#MGReview: The Lost Girl King by Catherine Doyle

To be published in September 2022 by Bloomsbury

If you like your stories steeped in mythology, infused with a unique sense of place and written in the language which transports you to another realm, then add The Lost Girl King to your summer shopping list! The latest standalone MG novel from Catherine Doyle is due for publication in July 2022 and if you want a summer holiday to remember, then join Amy and Liam for the trip of a lifetime.

Catherine Doyle’s love for the Atlantic Coast of Ireland is apparent from the opening page, as sassy Amy and her older, bookish brother Liam arrive at Gran’s yellow house, situated where Connemara runs into the Atlantic. With very little preamble, the reader is plunged into adventure from the moment that the two children follow a unique white hawk through a backwards flowing waterfall. As in her previous four MG stories, the author writes with a delicate lyricism that lifts the reader and places them in a familiar setting infused with fantasy, so vividly imagined that you can feel the wind on your face, the icy water stinging your skin and sense the gaze of spying eyes as the protagonists enter a new realm. They have passed through the veil between worlds and have stepped into to the legendary “land of the young”,  Tir na nÓg!

They enter a glen where the height of the trees outstrips anything they have experienced before. But when adventurous Amy climbs high enough to break through the canopy, she sees a terrifying sight; the sun is tethered to the landscape by a creaking, straining chain. As she begins her descent, the forest glade fills with hideous-smelling, headless horsemen who make off with Liam before she can get to the ground to defend him. Amy begins to realise the rotting, desolate state that has befallen Tir na nÓg, and as she embarks on her quest to rescue her brother, in the company of the Fianna warriors, she slowly discovers the story of Tarlock, the evil mage who has cursed the kingdom.

The tale unfolds with Irish mythology running through the adventure, revealing a strata of ancient gods, legendary weapons, mythical creatures, rivalries and magical powers turned to the preservation of an evil power. From the moment of Liam’s capture the story takes on the dual perspectives of the siblings, each showing their own brand of courage. Amy is a feisty, impetuous heroine, completely unafraid to speak up for herself and follow her heart as she strives to rescue her brother. She quickly forms strong alliances with other young characters, Jonah and Torrin, and gains the respect of battle-scarred older characters with her straight talking, common sense and powers of persuasion. Liam exhibits a steely resolve, despite being terrified and displays kindness and chivalrous bravery on encountering the lost girl king. They both embody the words of Niall, one of the Fianna warriors who says:

Courage is rooted in the soul, no matter what you look like on the outside. 

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This story is written with such verve and feeling that I was compelled to read it in an afternoon. First and foremost it is a perfectly crafted quest, with characters that demand your attention and admiration and a plot that keeps you enthralled throughout. The juxtaposition of myth and modern tweens in a battle for supremacy over a mystical land, lends an air of modern fable to this story of children’s wisdom and courage rescuing a world from exploitation and decay. We can only hope that there are sufficient young people with the same clear-eyed sense of the beauty of our world to stand up and make the adults see sense. As Torrin tells her father,

We can’t change the past Dad, but we can change the future.

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I think that Catherine Doyle is one of the finest writers of the current generation and I absolutely recommend The Lost Girl King to anyone of 10+ when it is published in September 2022.

I am most grateful to Bloomsbury and NetGalley for allowing me access to an e-ARC in advance of publication.

If you haven’t already done so, do get hold of Catherine Doyle’s Storm Keeper trilogy whilst you await publication of this book. You can read my reviews of the latter two here: The Storm Keeper’s Island, The Lost Tide Warriors and The Storm Keepers’ Battle.

MG Book review: The Wondrous Prune by Ellie Clements

To be published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books 12th May 2022

I was intrigued by the title of this magical middle grade book when I spotted it on NetGalley and thus delighted when I was approved to read an early e-ARC. It is a heart-warming tale of an ordinary Year 6 girl with an extraordinary gift!

Prune’s mother has inherited her late parents’ house, the home she grew up in as a child, and takes the opportunity to move the family away from their former home in a block of flats. We soon discover that Prune’s teenage brother Jesse had been hanging out with a friend called Bryce whom his mother and Prune both consider to be a bad influence, they hope that the move will break the connection and get Jesse’s life back on track. However, Prune misses her old life, her best friend Connie and the wonderful connection she had with Grandma Jean and Poppa B when they were alive. Although their former home holds many happy memories for her, she can’t help the sadness washing over her now that they are no longer around. And so the fantasy aspect to this contemporary story arrives, because every time that Prune begins to experience intense sadness or anxiety, her world suddenly fills with vivid colours which she cannot explain.

