Blog Tour: I Am Winter by Denise Brown

Cover design by Anne Glenn, published by Hashtag Press 11th November 2021

This newly published YA mystery is a gritty, contemporary, whodunnit quite unlike anything else I’ve read this year. Denise Brown’s writing is exquisite and utterly compelling, placing the reader completely inside the head of her fifteen-year-old first-person narrator, Summer. She has structured the story with such skill that I honestly could not tell where it was heading; hints are dropped from the erratic machinations of Summer’s mind, which has been damagingly fragmented by her under-age drinking, drug taking and as we gradually discover, years of irresponsible parenting.

Summer lives a life of school truancy, duvet-wrapped daytime TV, and nights spent hanging out at the local playpark with a group of older teenagers – drinking alcohol that they have taken from their parents or purchased with fake-IDs and taking pills. Her best-friend Courtney (Cee) is always the life and soul of the party and Summer clearly revels in her friendship and basks in its reflected glory. She also has a massive crush on Cee’s older brother Ritchie, who acts like a protective figure to the girls but appears to only view Summer as his sister’s friend while he dates a string of older girls. Whilst Summer has no responsibilities in her home life, Cee is relied upon by her mother (known around the estate as “The Ovary”) to care for her troupe of half siblings, all of whom have different fathers. This is the scene that is set out in the opening chapter, before Cee’s dramatic death. She has been travelling in the back of a car with Summer, both girls high on alcohol and pills and singing at the top of their lungs when the car crashes and Summer witnesses the vitality drain from her only real friend.

On her own release from hospital she is swamped with grief and guilt for persuading Cee to join her on the fateful journey, which is compounded by the gradual realisation that she is being unjustly blamed for supplying the pills which caused Cee’s heart to fail. This revelation is played out over social media, where the degree of love and loss for Cee is measured in likes and comments. Sadder than Summer’s grieving process is the image of lives validated or ruined by their perception on social channels. The cruel comments on her social posts develop into threatening notes through the letterbox, followed by foul deliveries and even an angry, abusive and foul-mouthed visitation from The Ovary warning her to stay away from the lantern ceremony organised in Cee’s memory. 

As the countdown to this ceremony ratchets up the tension, my heart was breaking at the lack of support that Summer is given by the adults around her. Apart from platitudes about how strong she is and how everyone knew that she loved Cee more than anyone else, Summer’s mother is far too obsessed with losing the baby-weight she gained with half-brother Jonah and enjoying nights out, to pay any attention to her daughter’s feelings. At one point, Summer describes her mother as follows:

She’s buried her eyes in hollows above her cheekbones, and her hair clings to last night’s cigarettes.

Chapter 26

Mum’s boyfriend; Jonah’s father, Mac, attempts to offer some advice about her unreliable friendships and her lack of school attendance, but it is clear that his main concern is his baby son who we learn has Down’s Syndrome. Mac provides the nurturing to his own offspring that “Mum” fails to provide to either of her children. As a reader, you comprehend the cause of Summer’s sofa-based stupor but desperately hope that she can find the impetus to break free from it and uncover the real identity of the drug-pusher.

This story is hard-hitting and tackles a number of social issues, including under-age sex, and the lack of self-respect and self-control exhibited by some youngsters when they have not benefited from a loving parental relationship. The difference in the level of care given to Jonah by Mac compared to Jonah and Summer’s mother is stark. This awakens Summer’s own caring side and you begin to hope that her love for her half-brother will be her salvation. She considers his experience of the world and concludes:

Whatever Jonah’s soul is made up of, it’s pink, and pure, and honest, and he follows me with his eyes wide open and trusting.

Chapter 33

Another wonderful relationship is the portrayal of platonic care between Summer and her friend from primary school, Kofi. He is a noble figure, undaunted by his step-father’s homophobic physical abuse, and proves to be a steadfast voice of reason and love when Summer needs an ally.

Throughout the story, Summer makes reference to her bear-wolf, a furry beast living in a hollow tree in the woods beyond her estate. I was never entirely sure whether this was indeed a real animal or a drug-induced delusion. By the end of the tale I could best rationalise it as her longing for a comforting, warm figure who would provide love and protection to her lonely soul. In my opinion, great books are those which leave an imprint after you have read them. This one left me wondering just how many teenagers face the daily reality of the lives portrayed here in fiction, facing the consequences of poor decisions because they have not had reliable guidance from those who should provide love, boundaries and aspirations. 

