harrison, illustrated by Elissa Elwick

Bursting with autumn colour, the latest rhyming adventure of magical black cat, Midnight, is perfect for newly independent readers of 6+.

Diary of an Accidental Witch: Ghostly Getaway by Perdita and Honor Cargill, illustrated by Katie Saunders

In the latest outing for Bea Black, she and her friends take off from Little Spellshire’s School of Extraordinary Arts to participate in a school trip to Cadabra Castle, allegedly haunted by the ghost of High Master Maggitty Crawe! This wonderfully funny story has been designed with extra care to increase accessibility for dyslexic readers.

The October Witches by Jennifer Claessen

Magical, feminist refashioning of the Arthurian legend. A pacy story of witchy family feuds, perfect for readers of 9+.

Ghost Scouts series written and illustrated by Taylor Dolan

A funny, fully illustrated series of books set in a fabulously spooky summer camp, deep in the swamps of the southern states of America. A certain Halloween treat for readers of 9+.

The Mummy’s Curse by M.A. Bennett

Ever wondered about the origins of the curse of King Tut? Well this rollicking time-travel adventure will take you back to the discovery of his tomb, 100 years ago and reveal all. A spine-tingling adventure, perfect for confident readers of 9+

Shadowghast by Thomas Taylor, illustrated by George Ermos

Experience your first Halloween in Eerie-on-Sea with Herbert Lemon and Violet Parma as they uncover the secrets of the spooky seaside town’s Ghastly Night! Fantastically paced and plotted adventure for readers of 9+.

The Haunted Hills by Berlie Doherty, illustrated by Tamsin Rosewell

The wild landscape of the Peak District is the setting for this tale of grief, loss and guilt. As a family’s attempts to recover from a fatal accident is interwoven with the legend of a local ghost. A sensitive, beautifully written story for readers of 11+.

The Billow Maiden by James Dixon, illustrated by Tamsin Rosewell

Another sensitively crafted tale, this is set on a remote Scottish island where a young teen is being sheltered by her uncle and aunt while her mother recovers from what appears to be a mental health crisis. This story is interwoven with the discovery of a terrifying mythical creature in one of the island’s caves. The Norse legend combined with modern setting are perfect for readers of 11+.

Ghostlight by Kenneth Oppel

Boy meets ghost in this brilliantly written and imagined coming of age story, set in and around Toronto. This is a book which will absolutely transport readers of 11+ into an alternative reality where ghosts battle for dominance over humans in a setting which will be unusual and educational for many UK based readers.

Review: The Haunted Hills by Berlie Doherty, illustrated by Tamsin Rosewell

Cover illustration Tamsin Rosewell, published by UCLan Publishing, October 2022

This story of grief, guilt and loss set against the wildness of the Peak District is a book to read slowly in order to savour the atmosphere created by award-winning author Berlie Doherty. I sat down to read it as the rain hammered down outside, appropriately harmonising with the emotion that pours from the narrative, and couldn’t tear myself away.

Thirteen year-old Carl is staying in a remote holiday cottage with his photographer mother and teacher father, high in a Peak District landscape dominated by the bleating of sheep and cries of birds. However, this is not the carefree family holiday that many will have enjoyed in this wild, natural setting; it is apparent from the start that the family have travelled to enable Carl to recover from the fatal accident in which his childhood best friend, Jack, has died. Unsurprisingly, for such a gifted writer, Berlie Doherty conveys the sense of a family struggling to come to terms with grief with immense insight and sympathy. This is a realistic and three-dimensional portrayal, with both parents depicted trying everything they can to bring their son back from the edge of despair, and Carl understanding and appreciating his parents’ efforts but unable to tear himself out of the deep well of loss into which he has been plunged.

The landscape is integral to the atmosphere of the story and the incorporation of folklore in the form of a ghost story about the Lost Lad, Joseph, and his dog who haunt the area, watching over lost souls in the hills gives depth to Carl’s disorientation and dissociation from the life that he has known before. With voices in the wind, elusive figures in the corners of his eye and a house that creaks and breathes with former lives, we explore Carl’s sense of unreality. I found that the descriptions of his mother’s artistic landscape photography, utilising changes of light to create shadowy images, beautifully depicted the way that Carl is struggling to emerge from the gloom of bereavement and the part that he feels he might have contributed to his friend’s death. For as the story develops, we are given a glimpse into the gradual loss that changing friendships can cause during the teenage years when children moved on from shared childhood interests and perhaps forge new friendship groups. Juxtaposed against Carl’s loss is that of peripatetic shepherdess April, who is working on the neighbouring farm and has her own reasons for wandering the hills and feeling the presence of the Lost Lad. As they begin to understand each other’s need to be lifted from their despair, hope glimmers for acceptance and recovery.

