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 Children of Castle Rock by Natasha Farrant

Castle Rock

I can think of no better way to summarise this book than this quote, which appears almost half-way through:

“This is the story of a girl who lost her mother and her home, and was afraid of losing her father, and needed to find herself.”

The story opens in heart-breaking fashion with Alice bidding farewell to Cherry Grange, the house that has been home to generations of Mistlethwaites for over a hundred years, culminating with her digging up the white rose bush which was planted in memory of her late mother.

She sets off with her Dad, Aunt Patience, a couple of suitcases and boxes and the plant known as mum, “driving towards an unknown and terrifying future.”

It seems that worse is to follow. In her attempts to pull Alice out of her imaginary world and force her to engage with real life, Aunt Patience has decided that boarding school will be good for Alice. She is thrust onto the sleeper train from Euston to travel to school at Stormy Loch Academy in Scotland and on the journey meets Jesse Okuyo, the youngest of 4 brothers, who longs for adventure. Stormy Loch is “an unconventional school with an approximate approach to health and safety”, run by The Major who likes to rescue waifs and strays. On arrival in the vastness of the Scottish Highlands, something about the atmosphere of the place makes Alice believe that her stories can come true…and the adventure begins.

The plot hinges around an Orienteering Challenge and a stolen jade statue, it explores parenting, teamwork and trust and weaves all of these threads perfectly.

This book had me mesmerised with its relatable protagonists, exuberant celebration of the majesty of the landscape, thrilling plot and imaginative writing. I loved the way that Natasha Farrant used her authorial voice to drop hints and teasers throughout. There were frequent, knowing nods to other boarding school books which I am sure will be enjoyed by readers, and the development of the three main protagonists, Alice, Jesse and Fergus was beautifully described. 

I can’t believe that I’ve had this gem sitting, undiscovered, in my “to be read” stack for months – I absolutely recommend that you don’t delay for as long as I have, but get hold of a copy and read it. A fantastic book for confident readers of 9+ 

This is #Book12 in my #20BooksofSummer challenge hosted by Cathy at 746Books.

Scoop McLaren: Detective Editor Blog Tour – Author Interview with Helen Castles

SM_Blog Tour

Today I am beyond excited that it is my stop on the #Blogtour for Scoop McLaren: Detective Editor, the first in a new MG Detective/Mystery series by Australian author Helen Castles. As well as my review of the book, Helen has kindly answered questions about her inspiration and motivation for this wonderful new series. So, without further delay, allow me to introduce Helen to UK readers through a Q and A!

Hi Helen, firstly, can I congratulate you on your debut novel Scoop McLaren: Detective Editor, which I thoroughly enjoyed. What inspired you to write an MG book?

I loved books as a child, the places they took me to and the people I got to meet. As an author, I wanted to write novels for children, to be able to provide that joy for them that I always felt as a child when reading. I had written two books previously (unpublished), one for middle grade and one young adult novel. The YA novel subsequently got turned into a short film. After a few years of working for a newspaper, meeting so many interesting people and telling so many stories, I thought it would be a good idea to write about my life as a journalist. While still wanting to write a children’s novel, I decided to combine the two and Scoop is the result!

I love your main character, the quick-thinking, bold and determined Henley “Scoop” McLaren. Knowing that you are a journalist I wondered how much of Scoop is based on your own childhood?

I am so thrilled you love Scoop! While I wouldn’t say that any part of Scoop is based on my own childhood, I do love and purposely wanted to focus on the relationship between Scoop and her dad. My own father died when I was nine, so it’s kind of like writing about a part of me and my life that I wished I’d had growing up.

The seaside town of Higgity Harbour almost seems to be a character in its own right, is it based on an actual place?

That’s a great compliment, thank you. It’s not based on an actual place but, in my mind, it would be an idyllic place to live. I’ve always been drawn to the seaside and always wanted to live by the ocean. I really wanted Higgity Harbour to come to life for readers, for them to be able to close their eyes and just see the town so clearly with its cherry blossom lined streets and cobblestone pavement. I grew up in a small community so I also wanted to relay the values of such close-knit communities – friendship, looking out for one another, helping each other – in the novel.