This phenomenon does not confine itself to the house. As Prune walks into her new classroom the following day she again finds her surroundings awash with colour and by standing open-mouthed with astonishment she opens herself up to the cruel barbs of a pack of bullies nicknamed the Vile-lets. These three girls are vicious in the way they target their victims and Prune is only saved from utter despair by the kindness of classmate Doug who was their previous main target. A temporary replacement teacher alongside the fact that Prune doesn’t want to worry her mother, means that she has to put up with the bullying for far too long before the combination of Doug and Jesse persuade her to do the right thing and tell an adult.

Prune’s relationship with older brother Jesse was one of my favourite aspects of this book because it was so realistically portrayed. They clearly had a very close bond, with Jesse demonstrating great kindness and care for his younger sister when they were alone together, whilst also dismissing her in front of Bryce when trying to present a cool image. In turn, Prune is buoyed up by Jesse’s attention and clearly worries that he is throwing away his life chances by hanging out with someone who is leading him into trouble.

Can Prune and Jesse resolve their differences; will Prune be able to shake off the bullies; and will she be able to help her brother escape from a toxic friendship? How will the legend of the “Delmere Magic” and Prune’s amazing artistic ability interact and can eleven year old girls become superheroes? You will have to read this middle grade contemporary fantasy to discover the answers.

The Wondrous Prune is a story of family love, finding your inner strength and focussing on the positive, which is ideally pitched for an upper key stage 2 readership. I’m sure that there will be many who would love to possess Prune’s superpower! The electronic proof that I read did not contain any artwork although I believe that the finished paperback will have illustrated chapter headings which I imagine will bring to life Prune’s artistic abilities.

Publication is due on 12th May 2022 and I am most grateful to Bloomsbury Children’s Books and NetGalley for access to an e-ARC.

Books for Christmas Gifts 2021

It’s that time of year when I start shopping for the books that increasingly form the backbone of my Christmas shopping list. There has been another fantastic roster of new books emerging this year and we are actually spoilt for choice when entering a bookshop, so I thought I would share some of the books that have stood out for me during the past 12 months and which I will be buying and giving this festive season.

Christmas/Festive Themed

Christmas/Festive themed books 2021

Once Upon A Silent Night by Dawn Casey and Katie Hickey is a beautiful retelling of the Nativity story inspired by a medieval carol, which would make a delightful gift for any pre-school child.

The Christmas Carrolls by Mel Taylor-Bessent and Selom Sunu is a huge-hearted festive story which absolutely brims over with Christmas cheer, warmth and humour.

The Lights that Dance in the Night by Yuval Zommer is an enchanting picture book which sparkles with the magic of the Northern Lights; in the author’s own words “a miracle of winter”.

Non-fiction

Non-fiction published in 2021 by David Fickling Books and Bloomsbury

Roar Like a Lion by Carlie Sorosiak: a wellbeing book with a different twist, looking at what we can learn from the animal kingdom to help us navigate some of life’s uncertainties. If you know a tween or teen who has struggled with some of the challenges of the past two years, put a copy of this compassionate and life-affirming book into their hands.

How Was That Built? by Roma Agrawal and Katie Hickey is quite simply a towering work of non-fiction which will make a fantastic present for curious minds of any age.

Translated Fiction

Interestingly, both of my choices in this category come from Scandinavian writers and feature unconventional stories brimming with wit and wisdom. Firstly we have the classic children’s story Pippi Lockstocking by Astrid Lindgren which has just been re-released in a glorious hardback format with new illustrations in her trademark collage-style, by Lauren Child. A beautifully designed gift for any child to treasure. Recommended for age 7+.

Newly translated into English this year, Me and the Robbersons by Finnish author Siri Kolu (translated by Ruth Urbom) was one of my most joyous middle-grade reads of the summer. An anarchic tale of sweet-toothed, highway bandits on the roads of Sweden, the humour envelopes a beautiful story of acceptance. Recommended for age 9+.