I highly recommend this book to a readership of 15+ and I am most grateful to Helen at LiterallyPR and  Hashtag Press for providing me with an electronic copy and inviting me to join the blog tour; do check out the other stops on the schedule.

Lego Life Hacks by Julia March and Rosie Peet, models by Barney Main and Nate Dias

Published by DK Books, models by Barney Main and Nate Dias

Two of my great loves come together in this book: Lego and the publisher DK Books! I have bought many Lego DK books for my own children over the years and also have a large Lego collection built up over their childhoods, so when I saw this title available on NetGalley I immediately requested it.

I can confirm that it is marvellous, containing detailed written and photographic instructions for innovative Lego builds suitable for amateur to expert builders alike. There are 50 projects in total, but obviously you can then adapt these as far as your imagination will allow. Some examples include: a fun speaker to amplify your phone, a Lego houseplant, photo-frame or pen holder to decorate your desk, or a catapult to fling paper into the recycling bin! As a quick test I attempted a couple of the easier builds and you can see my efforts below. When I have more time I definitely want to try building the catapult which I think would provide some fun the next time the family are all gathered together!

My first builds: phone stand, cable holder and earphone cable tidy

It is always lovely to see children innovating with their Lego builds but sometimes imaginations need a little stimulation. The beauty of having this book in your home, classroom or library is that it provides that nudge to encourage readers to use their bricks in different ways and develop their creativity. This would make an excellent gift for keen young builders, or even those of us who might want to experiment with our children’s collections! In fact, there are many situations in which I could see this book being used including teambuilding or wellbeing sessions for adults and collaborative skills sessions for children. I loved the “Meet the Builders” touch at the end with profiles of the two talented individuals, Nate and Barney, who supplied the models for this book. The brick gallery is also incredibly useful for those of us who sometimes need to replace a missing brick from a model kit and have no idea where to begin the search; this could have saved me many hours in the past! In summary, I highly recommend this fabulous book as an addition to your non-fiction collections.

I am grateful to DK Books and NetGalley for allowing me access to an electronic version of Lego Life Hacks in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Allies edited by Shakirah Bourne and Dana Alison Levy

Published by Dorling Kindersley 29 July 2021

This insightful collection of sixteen essays is an excellent resource for anyone who wishes to gain an understanding of the lives of individuals who might feel marginalised by their ethnicity, their religious beliefs, a disability or their sexual identity. It is pitched at a Young Adult readership but I think that the content is valuable for adults of any age. The goal of the book is to educate and enable the reader to use whatever privilege they might possess to become an ally to those who face challenges and perhaps discrimination, micro aggressions or outright bullying in their daily lives. 

I am embarrassed to admit that I had not really encountered the terms ally or micro aggression until I attended a disability workshop run by the well-known campaigner Samantha Renke earlier this year. It was listening to her daily, lived experience of the challenges that she faces negotiating a world that is not designed to enable her, that opened my eyes to the need for support or ally-ship from those of us who can encourage change. This book fulfills the same task, with contributions from authors who generously present their own experiences of either being made to feel marginalised or their attempts to fulfill the role of ally. It explains that micro-aggressions are the constant undermining comments that seem to diminish or dismiss an individual’s worth and that we cannot ignore these if we want to be an ally.

One of the aspects that I most appreciated is the tone of gentle encouragement, and forgiveness throughout. It can be very difficult to keep up with the evolving language around ethnicity or sexuality if you are not immersed in the study of it and several of the essays acknowledge that it is easy to inadvertently use the wrong words. The advice is to listen carefully to anyone who corrects you, apologise for any unintended offence caused by your words and continue to progress on your quest to be an ally. I found this to be very reassuring as I try and sometimes fail to get the language correct. In the opening essay, Dana’s Absolutely Perfect Fail-Safe No Mistakes Guaranteed Way to be an Ally, Dana Alison Levy states:

“Being a good ally without making mistakes is like eating popcorn without dropping any on the floor: it’s possible, but let’s be honest, it rarely happens.”

p.10

My takeaways from this book were that a mindset of openness, civility, empathy and kindness are required from us all to help every member of our society feel valued and that we can all learn from and support each other. I feel indebted to the sixteen authors who were prepared to open up about their experiences to help us all develop empathy and I really like the essay (and illustrated story) format that allows you to dip in and out and refresh your mind whenever necessary. At the end of the book there is a comprehensive list of further resources to explore, suggested by each of the contributors. I think that this will be a valuable resource for anyone who wishes to play their part in making society and their workplace kinder and more inclusive and I would recommend it to all workplace, academic and public libraries.