Although the story is obviously set in the modern day, with mobile phones, laptops, internet publishing etc, somehow the story gave me a nostalgic vibe – it reminded me of The Famous Five and The Nancy Drew Mysteries that I loved as a child; was this something you intended?

Yes, so thank you again! I tried to add traditional touches to the language and to the story as well; the kids always referring to people as “Mr” and “Mrs”, that sort of thing. I wanted to add an element of wholesomeness from days gone by to the story, while still keeping it modern.

Who would you see as your target readership for Scoop McLaren?

I think Scoop will appeal to both girls and boys from ages nine through to thirteen/fourteen. While some may think of the book as just appealing to girl readers since the two main characters are female, some of the strongest feedback I’ve gotten thus far has been from boys.

I like the tips and tricks for writing at the back of the book, do you hope to inspire a new generation of junior journalists?

Absolutely! I can just picture children in their school holidays interviewing friends and relatives, collecting and researching stories and turning them into their very own newspaper. I really hope my readers will be inspired to consider journalism as a career because it’s such an important job, keeping people informed. But it doesn’t even have to be journalism – I hope the books inspire kids to just write. To tell their own stories.

I am hoping that there will be a long series of Scoop McLaren books; have you finished writing book 2, and how long will we have to wait for publication?

I am in the final stages of editing book 2 at the moment, and I’m so excited about it! I imagine it will be available early 2020.

How long did it take you to develop the character of Scoop McLaren, and was it straightforward to get a publishing deal?

I first mentioned the character of Scoop to a friend of mine who is a librarian and she loved the idea of a girl mystery-solving newspaper editor. I then left it for a while, mainly due to newspaper commitments, but a few months later I thought, “Right. This is it. I’ve wanted to write this book for so long, I’m going to do it!”. Scoop developed over the course of a few weeks. I had scrap bits of paper everywhere with characteristics I wanted for Scoop that would suddenly pop into my head while I was at the supermarket, or out driving. I’d have to stop and get them down. Over the course of that time, I just grew to love this character and I thought her sassiness and her determination would endear her to readers as well.

I pitched the book to a couple of commercial publishers here in Australia and one liked the pitch and requested to read the whole manuscript. I was so pleased about that because it was the first time a book publisher had said, “Hey, we like it, send it over!”. While they did not end up taking it on, the feedback was good and they really encouraged me to keep sending it out which I did and a few months later New Frontier Publishing offered me a contract. I couldn’t be happier to work with a whole bunch of people who love Scoop just as much as I do.

Growing up in Australia, did you mainly read books by Australian authors, or were British and American writers just as accessible and popular? What were your favourite childhood books?

As a young child, I absolutely loved the Snugglepot and Cuddlepie series by Australian author May Gibbs. British and American writers were just as accessible and popular, and I loved Roald Dahl books. Still do! I can’t imagine my childhood without him, really. I remember reading Black Beauty by Anna Sewell and loving it. When I was a bit older I read George Orwell’s Animal Farm and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. While I wouldn’t say they were favourites, they were definitely two books that have stayed with me. 

Have you read a lot of MG fiction in recent years, and if so, what have been the standout authors or titles for you?

Australian author Morris Gleitzman is becoming a favourite. I love his writing style and how he can deliver important messages in such fun, light-hearted ways.

Have you enjoyed the launch events at schools in Australia and do you plan to attend any book festivals or publishing events in the UK in the near future?

I have so loved going into schools and libraries and introducing Scoop. The children  have been phenomenal with their interest in the book. It’s truly amazing to look out into a sea of smiling faces and to hear giggles of delight when I’m reading from the book. As a children’s author, it doesn’t get much better than that.

I don’t have any firm plans to visit the UK in the near future but if the opportunity pops up, I’ll be on the first plane out!