MG Fiction

The Exploding Life of Scarlett Fife by Maz Evans and Chris Jevons is a riot of jokes, warmth and love, fully illustrated and perfect for readers who are gaining independence and don’t mind stopping every few minutes to wipe away the tears of laughter.

Mickey and the Trouble with Moles by Anne Miller and Becka Moor is their second hugely entertaining, illustrated, spy mystery in this series, which will test the brainpower of junior cryptographers. An excellent introduction to the world of espionage fiction.

The Crackledawn Dragon by Abbie Elphinstone is the conclusion to her Unmapped Kingdoms trilogy. It is a story brimming with kindness, playfulness and sheer, unbound imaginative brilliance which will delight readers of 9+

The Swallows’ Flight by Hilary McKay is a deeply moving story set during WWII and told from the perspective of both English and German characters. The elegant imagery of swallows flits through this story of the importance of seemingly small acts of kindness. A thoughtful read for anyone of 11+.

Island Adventures

Three books, all set on islands situated off the Irish coast were amongst my favourite MG titles this year, so I’ve given them a category of their own!

Noah’s Gold by Frank Cottrell-Boyce is a treasure chest of heart, humour and hope; a wonderful story which will entertain all the family. Perfect for reading aloud when the generations are gathered together over the festive period.

The Stormkeepers’ Battle by Catherine Doyle concludes the thrilling and lyrical trilogy of the battle for the soul of wild Arranmore Island.

The Way to Impossible Island by Sophie Kirtley is a life-affirming, time-slip novel about overcoming fears and challenging expectations.

Young Adult Fiction

Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller is unlike anything I have ever read in all my (many) years as a reader. I actually haven’t written my full review yet as I am still trying to process the insight that author Lisa Fuller has generously provided into her cultural beliefs. I did find some aspects quite frightening, so would certainly say that this is a book for over 16s and not those of a nervous disposition but I’m sure it will also be of great interest to adults who wish to gain some understanding of the culture and spiritual beliefs of First Nations Australians.

I am Winter by Denise Brown is a beautifully written, gritty, and compelling whodunnit perfect for readers of 15+ .

Review: Once Upon A Silent Night written by Dawn Casey, illustrated by Katie Hickey

Cover illustration by Katie Hickey, to be published by Bloomsbury on 11th November 2021

This beautiful retelling of the Nativity story is inspired by the medieval Christmas carol ‘The Friendly Beasts’ in which the stable animals recount their parts in the story of Jesus’ birth.

In this picturebook, the extraordinarily gorgeous artwork by Katie Hickey accompanies Dawn Casey’s simple, rhyming text. The combination draws you into the story from the opening spread. Here, woodland creatures look across a snow covered landscape rendered in a palette of warm blues and pinks. Their gaze is focussed on a small wooden stable, from which a golden glow shines above the half-door.

Once upon a silent night,

a stable stood.

A star shone bright.

As the heavily pregnant woman and her husband arrive, followed by a donkey, they are dressed in contemporary winter clothing; you can almost feel the texture of the woman’s Scandi-style, woollen jumper. She wonders who will welcome her baby, and is answered over the subsequent pages of the book by each of the stable animals, their faces shining with joy.

I love the way that the natural world and the supernatural, in the form of angels, have been seamlessly combined in this addition to the Nativity canon. Although I have read this as an e-book, I believe that it will be published in hardback and it will make a treasured gift for young children, even the end papers have been produced with great care and attention. I think that it will be a very popular addition to the Christmas story collections of nurseries, preschools, Early Years and Key Stage 1 classrooms where the rhythmic text will be memorised and the illustrations pored over repeatedly.

I am grateful to Bloomsbury Publishing and NetGalley for allowing me access to an electronic proof copy of Once Upon A Silent Night, which will be published on 11th November 2021.

Blog Tour: The Way to Impossible Island by Sophie Kirtley

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 8th July 2021

I am thrilled to be joining Sophie Kirtley at the top of the East Lighthouse on Lathrin, for the blog tour for The Way to Impossible Island. From the moment I picked up this book, I was utterly captivated by the combination of characters, setting, theme and Sophie’s lyrical writing. Although I couldn’t finish it in one sitting – pesky chores; I wanted to! I predict that this is a book many children will lose themselves in during the school summer holiday. I love this book as an adult reader and can tell you that 10 year-old me would have been transfixed.

