BlogTourReview: A Head Full of Magic by Sarah Morrell

Published by Hashtag Press April 2022, cover art by Helen Braid

Ten-year-old Fleur Marie Bottom is dealing with a lot of problematic issues as she approaches the final weeks of primary school. Her Dad mysteriously left home following the death of Grandpa Willie and hasn’t been heard from since; Nan has moved into the attic accompanied by her African Grey parrot, Sir Barclay; and mum is intent on trying out West Indian recipes to make Nan feel at home – with disastrous effects! The arrival of a new girl named Celeste in her class has only compounded Fleur’s problems. Her long-standing best friends, Anais and Ruby, have declared that they now find chess and books and hanging out in the library “boring” and have gravitated into Celeste’s sphere of after-school pizza and play dates. She has inexplicably been attacked by a swarm of birds in the local park and her ankles are the constant targets of Celeste’s underhand tactics on the hockey pitch.

As her emotions ricochet between despair, sadness and worry, Fleur discovers that she has been “blessed with a head full of magic”, as her powers are awoken by the changes taking place in her life. Navigating the bullying at school and concern for the increasing frailty of Nan becomes a lot more complicated when fledgling magical talents as a “Hexter” become part of the mix. Fortunately, when she finally plucks up the courage to talk honestly to Nan, guidance is forthcoming. Deploying her “animalator” talent for talking to animals, to outsmart Celeste during the hockey tournament gives rise to scenes which resemble a humorous hybrid of Dr Dolittle and Malory Towers!

This debut Middle Grade novel from Sarah Morrell is a fun and satisfying story of a caring multi-generational and multi-cultural family bound together with love and secrets. The underlying message of embracing difference, being proud of who you are and realising that sharing worries is the strong and brave course of action emerges gently from the narrative. I think that this story will be very popular amongst children in years 5 and 6 who will find parallels with the characters and predicaments, and might yearn for their own Sir Barclay-style ally!

I am most grateful to Helen Lewis at Literally PR and Hashtag Press for sending me a copy of A Head Full of Magic to review and for inviting me aboard the blog tour.

Do check out the other stops by these fantastic reviewers on the blog tour!

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+ .

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.