 

Thank you for answering my questions. I’m sure that your UK readers will be delighted to learn a little bit about you and the background to your debut book and I hope that Scoop’s adventure will prove to be hugely entertaining, engaging and inspiring to middle grade readers here in the UK.

scoopm.jpg

My review

I am always on the lookout for mystery/adventure books aimed at readers aged 7-11, so I was delighted to receive a copy of this book by Australian writer Helen Castles and sent to me by New Frontier Publishing. Before reviewing the content I’d like to praise the production quality of the book itself. The perfectly named Scoop McLaren is picked out in gold on the beautifully designed cover, the glossy illustrations by Beatriz Castro leave you in no doubt that you are about to encounter a young writer and investigator. The cover is also particularly thick, quality card and the pages are very slightly buff-coloured which make the book a tactile pleasure to read.

Onto the story, which is set in an idyllic, small seaside town named Higgity Harbour, where Scoop’s dad is the editor of the local newspaper the Higgity Harbour Gazette (circulation 900). Scoop has been brought up accompanying her dad as he investigates local news stories and now writes her own daily, online newspaper, Click, with the help of her best friend and roving reporter Evie Andrews. Evie is “feisty, pushy, outspoken and over-confident. All the traits you need to be a successful reporter.” The relationships between Scoop and her dad and Scoop and Evie are perfectly crafted and entirely authentic; one example being that Mr McLaren is the only person in the town to call Scoop by her real name, Henley.

Other inhabitants of the town are similarly well-written and relatable with their distinctive personalities which realistically add to the small-town atmosphere, where everybody has been settled a long time and thinks they know everybody else’s business.

When a new online newspaper begins to be delivered to the inbox of every inhabitant at 1 minute past midnight, always predicting the next day’s terrible news (a plague of frogs, flooding, school mean-girl turned to stone) Scoop and Evie cannot understand why the mayor and even Mr McLaren are unwilling to investigate its editor, Sonny Fink. They are determined to reveal the identity of this villain who appears to be predicting events that are causing the destruction of their previously tranquil seaside community. No-one in the small town is above suspicion; will the two young investigators succeed in discovering who is putting on an appearance to cover their true identity!

Although set in the modern day, with mobile phones, laptops and the internet, this book conjured up a nostalgic vibe which reminded me of The Famous Five and Nancy Drew books which I adored as a child. The young teen characters taking matters into their own hands and doggedly tracking down leads to uncover the perpetrator of the villainous deeds will be engaging for MG readers to read alone, or would make a perfect bedtime story. The junior journalist aspect of the plot is likely to inspire to young writers and I could envisage this being used as a teaching resource, particularly when working on newspaper-writing elements of the curriculum or a model for school news reporters. I think this book will be extremely appealing to lower key stage 2 readers, as an introduction to the mystery/sleuthing genre and a fabulous precursor to series such as Ruby Redfort and Murder Most Unladylike. I am certainly looking forward to the further adventures of Scoop and her friends and I will be recommending this series to many young readers.

I am most grateful to the publishers, New Frontier Publishing, for gifting me a copy of Scoop McLaren: Detective Editor and for inviting me to join the blog tour for this exciting new MG series.

 

Review: Peril en Pointe by Helen Lipscombe

Peril en pointe

 

This first story in a new series, The Swan House Mysteries, sparkles like the rhinestones on a tutu!

The main protagonist, Milly, is astonished to be offered a scholarship to The Swan House School of Ballet, particularly after her expulsion from her previous ballet school following a disastrously clumsy performance in the Scarlet Slipper Ballet competition. On that fateful night, many months previously her mother, a world-famous ballerina, mysteriously disappeared from the audience, leaving Milly to be cared for by her Russian Babushka (grandmother), “Bab”.

On arrival at the grand mansion in Regents Park which is home to the Swan House Ballet School, Milly is incredulous to find out that it is no ordinary ballet school – in the words of the director, Miss Celia “ ballet dancers make excellent undercover agents. They are physically strong and mentally resilient. They also have good reason to travel the world.” Thus Milly finds herself, not only practising at the barre, but also learning martial arts and espionage skills!

In the manner of all great school-based stories, there is a great cast comprising vicious queen bees, led by the duplicitous Willow, larger than life teachers and our heroine, Milly’s friendship group of misfits: Lottie Li ( a mandarin-speaking, cockney scrapper), Merv Crump (a germ-phobic genius) and Benedict Spencer ( a leather-jacket wearing, rebel). On the staff rosta the standout characters are Madame de la Cloche, the strict ballet mistress, the martial arts instructor, The Captain (referred to as Thor by Milly) and of course Miss Celia the director who is frequently risking life and limb on another undercover mission.