Photo across the Peak District taken from Ramshaw Rocks by V Price, July 2022

This is not a “spooky” ghost story but rather a breath-taking exploration of the ambiguous nature of grief, suffused with understanding and imagination. Although this book is written for a readership of 11+, I think that its sensitive portrayal of a family overcoming a devastating loss holds valuable messages for all readers. The imagery of the crows, used so powerfully here, has prompted me to re-read a book which was given to me by a dear friend following a family bereavement, Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, which I would also recommend to older readers.

I am most grateful to UCLan publishing and Antonia Wilkinson for sending me a proof copy of The Haunted Hills in exchange for my honest opinion.

#MG Review: Amari and the Great Game by B.B. Alston

Cover image by Brittany Jackson, published by Farshore, 1st September 2022

The second adventure in the Amari series, Amari and the Great Game, is an absolute must-read for anyone of 9+ who loves a thrilling magical adventure. This story crackles with imagination, ripples with plot twists and ultimately delivers an explosive finale which sets up the continuation of the series.

Don’t worry if you have not read the first instalment, Amari and the Night Brothers, the back story is summarised in the opening chapters allowing you to enjoy this book as a standalone. However, I am pretty certain that reading this story will encourage you to seek out and read the opening book in the series if you have not already done so. The imaginative world-building of a contemporary Atlanta, where supernatural creatures live amongst the human population, disguised to all but members of the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, is perfectly constructed. Reading this series has given me the same sense of excitement at entering an alternative universe as I had when reading the Harry Potter books to my children more than 20 years ago.

Here, we join our main protagonist Amari, a 13 year-old black girl from the housing projects, as she adjusts to her new-found fame amongst the supernatural community following her recent defeat of fellow magician, Dylan van Helsing. Dylan had been working for the scourge of the magical world, Moreau Night and had double-crossed his master in a bid for domination of the community of magicians. The supernatural social media platform Eurg is filled with stories and video of Amaria and Dylan’s magical duel, but not all the commentary is in Amari’s favour. There are elements in the supernatural world who do not trust magicians and believe that everyone with this magical power must be evil simply because the Night Brothers who started the Ancient War, were magicians.

The plot of this compelling story revolves around the issue of scapegoating and “othering” certain sections of a community and the way that individuals with tyrannical intentions can manipulate media and thus populations to sow division, create unrest and grab power. With subplots involving the secret League of Magicians; dark magick which enables time to be frozen; friendships put under strain when communication goes awry; and a deadly game from which only one magician can emerge with their magic intact, this is a narrative that will keep readers turning the pages long after bedtime! The time freeze that occurs at the start of the book has left most of the supernatural world’s ruling council inanimate and Amari and her loyal band of friends are determined to investigate and discover who is behind the plot to seize control of their world. I won’t give any more plot details for fear of ruining anyone’s enjoyment.

Amari is a fantastic main protagonist and the friendship portrayed with Elsie is one which many young readers will relate to, with tension and misunderstandings but ultimately loyalty and mutual support. Her love for older brother Quinton is beautifully rendered, as she rises to every challenge to free him from the curse that Dylan cast on him. For this reader, Amari’s most important quality is the ability to believe that there is goodness in everyone, including her nemesis Dylan. Despite his betrayal of her, and the resultant UnWanteds Policy of the new Deputy Prime Minister prompted by the fear of magicians that he has caused, she continues to insist that Dylan retains a kernel of goodness. I think that this is such a hopeful element in a wonderfully entertaining novel for middle grade readers.

Amari and the Great Game was published on 1st September 2022 and I am most grateful to Hannah Penny and Farshore Books for my review copy in return for my honest opinion.

If you are looking for an immersive, magical adventure for children of 9+, this is a book that I highly recommend.