Blog 20

Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone

“This is a story about an eagle huntress, an inventor and an organ made of icicles.”

This is a book EVERYONE should read. I haven’t loved a book like this for a very, very long time. Of course, there had been a huge buzz around it and I was unusually sceptical, perhaps because of my love of the Northern Lights trilogy, and I had only just read the Polar Bears Explorers Club. So I had resisted this particular text. However, I was absolutely gripped from the start to the finish and in fact, I slowed down to saviour every chapter as I simply did not want it to end. I was both uplifted and saddened that I had come to the final pages. I feel I am mourning the loss of Eska and Flint … I want them back!

So what was it about this novel that I loved? Firstly, the landscape. If ever there was a story that demonstrated how far the landscape becomes a character in the story this was it. The hostile environment that envelops you at the start is so beautifully captured and really I was there. I was on the ice, watching the stars, in the caves, in the forests. I was lost to the mood of the environment. Secondly, the three leading characters: Eska, Flint and Blu. Eska starts the story a captive of the evil Ice Queen who has her locked in a music box. The Ice Queen tortures her and wants to steal Eska’s voice before the rising of the midnight sun because, if she does that, she will rule not only Erkenwald (where the story is set) but she will bring down the Sky Gods who have overseen the land and the tribes for centuries. It’s a classic story of good versus evil but Eska can’t remember her life before being taken prisoner. She has no idea why her voice is important or how she has been touched by the Sky Gods.

Flint is the inventor and, despite everything that has happened, he is enchanted by the long lost magic that the tribes abandoned under the rule of the evil Ice Queen. He knows the old ways and invents clever machines and gives power to objects throughout their adventures. He is also mesmerised by Eska. Something about her gets inside him and it is thanks to Flint that Eska escapes the clutches of the Queen. However, without Eska, Flint would never have believed that his inventions would work, so they need each other. But I am not telling you anything else, as that will give away the fantastic story that unfolds as Eska and Flint journey across Erkenwald to save themselves, their parents and their tribes. Blu is Flint’s little sister. She is a delight.  Both intuitive and clever in ways that even her brother doesn’t realise until it’s in front of him. Blu recognises Eska’s goodness the moment she meets her and instantly embraces her as a friend. Where others dismiss her, Eska listens and Flint will defend Blu to end of the world.

I was overwhelmed by the feelings brought about by this text. Whether it was the idea that we need to remember to protect our environment or that nature is a powerful or that community is far more powerful than one dictator, I was so taken aback that I am still emotionally there with Eska. I want to be her. I want an eagle as a friend and I really, really want to meet an Erkenbear! They must be real, as I read them here and believed. Truly wonderful. There is so much more to this story but I don’t want to spoil it’s twists and turns. I just want you all to go out and read it.

who should read this Book?

Well in my humble opinion: EVERYONE! I guess it’s aimed at the middle grade audience of 8 – 12. It would be a wonderful Year 6 text. It will stretch vocabulary, enchant both girls and boys and I am sure most of the teachers will enjoy it too. There is a fantastic opportunity to explore the arctic and the peoples who live there. Some lovely work could be done across the curriculum with Geography and considering climate change. But maybe look at the Inuit people too or some of the reindeer herders of Finland etc. There are fantastic opportunities to talk about voice  and who has the most power: the quiet and thoughtful one or the loud dictator. Finally, diversity and difference and why we should not judge people because of their differences through talking about Blu.

Honestly, I am not going to be moved by a text like this again for a very long time.

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2vnnVCE

 

Blog 19

A Place Called Perfect by Helena Duggan

“Who wants to live in a town where everyone has to wear glasses to stop them going blind?”

This is a fantastically creepy story! Violet is a bright and clever girl who moves to the town of Perfect, when her Dad is given a seemingly fantastic new job. However, anywhere called Perfect is bound to be an illusion right?

Violet quickly finds herself blind after spending just one night in the town. Given a pair of spectacles she can then see her surroundings and its inhabitants again but something is not quite right and she knows it. Everything seems just too ‘perfect’, immaculate houses, streets and the people seem to be possessed by a false kindness. Violet also has a sense that she is being moulded into a different kind of person, someone who is submissive and does what everyone else does in Perfect. Violet is also aware that someone seems to be watching her and eventually she meets with the mysterious, “Boy”. Boy lives within the town but in an area called No-Man’s land. No-Man’s Land is populated by all those who did not fit the ideal model citizen of the main town and somehow they have been forgotten and lost.