The themes of self-esteem and a child’s self-empowerment are seamlessly woven together with an immersion in the natural landscape. Oh, and there’s a time-slip adventure here too! If you loved Sophie’s previous MG novel, The Wild Way Home, you will enjoy revisiting some of the characters here. Research shows that both reading and an immersion in nature have positive benefits on mental wellbeing in adults and children. In my non-scientific study with a cohort of one subject, I conclude that the feel-good effects of this book are beyond doubt!

So as we gaze out over the island landscape, Sophie has very kindly agreed to answer some questions about the impact of the natural world on wellbeing.

Firstly, can I just thank you for allowing me to ask you some questions, based on your new MG novel The Way to Impossible Island, I’m grateful that you are taking the time for this, and I look forward to sharing your answers.

Thank you so much, Veronica, for having me on your blog and for all the support you give to books and authors (not just me!!) I think a lot of people can under-estimate the vital work children’s librarians do to matchmake books and young readers; so many children do struggle to make choices which fit their needs and tastes, so are reliant upon the expertise of others to help them make these choices. I love libraries and I’m delighted that initiatives like Cressida Cowell’s Life-Changing Libraries campaign seem to be gathering such momentum @CressidaCowell Life-Changing Libraries | BookTrust

As I am an ex-school librarian, now working in an NHS library, an area that particularly interests me is the effects of reading on mental health. I am struck by the sensory descriptions of the natural world in The Way to Impossible Island and would like to explore this with you.

That must be a fascinating change in direction for you. What an interesting setting!

To begin with, there is a tangible sense of place in the setting of the story, Lathrin Island. I suspect that it might be based on Rathlin Island, a place that I only heard about when I started a distance-learning course with the University of Ulster. Can you tell us whether Lathrin is based on an island that you have visited and your motivation for using it as the focus of the story?

Yes, you’re absolutely right – Lathrin Island is indeed based on Rathlin Island! I was born in Ballymoney, Northern Ireland and both The Wild Way Home and The Way to Impossible Island draw on settings which are warmly familiar to me from my own childhood. From an early age I was fascinated with Rathlin Island and I longed to go there, but even though we didn’t live that far away, for some reason we never did. It wasn’t until I was forty-two-and-a-half that I actually visited Rathlin for the first time! (see pic)

Sophie Kirtley on the way to Impossible Island, photo credit Andrew Kirtley

So perhaps that sense of longing and mystery which Dara gets from the island in the book is a bit like my own longing for that unreachable place! The more I researched Rathlin the more there was to draw upon for The Way to Impossible Island: the wildlife; the heritage; the myths.

I was a wee bit cheeky though as by calling it ‘Lathrin’ it gives me some licence to play around with the geography and not be utterly true to real life Rathlin. In real life, for example, Rathlin is the largest inhabited island off the coast of Ireland – there’s a whole community of people who live there; my ‘Lathrin’ island is only populated by cows and wild creatures! (see pic)

Rathlin Cows, photo credit James Logan

You include a variety of animals which impact key moments in the narrative for example the golden hare and the porpoises, have you always been a lover of nature and what is the appeal of the natural world to you?

Yes, wildness and the natural world are right at the heart of my books. It’s important to me not to just make animals seem cute or funny but to show how we all share a world together and ought to respect one another. Even when I was a girl I loved being outside – swimming in the sea, playing in the forest, running in the fields. The natural world felt, and still feels, boundless and unlimited; freeing somehow.

I am also intrigued by Mothgirl’s adoption of a wolf cub and utterly adored ByMySide’s character and narrative arc. Did you study wolves and their behaviour during the writing process, and could you tell us something about this?

Thank you. I love ByMySide too! Yes, I read a lot about wolves and wolf behaviour. Plus I was lucky enough to visit and observe an wolf pack at a conservation centre called the Wild Place Project in Bristol and to chat with, Zoe Greenhill, the specialist keeper there. Just watching these incredible animals and quizzing Zoe about their habits and behaviours really helped give me a deeper understanding which in turn helped me create ByMySide convincingly and respectfully too. @wild_place  Wild Place Project – Home – Wild Place 

Wild Place Wolf, photo credit Sophie Kirtley

Do you have any thoughts on the impact that taking care of a pet can have on children?