I am grateful to the publisher Dorling Kindersley and NetGalley for allowing me access to an electronic version of this book for review purposes.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Trailblazers Lin-Manuel Miranda by Kurtis Scaletta

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

This is a weekly meme started and hosted by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog which I urge you to read. Also, please check out all the other posts and Tweets with the #MGTakesOnThursday tag, you will be sure to find many fantastic recommendations!

If you love books written for an MG audience and wish to take part, the steps to follow are:

  • Post a picture of a front cover of a middle-grade book which you have read and would recommend to others with details of the author, illustrator and publisher.
  • Open the book to page 11 and share your favourite sentence.
  • Write three words to describe the book
  • Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.
Cover art by Luisa Uribe, published by Little Tiger Press

Author: Kurtis Scaletta

Illustrator: Cover image Luisa Uribe, internal images David Shephard

Publisher: Little Tiger Press

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

“Overall the show won eleven Tonys, including best musical.”

This book in three words: “Meet me inside”

I can give this book no higher recommendation than to tell you that as soon as it arrived through my letterbox it was read in one sitting by the teenage uber-Hamilfan in my household and given her seal of approval!

This latest biography from Little Tiger’s Trailblazers series is aimed at a Middle Grade readership with an engaging blend of illustrations, short chapters and fact-filled illustrated panels, but the evidence here suggests that it will also appeal to the huge number of Hamilton fans amongst the YA readership. Author Kurtis Scaletta presents the details of Lin-Manuel’s non-stop rise to the top of his profession in an engaging and entertaining manner. Throughout the book you learn about Lin-Manuel’s important influences, the stories behind his musical productions and his key collaborators as he has turned the world of musical theatre upside down. It certainly gives the impression of a man who writes as if he is running out of time and leaves you wondering “what comes next?”

As well as exploring Lin-Manuel’s unique musical and creative talent, this biography is careful to explain that a lifetime of hard work is behind the phenomenal success that he enjoys today. I also love that it outlines his continuing involvement with the Puerto Rican community, inspired by his father’s political work, and his determination to portray his culture in a positive light. His hugely generous charitable activities and his dedication to his family are further details which contribute to the picture of an individual who combines great talent with humility.

History certainly has its eyes on Lin-Manuel Miranda and this book fizzes with the energy apparent to anyone who has had the good fortune to see the live performance of Hamilton. I hope that it will inspire young readers to believe in their talents, follow their hearts and dedicate themselves to using their skills to make the world a better place. It is lovely to see a book which promotes the arts and their place in society as budgets for the arts seem to be constantly under threat both in schools and society as a whole. Highly recommended for all existing fans of Hamilton and all children who have an interest in music and drama.

I am very grateful to Little Tiger Press for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

#20BooksOfSummer Review: Old Tabby Brontë The Servant’s Tale by Hilary Robinson

e-book, Published by Strauss House Publications

The second of my #20(10)BooksOfSummer challenge is somewhat different from my usual reading material and was bought on the strength of my admiration for Hilary Robinson’s writing.

This gem of a monologue expresses the righteous indignation felt by a loyal servant, in defence of a master whom she feels has been unjustly portrayed by a biographer. The servant in question is Tabitha Aykroyd who devoted many years to the service of the Brontë family, after the Reverend Patrick Brontë lost his wife and was left to care for six young children.

Hilary Robinson has used her exquisite writing talent, and I presume her experience as a radio producer, to conjure a wonderfully nuanced portrait of family life at Howarth Parsonage through the authentic voice of Tabby. The perfectly executed monologue is written in six parts, entirely in Yorkshire dialect. Thanks to the inclusion of an explanation of the use of the > symbol to indicate a glottal stop and a glossary of Yorkshire dialect, I could hear Tabby’s voice in my head throughout, despite my southern origins! I really felt as if I was sitting at the kitchen table sharing a pot of Yorkshire tea with an old servant and hanging on her every word as she refuted the inaccuracies in Mrs Gaskell’s biography, The Life of Charlotte Brontë.