The tension builds incredibly quickly in this story, as Violet finds her world falling apart. Her mother becomes more and more consumed by making cakes and book groups, something that she had never done before. She starts trying to turn Violet into a model citizen by drugging her with concoctions given to her by the brothers who run the town’s opticians, the Archers. And her father … he has vanished and her mother doesn’t seem to realise. However, Violet can see that behaving just like anyone else and not being an individual is wrong and with the help of Boy, she starts to unravel the goings on in the town.

This is such a clever mystery. There are so many twists and turns and the brilliant linking together of the characters is superb and had me gripped. There’s also some really disturbing dystopian features, eyeball plants and stolen memory jars that are right out of a John Wyndam novel. How are they pulled together? Well you will just have to wait and read the story yourself but needless to say, the Archers are not what they seem and the mysterious lady in the ghost village is far more important than she initially seems!

Who should read this book?

This is a cracking text for Years 5 – 7. With appealing central characters in a world that seems not too remote from our own, I think it will intrigue boys and girls alike. Violet’s strong character is a delight and she will appeal to young girls and boys, as she shows both her determination but also her fear. In terms of using this in a classroom, I think there’s some fantastic opportunities for exploring the idea of ‘rose tinted spectacles’ and imaginative writing. There’s also some great stereotyping here and questions around why women bake cakes and men go to work. Definitely something you could use to challenge perceptions in Years 6 and 7.

Loved it! Sure you will too.

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2JMyBgY

Blog 18

This Mortal Coil by Emily Suvada

“My darling girl, if you are reading this, it means I am dead. I know you want to grieve, but there is something that I need you to do.”

I chose to read this after it was on the nominated list for Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. It’s a Young Adult novel, although I think any adult would love this. Set in a dystopian future, where a lethal virus is gradually killing off the human race, we find a young girl Catarina living a life in an isolated cabin with her father and his assistant, Dax. Why are they living in this splendid isolation? Well it appears that Cartaxus, an organisation that sounds rather too close to being Sky television for my liking, with a number of sinister divisions attached to it is trying to prevent the virus from spreading. But it’s not just a case of giving everyone an injection, oh no, in this dystopian future every single person on the planet has a panel in their arm that controls their bodies. This panel is connected to a series of wires that travel through the body focused on key organs, bones and the brain. It’s incredibly powerful and the technology … it’s been created by Cartaxus.

Now, if you are not a sci-fi fan, it really doesn’t matter. It’s the relationships and how each individual is connected that makes this such a compelling read. Catarina’s life is ripped apart. Firstly, her father and Dax are abducted by Cartaxus and she is left to fend for herself. She could choose to go into a bunker run by Cartaxus, where she will be safe until a vaccine is found. But her father has told her to stay away from them. So, she is surviving on her own out in the wilderness with a network of friends. Food is scarce and the virus is getting closer all the time. She then finds herself at the mercy of a young man who has come to take her to a lab in Canada to unlock the cure for the virus stored inside her. He is from Cartaxus. Does she trust him or kill him?

Catarina is a strong young woman of 16 or 17. She is a fighter and a survivor. At times, she is broken by the lies she seems to face from everyone, even those she thought loved her. She’s bright too, she can hack the code that is running the panels in people’s bodies and the code that seems to control every bit of technology she is surrounded by. Her relationship with Cole, the young man who abducts her is complex and again full of twists and turns. She saves him as much as he saves her. This is the strength of the story: she’s clear thinking in dangerous situations, she does the right thing even when she knows it is bad for her, and she is capable of killing, if it’s in the interests of the safety of mankind. Pretty amazing qualities for our leading lady. Cole is attractive and very much made of the stuff of heroes but he’s also vulnerable and needs Catarina.

I couldn’t put this book down. The more I read, the more I was drawn into this world and I went running after every red herring Suvada could throw at me! Although I did guess the twist in the tale towards the end (Thank goodness! I was beginning to feel like I’d never read another novel!). The door has been left open for the next book and I am looking forward to it’s release and seeing what will happen to the virus … and I still need to understand the pigeon poem because I still don’t quite get it. So feel free to enlighten me, if you can.

Who should read this book?

Well I would recommend this for any teenager who enjoyed the Hunger Games or The Maze Runner. It’s not exactly the same genre but the recognisable strong characters would appeal to those who have read that. It’s definitely a book for aged 14+ and would be a very interesting addition to school libraries or classrooms. I’d definitely want to talk to students about what they see in their future. How would they feel about being controlled by say Rupert Murdoch or a pharmaceutical company like GSK? Would they allow a company to implant technology in them, if it meant they could be instantly healed? The discussions would be good. You could create some great opportunities for writing to argue too.