We have two cats, Dizzy and Dude, and my own children love them deeply. I think having a pet helps children learn empathy – they know when their pet is frightened or at ease and the deceptively simple act of reading the emotions of others and responding kindly is a hugely important life lesson.

Dizzy in a plant pot, photo credit Sophie Kirtley

It is not only your descriptions of wildlife that spoke to me, but there is also a particular passage quite near the end of the book when Mothgirl chases her wolf and the golden hare through a wheatfield and your description of the sights, sounds and smells was completely evocative of my walk to primary school, many, many years ago. How important do you think it is for children to be physically active outside and did you deliberately include these descriptions for children who might have only known city life?

I didn’t especially think of city children when writing these descriptions, but it’s really lovely to imagine my stories transporting readers to unfamiliar places, or as in your case, Veronica, to familiar places within their own memories.

I do think that time spent outdoors is very important for children’s (and adults’!) wellbeing and I’m delighted that the whole Forest School and Outdoor Learning movements seem to be gaining such momentum in the education world. I love reading about what educators like Mike Watson @WatsEd and Chartham Forest School @CharthamForest get up to on their wild adventures. I’m always especially thrilled when teachers get in touch with me to share the amazing learning beyond the classroom which has been inspired by my books; have a look on my website gallery page The Gallery – YOUR work | Sophie Kirtley to see the Stone Age settlements created by Leanne Moses’s class at Synchdyn Primary (@MosesLeanne @SychdynSchool) and the wild cooking around Langdale Primary’s campfire (@langdaleprimary).

I can only describe some passages in the story as poetic. Did you structure your writing this way to encourage some mindful reflection at these moments?

I’ve always written poetry, even before I turned my mind to fiction. So I think when my characters experience especially high or low moments in a story the poetry just pops out! I love being playful with structure and form in my writing, the passages which appear differently on the page are there to try to capture the extreme nature of the characters’ experiences in shape as well as in words. Sorry if I’m being a bit cryptic; I’m trying to avoid giving tooooo much away!

Both of your books, The Wild Way Home and The Way to Impossible Island seem to have the natural world and long-term environmental changes to a landscape as overarching themes. Did you consciously set out to bring these factors to the attention of your readers?

It’s funny because I didn’t consciously set out with this, or any, agenda – I just set out to tell an exciting and tender story. However, I find that as a story unfolds I’m often struck by how the themes I really care about do seem to come sneaking in at the edges. Appreciating and protecting the wildlife around us is something I care about deeply and never has there been a more essential moment to unlock conversations with children about the natural world and their role within it. Perhaps books are a way to spark these important conversations and open up the possibilities of change.

Several mental health charities for children, such as Place2Be and the Anna Freud Centre have encouraged young people to spend time in the fresh air to de-stress. Do you hope that reading about children adventuring in the natural world might encourage your readers to step away from their screen-based devices and spend some time connecting with nature?

I would never claim to be an expert in children’s mental health, but I do think there’s enormous power in connecting with the natural world – for children, for adults, for everyone – and perhaps reading adventurously, reading wildly, can go some of the way towards unlocking that power. Saying that, I do think there is value in screen-based activities too (building communities; learning collaborative skills; finding a sense of belonging) and I certainly don’t see time spent outdoors as a panacea. But, for me, I simply love being out in the natural world and I can definitely see why mental health charities are exploring these possibilities.

The chapter heading images throughout the story seemed to suggest the circularity of life, how reassuring do you think this aspect of nature might be for your readership?

A lot of what I write is about acceptance. In the Wild Way Home Charlie and Harby learn to accept that dreadful things can happen, but if we stick together and help each other then we’ll be OK. In The Way to Impossible Island Dara and Mothgirl have to each accept that they are different from the mould that their respective worlds have shaped for them and that they can celebrate themselves and each other for who they actually are. It was important for me to convey a message beyond a simple ‘happy ending’ – although my stories are fantastical in lots of ways they are grounded in our real world and I feel that in life it’s more helpful to accept than to seek to ‘fix’ things (like death or illness) which are difficult and inherently ‘unfixable’ and out of our control.

Thank you again Sophie. I was absolutely captivated by this book, and I am sure it is going to be hugely enjoyed by many, many readers; hopefully whilst sitting under the shade of a tree during the last few weeks of the summer term or the long summer holidays.

Thank you so much, Veronica. It’s been lovely to answer your interesting questions. I wish you best of luck with your job and with your University course. Have a lovely summer!