The tale is written as a repudiation of the negative impression that Mrs Gaskell gave, of the Reverend Brontë’s care for his offspring, in her publication. As a household employee of the family for many years, Tabby is incensed that her master’s reputation has been besmirched and her irritation is palpable as she sets the record straight. As her narrative unfolds, many biographical details of the Brontë’s lives and personalities, and the way that these informed their works of fiction, are revealed quite naturally; the author’s meticulous research manifests completely organically throughout. A tale of devoted family love and support, beset by constant tragedies, emerges in this short but moving monologue.

I adored this monologue and I would imagine that it will have huge appeal to those who love Charlotte, Emily and Anne’s writing. It is also likely to be a great companion piece to students who have to read one of the Brontë sisters’ novels for GCSE or A level. Furthermore, as one of the rare readers who is actually not a big fan of the Brontë’s novels, I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in this monologue and learning some of the background to a uniquely talented family. It is only available as an e-book at present, although I believe that an audiobook might be planned, which is excellent news for dyslexic readers. I actually listened to the excellent Audible reading of Jane Eyre by Juliet Stevenson in preparation for reading Old Tabby Brontë, the first time that I have managed to get to the end of that story, after three failed attempts to read it! I was certainly intrigued to learn about some of the experiences that influenced that classic novel.

This is my second post for this year’s #20BooksOfSummer challenge which is kindly hosted by Cathy Brown on her amazing 746Books.com blog. Do check out the other bloggers who are taking part in the challenge, it’s a great way to broaden your reading range.

image created by Cathy Brown 746books.com

#Blog Tour: Jane Austen Investigates The Abbey Mystery written by Julia Golding

It is a truth universally acknowledged that combining a favourite genre with a favourite author is a combination to thrill the soul of a book reviewer!

I am so delighted that the blog tour for Jane Austen Investigates The Abbey Mystery brings you to my review today. I simply could not believe my luck when I was offered a proof copy of this first book in a new series by acclaimed author Julia Golding (whose earlier books were hugely enjoyed by my daughter when she discovered them ten years ago). A historical mystery featuring thirteen-year-old Jane Austen as the investigator; it is simply all of my bookish dreams come true.

From the very first paragraph the reader is swept into teenaged Jane’s life in a small Hampshire village in 1789, where her lively mind and adventurous spirit feel stifled by the restrictions placed on female behaviour. For those readers not familiar with Jane Austen’s works the clues come thick and fast. As she walks a country lane trading insults with older sister Cassandra we are told that:

“Words were Jane’s greatest treasure and she spent hers carefully”

And a few pages later Jane’s mother declares:

“Your wit will make you infamous one day”.

Following the opening scene and its resultant carriage accident, Jane is sent in place of her older sister to Southmoor Abbey where she must act as a lady’s companion to Lady Cromwell during the week-long preparations for her son’s coming-of-age ball. Her reluctance to fulfil this post is made bearable when her older brother Henry challenges her to find proof of the existence of the legendary Abbey ghost, the Mad Monk, said to haunt the ruins of the Abbey buildings destroyed during the reign of Henry VIII.

Setting out to uncover this mystery Jane soon finds herself needing to use all her ingenuity and observational skills to unravel the layers of intrigue as horse theft, library fires and deeply buried secrets threaten to send an innocent man to the gallows. Her intelligence, straight talking and courage radiate through the grand country estate as she brings her sharp moral focus, honed by her upbringing as the daughter of a clergyman, into an establishment run by a bully. I don’t want to go into a detailed description of the plot for fear of giving away any spoilers but I will say that the characters populating the novel are wonderful and brought to life through Jane’s perceptive dissections of their personalities. Additionally the story is peppered with “Easter eggs” which anyone who has read the works of Jane Austen will recognise and enjoy.

The fate of servants living entirely at the mercy of rich landowners; young women encouraged to marry to ensure their status in society and estates which could only be inherited by male heirs, all of which are explored in Austen’s novels are included as themes in this mystery. The inclusion of Lord Cromwell’s former bodyguard and his daughter, brought to Hampshire after Lord Cromwell’s time in India and forced to work as a chef and laundry girl is a fascinating touch. It opens Jane’s eyes to the empowerment of women allowed in other cultures and also to the callous and unfeeling treatment of people from overseas. I also loved Jane’s coded letters to Cassandra which appear through the story.