Well worth reading!

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2HOVnmT

Blog 14

The Polar Bear Explorers’ Club by Alex Bell

When Stella joins the polar bear Explorers on an expedition to the icelands, her eyes are opened to a world of danger, adventure and snow pirates!

Oh what an adventure! Stella is an orphan who has been adopted by her explorer father, Felix. She has a pet polar bear and a house full of miniature dinosaurs. However, what she wants more than anything else is to be an explorer herself but there is one tiny problem, she is a girl. Everyone in her world knows that girls cannot be explorers, except it seems Stella. Even her wonderful father feels it would be better to leave her with her awful Aunt than take Stella along on his latest expedition. But that quickly changes when the Aunt suggests that Stella should be sent off to finishing school and there is no way Felix is about to let that happen.

Stella’s adventure begins the moment she arrives at the Explorers’ Club. Whilst Felix is in explaining to the president why his daughter should be allowed on the expedition, Stella goes in search of the map room, although ironically she can’t find it, she does find the Hall of Flags and a boy called Ethan. Ethan is very hard to like, but like all good books, you should never judge a character when you first meet them although I am not going to reveal how he changes. But he has had a rough time and has faced some dangers himself. Stella is feisty and determined. She’s also a loyal friend to Beanie, who she supports and understands even when he is saying just the wrong thing at just the wrong moment and generally this is when he speaks to Ethan. Importantly, Beanie’s character exposes some of the difficulties children with autism face when they see the world one way and other people see it another. The three of them are destined to spend the rest of the book together, facing all sorts of dangers, however, there is one more character to introduce, Shay. I loved Shay, he is a ‘wolf whisperer’ and looks after the wolves that will take the sleds across the frozen lands they are going to explore. Generally, he is calm in the face of danger and, like Stella, he has a can do attitude to overcoming the obstacles that are flung in their path.

The main part of the novel sees the children separated from their parents the moment they land on the Icelands. They have to survive first but they are also true explorers as they want to take back things they find on their adventure and show that they can do as well as the adults. They are constantly thwarted by a variety of dangers: fairies that turn out not to be the sort of ‘Tinkerbell’ like things we expect in fairy tales (it was rather more Artemis Fowl than Disney!), they meet some pirates who don’t want to be found, savage cabbages, and stone trolls. They use quick thinking and find some unusual solutions to their problems. We learn that they all have a special talent (read the book to find out what) but the person who finds out most about herself is Stella.

This is such a wonderful novel of twists and turns. Just when you think things can’t get any worse they do! It’s so imaginative and as I’ve said before, I love a good fantasy novel and this is perfect in it’s execution. It’s not too far from our world but far enough to have some scary creatures and some absolutely laugh out loud moments. We are often left wondering how the children can escape but as with all good ensemble stories, it takes all their talents to overcome disaster. I couldn’t put this down! I must also mention the illustrations which are absolutely stunning and I loved the symbols for each explorers club: I choose Polar Bears. As for the end, Alex Bell left me totally dangling … I am now waiting for the story of the witch and I’d quite like it soon, if that’s possible.

Who should read this book?

I heartily recommend this for adventurous Year 4s, definitely for Years 5 -7. There’s plenty that could be done in the classroom with extracts from this story; you could easily teach the art of the cliff hanger using some of this. A fantastic creative writing project would be to take an ordinary vegetable and turn it into a mad killer vegetable in an unusual place. I think you could use the illustrations too to stimulate creative writing and there would be some great cross curricular links with history and perhaps to look at women explorers.

On a personal note, I really learnt something about how to write a really gripping novel with a strong female lead, who does not need to be a boy to succeed.

Cracking!

Buy from Amazon here: http://amzn.to/2EAUEHI

Blog10

Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll

“February, 1941 A Bomb Blast … a chance encounter… her mother’s coat”

Best reads

Fabulous!

There are some books that you put in your basket, as you wander around the local book shop, that you had no intention of buying. When I picked up Letters from the Lighthouse, I wasn’t sure where I’d heard about Emma Carroll but I must admit that a lighthouse in the title was a draw. I am from the south west of the UK; there’s always a lighthouse and for me they evoke romantic images of a time before GPS, when rocks were life threatening to boats, and children dreamt of being lighthouse keepers.