Sophie x

I am hugely grateful to Beatrice at Bloomsbury Children’s Books for my review copy of The Way to Impossible Island and for inviting me aboard the blog tour for this truly amazing book. Highly recommended for confident readers of 9+, for parents or carers to read aloud and share with children of 8/9+ and for Key Stage 2 classrooms who might be studying UK landscapes in their geography curriculum. Do stop at all the other blog posts on the tour!

Blog Tour image courtesy of Bloomsbury Children’s Books

#ReadingIrelandMonth21: The Storm Keepers’ Battle by Catherine Doyle

Published by Bloomsbury 04/03/2021

The wonderful blogger Cathy at 746Books.com is hosting #readingirelandmonth21 and for my first contribution I present a review of The Storm Keepers’ Battle, a brilliant #MiddleGrade fantasy set on a small island off the West Coast of Ireland and written by a hugely talented Irish author, Catherine Doyle. I hope that you enjoy this post and do check out the many others posted under the #readingirelandmonth21 banner.

The final instalment of Catherine Doyle’s Storm Keeper trilogy is one of my most anticipated books of 2021 and I was delighted to be approved to read an eARC on NetGalley.

The story continues days after Fionn Boyle’s confrontation with the dark force that threatens his ancestral island home of Arranmore, a wild, storm-battered and beautiful island off the west coast of Ireland, related in book two, The Lost Tide Warriors. 

‘Fionn Boyle was sure of two things:

One, he was full of an ancient, rippling magic that could explode from him at any moment. Two, he had absolutely no idea how to control it.’

This story is MG Fantasy at its finest. A cast of brave and loyal friends who support Fionn through his doubts and difficulties; a sarcastic older sister who comes through for her brother when it really counts; a terrifyingly evil foe and hugely importantly, the island itself. For me it is the sense of place which makes this book and indeed the entire trilogy stand out. The deep magic which pervades Arranmore, with its hauntingly magical locations such as the Whispering Tree, Cowans Lake and even Morrigan’s lair on Black Point Rock all appear utterly authentic and resonate with bone-deep ancestry and connection to the land. I think this can only be achieved by a masterful author who knows and feels that same connection to place.  On the island of Arranmore…

‘If it sounds impossible, then it’s probably true’

As evil sorceress Morrigan sends out her brothers, Brendon the Brutal and Aldric the Silent to capture new recruits for her army of soul stealers, the inhabitants of Arranmore led by Fionn and his family and friends battle against time to locate their own sorcerer, Dagda, to lead the fight against her. The story captures twelve-year-old Fionn’s battle against his own self-doubt and sense of inadequacy for the role which has been thrust upon him. The humorous teen banter between Fionn, his sister Tara and friends Sam and Shelby, contrasting with their fierce loyalty to each other in the heat of battle is deeply moving. The closing chapters of the story held me enraptured as I sat up far too late into the night to finish the book.

This is a perfect finale to one of the best Middle Grade series that I have read and I highly recommend it to all confident readers of 10+

I am grateful to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for granting me access to an eARC ahead of publication and I will be buying a physical copy, hoping that I can find a signed one on sale, to join the other two in the series on my bookshelf.

Image created by Cathy at 746Books and used with permission

Review: The Wild Way Home by Sophie Kirtley

The Wild Way Home

This book is an extraordinary feast for the senses. A story about the power of family, it also feels like a celebration of the ancient woodland of the British Isles, with a deep love of nature permeating every description of a majestic tree or the instinctive behaviour of a forest animal. The language resonates with nature-related similes;  examples include the description of footprints in the sandy riverbank: “bird prints, like little letters in another language.” ancient flowers are “massive and speckled and wrong, like tongue-out faces with wavering tentacles.” Meat cooked in the smoke of a fire is “so tender I hardly have to chew and it’s delicious, like ham would be if ham was less pink and more wild.”

 Charlie Merriam loves Mandel Forest which stands at the edge of his home and town, and knows every inch of it, having played there with his two best friends, Lamont and Beaky since their early childhoods. On the eve of his twelfth birthday Charlie finds a deer’s tooth on the forest floor which he picks up to add to his “Mandel Museum”. The following day Charlie goes to visit his much longed-for, newborn baby brother Dara only to find that his parents are devastated as Dara faces a life-saving heart operation. Unable to cope with the anguish, Charlie runs to the forest, from where he glimpses the multiple windows of the distant hospital looking like a fly’s compound eye, each seeing things from a slightly different perspective. 