The descriptions of the ballet school, with its extensive grounds, boating lake and secret tunnels make an exciting setting for the intrigue to come. Additionally, the wonderfully old-fashioned Meeks Shoemaking shop plays a key role in the mystery, and had an atmosphere reminiscent of Diagon Alley to me.

The plot revolves around another Scarlet Slipper Competition, with Swan School competing against an American and a Russian Academy. The Russian school is led by Ivan Korolev a former pupil of Miss Celia and now “ inciting discord and war..” Is he responsible for kidnapping Milly’s mother, and will the newly recruited young spies be up to the task of unravelling the mystery. The narrative is as light on its toes as a prima ballerina, the plot gliding effortlessly to the final denouement. Helen Lipscombe has an elegant turn of phrase, for example, “the theatre sighs with the sound of violins” which makes this book such a pleasure to read.

Milly embodies the school motto “ Cycni venustas cor leonis “ grace of a swan, heart of a lion!” and by the end realises that some things are even more precious that a coveted Scarlet Slipper trophy. 

I highly recommend this new twist on the adventure/mystery genre, featuring courage and friendship, to readers of 9+.

 

 

This is #Book11 in my #20BooksofSummer challenge, hosted by Cathy at 746Books

 

Review: On the Origin of Species retold and illustrated by Sabina Radeva

origin of species

This simplified explanation of Charles Darwin’s ground-breaking book, retold and illustrated by Sabina Radeva is one of the most sumptuous non-fiction books that I have had the pleasure to read, and I sincerely wish that it had been available in my, or my own children’s childhoods.

The first thing that struck me was the beautiful blue/green palette of the illustrations, which to me amplifies the beauty of life on our planet. Inside the covers there are detailed pictures of insects which the reader is challenged to find within the pages of the book.

The text is simple and straightforward, accessible to every reader, as it describes the way that living organisms have evolved on earth and explains Charles Darwin’s revolutionary theory of adaptation and evolution. The balance between text and illustration has been designed so perfectly that this book absolutely grabs your attention.

The work of other scientists such as Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Alfred Wallace is acknowledged, giving readers the message that scientific progress is often the work of more than one famous name. As you progress through the book, you fully appreciate the many years of detailed observations of multitudes of species that Darwin made in order to formulate his theories; the power of curiosity and wonder shines through the pages. Direct quotes from Darwin’s original text are illustrated with immense care and beauty by Sabina Radeva, whilst terminology like variation, natural selection and migration are explained with absolute clarity. I liked the way that difficulties in the theory and more recent updates are also discussed.

In summary, I think that this incredible book should be an essential addition to every school library to help all children understand how scientific discovery and scientific theories progress. Its extraordinary design can only help to enthuse readers about the natural world and scientific curiosity and development of understanding. I know that I will be gifting copies to my young relatives to marvel at. Oh, and don’t forget to identify the bugs and butterflies featured on each page!

 

This is #Book10 in my #20BooksofSummer challenge, hosted by Cathy at 746Books.

Review: Fractions in Disguise by Edward Einhorn

fractions in disguise

 

I absolutely adore books which teach or reinforce learning in the guise of an entertaining story – and Fractions in Disguise: A Math Adventure certainly falls into this category. The author Edward Einhorn has written a fast-paced story based on equivalence and simplification of fractions which has been beautifully illustrated by David Clark, resulting in an eye-catching and engaging story which will make fractions fun for primary school children.

George Cornelius Factor is crazy about adding fractions to his collection and when he hears that a rare 5/9 is being put up for auction, he is determined to buy it. He is joined at the auction house by Baron Mathematik and Madame de Géométrique who are also putting in bids for this much sought-after fraction. However, another fraction collector is also in pursuit – Dr Brok, who is “rumoured to have been fired for the illegal possession of a 4/0.”

When the precious fraction goes missing from the auction house, Dr Brok, with his ability to disguise fractions by turning them into equivalent but different-looking fractions, is the main suspect! Can George, equipped with his new invention, the reducer, find the missing fraction and bring Dr Brok to justice?