When you start reading this book, you are immediately thrown back into World War 2. The opening, with it’s bombing and terrifying scenes of buildings being blown apart, is described with such vivid accuracy that I felt my heart rate go up and I feared for our lead character, Olive. Olive and her brother, Cliff, are then evacuated by their mother to Devon (again, how at home did I feel in this book), where there is an intriguing connection to the Post Mistress, Queenie. The journey doesn’t start well and it seems as if Olive has met her nemesis in Esther Jenkins, who superficially seems vile and a bully. There is, of course, much more to Esther than her outward nastiness.

The lighthouse is vital to the story and I learnt a great deal about the way the Germans used lighthouses for navigation into Plymouth. In fact, one of the wonderful elements of this gripping story is the history. There’s so much I didn’t know (and I am about to show my ignorance here) about the “Kindertransport” or that those children arrived and settled into the UK without knowing if their parents were alive or dead. I also had no idea that Jewish refugees were smuggled out of France to the UK. The book seemed to resonate with overtones of the current political state of the world, as one particular idea that runs through the story is that of humanity and what makes us human.

“Beneath our race, our religion, we are all human beings. We all hurt in the same ways.”

This seemed incredibly poignant to me and I am sure younger readers would appreciate the importance of recognising the humanity in everyone, even if we dislike them, or in this case were the enemy. It was such a powerful message.

As for Olive, she is a complex leading lady, naturally intelligent, curious and fearless, she drives the story forward with her unwavering determination to find the truth out about her wayward sister, Sukie. She shows her intolerance of Esther and then her kindness, she is unwavering in her devotion to her family, and her loyalty to the small village that she comes to love is to be commended. She also shows us how hard it was to be in a country torn apart by war. I felt physically sick when her and Cliff didn’t have enough to eat and equally, I was delighted for them when they ended up living in the lighthouse.

The story reminded me of The Railway Children, evoking the same emotional roller coaster as I journeyed through it. I was caught from the very start. It took me all of 4 nights to read it (much to my husband’s consternation, as I wouldn’t turn the light off!). It’s not often that you read a book where you really want to know the end but at the same time don’t want it to end. I wanted to know the rest of Olive’s story and Esther’s too.  Wonderful.

who should read this book?

Actually, if I had my way this would be a Year 6 class reader. It is so thoughtful, covering things like friendship, race, history and more. It’s a masterclass in historical fiction for kids. I would think linking it to some war poetry and some wonderful research on the period would be fantastic. There’s plenty of writing opportunities too, as you could teach the lost art of letter writing and how they really create bonds between people. It’s a cracking read for adults too, as I can honestly say it’s one of the best books I’ve read for a long time!

Blog 9

The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

“Each of us carries the map of our lives on our skin…”

Stars

A Good Read

I love maps. In fact, I have so many maps that after much discussion, there was a clear out of maps that were so out of date they probably wouldn’t get me much further than the end of my street. Therefore, it seems a natural extension to think that I would I love a book that has maps, as the central part of the story. My only complaint was that there weren’t more of them inside this book, alongside the wonderful adventure.

The story is of Isabella and her life on the Island of Jora. It seems like a hard life for her. She has suffered the loss of her mother and her twin brother and it’s clear from the start that this has left a profound mark on her. Her ‘Da’ however, is the town’s cartographer and revels in his inks and bringing maps to life. He dreams of one day escaping Jora and going to India to capture the beautiful colours and inks of the country. But it seems that there is more going on in the town than meets the eye. Gromera is ruled by Governor Adori and it seems that he rules with an iron fist, having placed many innocent people the Dédalo, a prison under the his mansion. But there’s more threats on Jora than the Governor. There’s a whole tribe of people who have run to the Forgotten Territories, The Banished, and then there is something sinister living under the Island that seems to be killing the trees and terrifying the wildlife.

The threats to Isabella’s way of life begin when one her school mates is killed and her mangled body found underneath the Governor’s Dragon Fruit trees. When the Governor’s daughter, Lupe, decides to go in search of the killer, Isa transforms herself to save her friend from certain death. But she is at the Governor’s mercy and her journey across the island is fraught with danger. Isa is a strong character and she believes in the power of the natural world. She is intelligent and manages to lead the search party by using the stars and her mother’s map of the island to navigate the dangerous landscape.

The Governor is the true villain of the story (although there are a few other scary characters but I am not going to reveal those). He is arrogant, rude and treats his people with disrespect and, as we find out later, he treats Lupe with contempt too. He is vile to Isa, taking a precious piece of her father’s walking stick (which glows in the dark) and ordering her around without any recognition of her ability to navigate across an unchartered island. He has never told Lupe about his past and, as she finds out later, he is not the father she thought he was.