This is appropriate to Charlie’s sense of disorientation, when, after squeezing the deer tooth tightly in his hand he finds himself in altered surroundings. Although the familiar landmarks are recognisable, the forest seems wilder and the colours and sounds have taken on a greater intensity. Then he spots the body, face down in the stream…

Somehow, Charlie has time-slipped back to the stone-age! As he forges a relationship with Harby, the stone-age boy he rescues from the stream, he begins to realise that both of them are running from emotions too powerful to deal with. The primitive instincts for survival, for companionship, home and family are all explored.

The sense of a landscape linking the distant past with the present day is beautifully imagined in this emotional story, with the ancient Spirit Stone standing as the totemic link between past and present. The tale also conjured for me an evocation of a more carefree past when children spent their summers playing outside and roaming independently rather than being glued to a screen or tracked by worried parents through their digital devices. 

This is an exciting and thought-provoking tale, with some deeply emotional moments and some episodes of heart-stopping, adrenaline-pumping, jeopardy. I would recommend it for readers in Year 6 and beyond, perfect for readers who have loved The Last Wild trilogy by Piers Torday, The Explorer by Katherine Rundell  or Stig of the Dump by Clive King.

I am grateful to Bloomsbury Kids UK for approving me to read an e-ARC of this story on #NetGalley

Review: Codebusters by Dan Metcalf

IMG_3165

This book is an entertaining, easy read which opens a door to cryptography for a Key Stage 2 readership. It is produced by Bloomsbury’s Black Cats imprint, a set of fast-paced stories with illustrations throughout, designed to appeal to even reluctant readers.

Jackson Hilbert has to move schools, to Bletchley Grange, mid-term and decides to re-invent himself as “Jax” a popular footballer rather than the maths geek he was viewed as at his last school. However, he just can’t stop his competitive edge getting the better of him in a prime number challenge in his first maths class, and following a little code-cracking he is recruited by the “codebusters”!

Before his first week at Bletchley Grange is over, he is embroiled in deciphering a trail of clues alongside Jasper Newton, Michelle Chang and Charlie Babbage, to discover the whereabouts of a stolen school trophy. With guidance from the super-intelligent Captain Sir Alastair Horacio Turing PhD, this team of smart kids pool their talents to take on the challenges that the mysterious ”Elgar” has set for them.

I love the way that the author, Dan Metcalf, has played with the names of his characters and introduced ideas such as the Caesar cipher, which could spark an interest in the discipline of cyber-security in young readers. For those intrigued by secret codes, more information and some fun worksheets can be found on the author’s website: danmetcalf.co.uk I would certainly recommend this book as an entertaining read for children of 8+ and a great cross-curricular resource for accompanying aspects of the Key Stage 2 computing curriculum.

Review: The Good Thieves by Katherine Rundell

Good Thieves

I am always slightly worried when I review a new book by Katherine Rundell that I won’t be able to do justice to her talent, but here are my thoughts on The Good Thieves.

Although I bought this book on publication day, I saved reading it until I was actually away on holiday so that I could enjoy it without distractions. It certainly rewarded the wait!

Firstly, it is an absolute page-turner, hooking the reader from the opening line

“Vita set her jaw and nodded at the city in greeting, as a boxer greets an opponent before a fight”

and refusing to let you go until Vita has executed her bold plan. She arrives in 1920s New York, with her mother to discover that her beloved and recently bereaved grandpa has been cheated out of the ancestral home,  Hudson Castle, by Mr Sorrotore – a mafiosi figure. As the opening line suggests, Vita is a fighter and sets out into the unfamiliar city to confront the villain and demand restitution. Of course, such a direct approach from a child has no effect other than to anger Mr Sorrotore, so Vita must employ other means to reclaim the castle and its contents.

 In the course of planning her heist, to steal back the rightful belongings of her family, Vita enlists a team comprising Arkady (a circus performer with a gift for training animals), Sam (a trapeze artist) and Silk (a pick-pocket who has fended for herself since childhood). They combine their skills with Vita’s deadly aim and gift for planning, to take on the villainous gang.