With its simple explanation of numerators, denominators and how fractions can be reduced to their simplest form, this humorous adventure will spark an interest in the mathematics of fractions for even the most reluctant of young mathematicians. The text is straightforward for readers of 7+ and the colourful illustrations are beautifully designed to aid understanding of the concepts involved. 

I would highly recommend this book for every school library, and encourage every child who is learning about fractions for the first time to read it.

 

 

 

 

Review: The Lost Magician by Piers Torday

lost magician

In this wonderfully imagined reworking of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe the door to the library is the entry to a magical world,

where story characters lived for real, undiscovered facts battled to gain attention, words caused earthquakes.”

The four Hastings children; Simon, Patricia, Evelyn and Larry (permanently attached to Grey Bear) have been sent away from their bomb-damaged home in London at the end of WWII to stay with a friend of their grandmother, Professor Diana Kelly. Unwittingly, they have become a part of her “Magician Project”, secretive research to find an end to human conflict…using the most powerful magic available!

Everyone familiar with the narrative of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe will recognise the story arc: the children arrive at a beautiful, old Manor House, they are left to explore independently, the youngest child (Larry) finds a secret portal into a magical world and his older siblings accuse him of fantasising! However, following a raid on the house by special forces who are investigating the Professor’s top secret project, all four children find themselves in the magical library, and discover the battle between fiction (The Reads) and fact (The Unreads) in the Kingdom of Folio.

I have to admit to being a little worried, when I first saw publicity for this book, that it might ruin one of my own favourite childhood stories. However, the finely-honed imagination of Piers Torday has produced an exquisite re-working of the original with a library and books and words as the focus of the magic. The children’s individual characters are brought to life with absolute authenticity and the battle between good and evil in Folio had me turning pages faster than a futuristic flying car can cross a fairy tale landscape. Every so often I had to back-track to fully appreciate the stunning power of Piers Torday’s beautiful writing; metal doors swing open “with hydraulic formality” and smile at his humorous asides – when Larry is asked by an incredulous Tom Thumb what he learns in school, he replies “grammar mostly!”

As with all the best children’s books, this one contains a message of hope and ultimately, I think,  it is a book about the power of love, recognising our imperfections and celebrating our common humanity.

Highly recommended for all readers of 9+.

This is #Book9 in my #20BooksofSummer challenge hosted by Cathy at 746Books.

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.

Review: Check Mates by Stewart Foster

Check Mates

Once again, I have to thank the members of #PrimarySchoolBookClub for introducing me to the work of an amazing author, Stewart Foster. I loved this book and found its storyline and central relationship utterly compelling.

Felix Schopp is in his first year at secondary school,  we are introduced to him in the isolation room, or as Felix terms it, “the staring at the wall club”. Felix is a regular visitor to this room as his ADHD means that he cannot help himself from getting into trouble for being disruptive in class. He cannot concentrate on anything for even a short time, he is unable to sit still, he asks inappropriate questions and becomes frustrated with himself when he cannot read a passage or answer questions.

The story is recounted in the first person by Felix so that we are offered an insight into the thoughts and frustrations of a child with ADHD. Felix is an immensely sympathetic character and he is aware that “People think I don’t care, but I do, it’s just that I can’t help what I say or the funny expression they say I have on my face.”

His teachers are exasperated, his over-worked parents are annoyed with him and his grandfather embarrasses him daily by collecting him from school in a pink car! When his mother suggests that he should spend more time with his granddad, it seems that Felix’s life could not get any worse.   

Granddad is another perfectly realised character. He seems to have sunk into depression since the death of his wife the previous year, which to Felix manifests as sitting grumpily on the sofa, hardly ever leaving the house, keeping the curtains drawn all day, preserving the memory of his late wife by holding onto all the pink objects she owned but never actually discussing his emotional turmoil caused by her loss. It is clear that Felix adored his emotionally available grandma and misses her hugely and feels sympathy for his granddad whilst being confused at his reluctance to mention the “d” word.