There are some lovely touches in this book. The wonderful Miss La, a chicken with attitude, somehow manages to survive the madness of events on the island and Isabella’s instincts to save her from the pot are augmented by Miss La’s ability to peck anyone who tries to take her out of her cage for a stuffing! Pablo, her neighbour,  frequently comes to the rescue of Isabella but what I loved about this story was that ultimately, it’s Isa’s resilience and quiet determination that see her through and it is not the boy that saves the day either but someone entirely unexpected.

I really enjoyed the language and style of this book; it was both challenging and engaging. It certainly does not patronise a younger reader and I think would not be a barrier to their understanding and I would always encourage youngsters to read a book that builds vocabulary. All in all, a strong story and lovely characters, I just wish there were more maps in the book to compliment the story.

Who should read this?

This would be a great text for Year 7 at the start of their journey through secondary school. Themes of resilience, resourcefulness and facing your fears are just the sort of thing that young people need to read. It also raises questions of class and difference which I think would be wonderful combined with some multicultural poetry and stories. Paired with something like The Caribbean Dozen, The Girl of Ink and Stars, would be fabulous for a great scheme of work.

Blog 7

Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens – Review

“THere’s been a rather shocking murder at deepdean school for girls …”

Best reads

Fabulous!

I wanted to start the year, as I mean to go on: reading, writing and reviewing. I could not have chosen a better book to start off my reviews for 2018. Robin Steven’s gloriously conceived story, set in the 1930s at an English boarding school is a real romp and I found it very hard to put down. I will confess that, initially, I was somewhat sceptical, as I love a good murder mystery and my favourite writer in the genre is Agatha Christie (particularly as I live within 10 miles of Greenaway). As a voracious reader when I was young, I started reading Christie novels when I was 10 or 11. I think my Mum was trying to find an author who had written enough books to keep me quiet and which I wasn’t too young to understand. So, I like a good plot twist, I love trying to solve who did it before I am told and I always love the great reveal at the end. Could Robin Stevens do the same? Could she possibly write for a young audience and captivate them, as Christie had done for me?

The story is told from the perspective of the thoughtful Hazel Wong. Hazel is an interesting girl. She’s from Hong Kong and has been sent to a British boarding school, as her father wants her to have the best education. Interestingly, having worked in an all girls’ boarding school myself only 10 years ago, this was still the case. Many lovely Cantonese girls would find themselves arriving at Heathrow and on a coach to a rural Devon school. Deepdean sounds somewhat similar! Anyway, Hazel keeps the notes on the murder that takes place in the first few pages of the novel and is led into all sorts of scrapes by her best friend and president of the Detective Society, Daisy Wells. Hazel envies the blond, blue eyed Daisy, who is incredibly popular and pretty. However their unlikely friendship is forged when Hazel reveals that she knows Daisy hides how clever she is to everyone.  Daisy realises that Hazel is the steady character who can curb her impetuous tendencies and as such they form the Detective Society.

Their ingenuity and determination to uncover what has happened to poor Miss Bell, the Science Mistress, is both hilarious and haphazard. As they roam about Deepdean taking on the roles of Sherlock and Watson, they uncover a series of clues that they carefully put together. Hazel, spends the novel terrified that the murderer knows who she is and at the end, it turns out they do indeed know that Daisy and Hazel have uncovered their secret. In amongst all the investigation, they have buns, midnight feasts, seances and various lessons. They have a group of loyal friends, use words like ‘chump’ and ‘dunce’ and lead us on a merry dance through the 1930s experience of being at a girls’ boarding school. It’s all jolly good fun!

Does Robin Stevens achieve the goals I set out for a good murder mystery at the start of this Blog? Yes she does! Ooo, I thought I had it solved but red herrings galore abound and, like the girls, I charged off down a number of dead ends. I think I was too convinced that only Hazel could really solve the mystery as she was thoughtful … but Stevens was way ahead of me and cleverly demonstrated that the team is more important than the individual. I must admit that this was a cracking good read and if it wasn’t for the fact that I have a pile of books to get through to review, I probably would have read the rest of them straight away (summer hols aren’t too far away!).

Who should read this?

I think anyone (boy or girl) in years 6 – 8 would love this. It brings in a sense of history, is linguistically beautiful and the story makes you think. Of course, the heroes are Hazel and Daisy and I like seeing strong female leads in a novel. I think teaching suspense and pace is something that is quite hard to do and this would be a cracking novel to use to teach the art of writing great tension. And I think if you want to read something that has you scratching your head about whodunnit … well here it is!