The author effortlessly portrays the contrast between the glamorous, brightly-lit, night-life of the wealthy inhabitants of the city and the dark, dangerous underside where some of the wealth is generated. The writing fizzes and sparkles with wit and energy, and as usual there is no hint of a cliche anywhere. Instead the unique style rewards the readers with original descriptions. For example, a seagull, “gave the scandalised cry of an angry duchess” when hit by one of Vita’s stones! (If you are a long-time fan of Katherine Rundell, you will find the statutory “Belgium joke” on page 63).

I love the way that Katherine Rundell is able to capture a child’s sense of outrage at injustice, and their determination to take agency to put right a wrong. I think that many young readers will recognise this aspect of themselves as they enjoy this hugely entertaining adventure, which for me brought back memories of the classic Emil and The Detectives. The descriptions of Vita’s refusal to allow her physical disability to hold her back are inspirational and the overall feeling of love and hope make this story a rewarding one. Finally, I should mention the gloriously stylish cover and interior illustrations by Matt Saunders, which further enhance the quality of this book.

Overall, a wonderful MG adventure which I will be recommending to all upper KS2 pupils. For adults wishing to read aloud in class or as a bedtime story, be prepared for pleas of “one more chapter”!
This #Book13 of my #20BooksofSummer challenge hosted by Cathy at 746Books. I have enjoyed taking part in the challenge for the first time this year as it has encouraged me to blog more regularly and has introduced me to a new community of fantastic book bloggers. I am sorry that I won’t meet my target of 20 reviews, but this is partly due to the fact that I’ve read a number of “grown-up” books and even a rare YA novel this summer, but limit my blog to MG and Early Years reviews.

Review: The Lost Tide Warriors by Catherine Doyle

Lost Tide Warriors

Tick, tock, tick, tock; time is running out for the Stormkeeper!

Returning to Arranmore, the wild and magical island that remembers everything, is such an all-consuming experience that I barely noticed the two long journeys, on one of the hottest days of the year, during which I devoured this book.

Fionn has taken over the role of Stormkeeper from his granddad, Malachy Boyle, but he is struggling under the weight of responsibility to the islanders, desperately seeking to find and control his magic and haunted by the constant, tormenting refrain of the evil Sorceress Morrigan inside his head. The winter solstice approaches and with it Morrigan’s promise that she will rise again to spread her evil reign across the world. When the ferries begin arriving at the harbour filled with dead-eyed Soulstalkers, Fionn realises that he must face his destiny despite his insecurities, but who can he trust to assist him?

Time is also running out for Malachy Boyle, as his candle burns down and his memories are lost to the encroaching darkness of Alzheimer’s. The bond between Malachy and Fionn is the central core of this magnificent book, perfectly summarised when Fionn asks his grandfather how he manages to be so brave in the face of a final battle with Morrigan’s army of Soulstalkers,

“Because I love you more than I fear them, Fionn.”

In the sequel to The Stormkeeper’s Island we learn more of the mythology of Arranmore, as Fionn and his friends, Sam and Shelby, and family, burn Malachy’s candles in their quest for a strategy to defeat Morrigan. In the face of opposition from arrogant and domineering Elizabeth Beasley, Fionn races against time to search for the Tide Summoner, a magical conch shell which will call the Merrows, a fearsome army of ferocious sea creatures. Can he harness his magic and overcome his uncertainties in order to battle the blackest evil. Will he learn that he cannot work alone and realise the power of cooperation and teamwork against a seemingly indestructible enemy? 

Conjured with lyrical beauty by an author of true majesty, this story is simply breath-taking.  It is heart-warming and heart-breaking in equal measure, tissues are required!! Through the voice of Malachy Boyle the book overflows with wisdom, but allies this with a self-deprecating humour so that profound truths are accompanied by phrases like, “another fridge magnet.” This is one of those books that seeps deep into your heart and causes your eyes to leak.

I am deeply grateful to Scott Evans @MrEPrimary and the team at Bloomsbury Children’s Publishing for organising the inaugural Primary School Bookclub Live event with Catherine Doyle. It was an amazing experience to hear her talking about the real island of Arranmore, her family’s stories and the inspiration behind the Stormkeeper quartet. I cannot wait for book 3 to be published!

 

This is #Book7 in my #20BooksofSummer challenge hosted by Cathy at 746Books.