Author Julia Golding has used her academic knowledge of the life and works of Jane Austen to create a fascinating portrait of her teenage heroine. Not only is her laser-sharp perception of personalities, the social order and behaviour explored but there is also plenty of historical context added to the story. Details of the East India Company and the changes expected in society following the American Civil War help the reader to understand the environment in which the Austen family lived. The story is constructed in short chapters, driving the narrative at a fast pace and often ending on cliff-hangers, making this a perfect book for a class read.

I can still picture the day (many years ago now) that my English teacher, Miss Lewis, introduced my class to Pride and Prejudice by reading aloud Mr Collins’ proposal to Elizabeth Bennet, which started my love of Jane Austen’s writing. I can see this book igniting that love affair with Jane Austen’s novels at an even earlier age, as this book is perfect for primary school pupils in upper key stage 2.

I highly recommend it to anyone who loves the historical fiction of Emma Carroll, the historical detective mysteries of Katherine Woodfine and Robin Stevens or the recently published Egmont middle grade adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels. I am grateful that I was sent a free proof copy by Lion Hudson in exchange for my honest review, I have pre-ordered no less than three copies already to gift to tweens and teenagers of my acquaintance!

Review: The Awesome Power of Sleep: How Sleep Supercharges Your Teenage Brain written by Nicola Morgan

Cover illustration by Thy Bui, published by Walker Books

We spend, on average, one third of our lives asleep! However, most of us give very little thought to this process until it causes us problems. This wonderfully informative book, written by award-winning author Nicola Morgan, explains with perfect clarity the science of sleep and presents workable strategies to help achieve our 7-9 hours per night.

The book begins by taking us on a journey through the science of sleep, explaining sleep architecture, the physiology of the sleeping brain and current scientific theories about the reason for sleep. You will learn about the 2012 explanation of the glymphatic system, circadian rhythms and the function of the suprachiasmatic nucleus – don’t be put off by the vocabulary it is all explained thoroughly. The changes that take place during the teenage years are addressed in a reassuring manner so that teenage readers will recognise and be able to deal with sleep issues they may be experiencing. The author is very careful to explain which issues may require a consultation with a GP. With the change in all of our life styles caused by the shutdown of our normal social interactions it is a highly appropriate time for this book to be published as the many enforced hours inside our houses have probably caused a greater disruption to sleep patterns than at any time in recent memory.

After explaining the necessity of sufficient sleep for good mental health, for learning and exams which are obviously an incredibly important aspect of teenage life, through to explaining the current theories about dreaming, Nicola Morgan never patronises her readership. Instead, she explains complex scientific content with great clarity, precision and reassurance.

The final chapters of the book introduce strategies to aid readers to achieve the desired number of hours of nightly sleep. This includes improving the physical environment of bedrooms, useful strategies for the evening wind-down routine, advice about screen-usage and when to turn off your devices, and strategies to use during periods of wakefulness in the night. 

Nicola Morgan is clearly an author who knows her teenage audience extremely well. The inclusion of self-test quizzes and checklists throughout the chapters make this an engaging and interactive read, ensuring that the information is processed and absorbed to consolidate its usefulness. As someone who reads many academic papers as part of my day-job, I highly applaud her ability to distil advanced scientific evidence and theories into such a readable and engaging format.

All of the information presented in this book is backed up by evidence-based science and there is a comprehensive list of resources at the end of the book providing links to reliable sources of further scientific and health-based information. I am passionate about the provision of reliable health-related content to individuals and will be adding this book to my recommended reading list for a project I am working on. Although it has been aimed at teenagers, I would encourage parents of teenagers and indeed any adult with sleep-related concerns to read it.

Another aspect I loved about this book is that the author makes it quite clear when the science is inexact and points out that there may be different schools of thought about particular issues. I think it is really important for young readers to understand that science is constantly developing and testing new ideas and that often there is not an exact answer and instead we have to critically analyse the current evidence and make educated choices.

I am most grateful to NetGalley and Walker Books for approving my request to read The Awesome Power of Sleep: How Sleep Supercharges Your Teenage Brain.