The book takes flight when Granddad decides that he will teach Felix how to play chess, in the hope that it will improve Felix’s powers of concentration and additionally to share his great love of the game with his grandson. The slow change in their relationship is acutely observed and absolutely grips at your heartstrings. On top of this the two school friends Jake and Rebecca are completely authentic and their often conflicting influences on Felix add another level of brilliance to this book.

I don’t want to discuss the plot in any more detail for fear of spoilers; it does contain descriptions of chess games but I don’t think this would detract from your enjoyment of the story even if you had never played chess yourself. Throughout the story you feel that an unexpected twist is building, but when it comes I think you will be surprised.

I was greatly impressed with Stewart Foster’s writing style. Short chapters, full of short sentences and lots of dialogue, reflecting Felix’s short attention span. This makes the book a fast-paced read, and is likely to add to its appeal to those readers who don’t enjoy struggling through long, complex sentences. It also manages to weave a great deal of humour in amongst all the emotion. One line I particularly loved was Felix’s observation after playing a very irritating opponent: “I bet the Mechanical Turk never ate Doritos.” I was genuinely moved by the powerful, emotional bond between Felix and Granddad and by this story’s message that we all need someone to really believe in us, to spur us on to succeed. Highly recommended for readers of 10+.

If you loved the central theme of this book, then try The Cardturner by Louis Sachar, if you are fascinated by chess and developments in AI, try Deep Thinking  By Gary Kasparov.

the cardturnerDeep Thinking

 

 

 

 

This is #Book6 in my #20BooksofSummer challenge, hosted by Cathy at 746Books.

Review: Bloom by Nicola Skinner

Bloom

 

What a breath of fresh air! This is an amazing debut novel from Nicola Skinner with a mysterious plot which bursts into life and blooms with appreciation of the natural world.

In a corner of the grey concrete town of Little Sterilis there sits a literally, and metaphorically, broken home. Our reluctant heroine, Sorrel, lives with her mother in a house where the leaking taps seem to be crying and the “curtains were constantly pinging off their rods in some desperate escape mission.” The only way that Sorrel can cope with the sadness of her life is to be the best behaved pupil in her school, with boxes full of good behaviour certificates to prove the point. Her school Grittysnit Comprehensive perfectly mimics the town; a grey building containing pupils wearing grey uniforms, the Headteacher, Mr Grittysnit’s mantra is “May obedience shape you. May conformity mould you. May rules polish you.”

This ghastly man’s latest plan is to allow the school’s most generous benefactor, Mr Valentini the local construction magnate,  to concrete over one of the last remaining green spaces in the town, the sports field, and construct a new examination hall. He has also introduced a new competition in the school to encourage the pupils to conform to his ideal of good behaviour, which Sorrel is determined to win at all costs – even risking her friendship with intelligent, scientific, rebellious Neena.

However,  one evening a mini earthquake on Sorrel’s patio reveals a packet labelled “Surprising Seeds” and a mysterious voice begins talking to Sorrel. These manifestations eventually throw “the normal order of things upside out and inside down.” Firstly, in a town where gardening has ceased to exist, Sorrel and Neena have to track down Strangeways Garden Centre, where the down-at-heel owner, Sid gives them advice along with an old gardening trowel previously owned by Agatha Strangeways. An ancient book discovered in the school library named “The Terrible Sad History of Little Cherrybliss” and written by Agatha, brings the history of their town to light, and the sowing of the seeds has hilarious and unconventional results.

This book is an absolute riot of amusing wordplay, celebration of the natural world and a storyline that rampages faster than the bindweed in my vegetable patch. The friendship between Sorrel and Neena is brilliantly crafted, with their different personalities and motivations leading to misunderstandings and falling out in a very realistic way. I loved the image of Sorrel reflecting on a childhood photo of herself playing in a netted “soft play” centre under harsh electric lights and comparing this with Agatha’s childhood, playing outside in the meadows and the river. This is a thoroughly enjoyable book, with a school setting that anyone can relate to, accompanied by a dash of magic which highlights the joy of nature and green spaces, the need to embrace the wild and to protect the living world. A highly recommended book for anyone of 9+

 

This is #Book5 in my #20BooksofSummer created by Cathy at 746books.com