Book of the Week

The Cake, the Wolf, and the Witch by Maudie Smith

cake wolf witch

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. Actually I’m only going to write this review if you promise not to give away any of the spoilers to your children but just give them the book to read as a surprise. Ready? This is a book set in the land of Ever After, and explores the adventures of Max and his step siblings as they attempt to overthrow the wicked witch and make sure that Ever After remains Happy Ever After.

There are of course massive overtures to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The children travel by accident, not through a wardrobe, but through a cake, to the land of Ever After (rather than Narnia) – they encounter a wolf rather than a lion – and the wicked witch is turning everything to greyness and ash rather than whiteness and ice, but rather than draw some Christian allegory, Maudie Smith is simply having fun, and her creativity shines through the story. The inhabitants of Ever After are all familiar characters from fairy stories, and the author depicts them with cheek and flourish. Little Red Riding Hood has attitude, the troll under the bridge is adorably childish with his pinky promises and appetite for a playmate, and there is even a sneaky eighth dwarf. Max’s search for the witch uses a familiar narrative of age-old quests, including an encounter with a knight, inclement weather, a maze, and finally a daunting castle over a seemingly insurmountable mountain, but the journey is exhilarating and fun for the reader. The danger is never too threatening, the familiarity of the characters is comforting, and there is the growing inevitability that Max and Ever After will have their happy ending.

Maudie’s talent for reinvention blazes a trail here, but her characterisation of her ‘ordinary’ children is what really distinguishes this book and makes it my book of the week. Max, despite being in a fairy tale land, is one of the truest children I have read. His grief over the death of his mother pours through, as does his readjustment to life with a step-family, and his fears and worries. Maudie is assured in her ability to incorporate an aspect of his personality that explains his favourite hobby, (marble runs), why it makes him happy, and how it enables him to complete his adventure. She provides the reader with a character who develops beautifully from the start of the book to the finish, growing in self-awareness and empathy. Through all the fantasticalness of the story, the character of Max and his step-siblings remain very much grounded in reality, and this makes this book a complete winner. With illustrations by the wonderful Tony Ross (of Horrid Henry fame), this is the summer’s must-read for children aged 7+. You can buy it here or purchase from the Amazon sidebar.

Alfie Bloom: The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle by Gabrielle Kent

alfie bloom

One of the most readable novels I’ve read in some time, Gabrielle Kent has crafted a finely woven mash-up of some of the best known children’s literature and created her own excellent adventure. Alfie Bloom, poor and bullied, receives a peculiar summons from an even stranger solicitor and discovers that he has inherited an extraordinary castle. Added to this, he appears to be the custodian of a potent magic, part of which allows him to ‘timeslip’ back hundreds of years. Once living in his castle, he realises that there is a dangerous force roaming the fields, trying to take his magic from him, and he must fight it to save himself and the local village.

There are numerous hidden references and allusions in this book to the great children’s writers. The headmistresses of the local school to which Alfie is transferred hail from the realms of Dahl. Named Murkle and Snitch, one short, one tall, yet with Trunchbull-like punishments and glee in issuing them. They are superbly imagined. Alfie’s friendship with his cousins, and their tree house, as well as the sumptuous meals described, hark back to Enid Blyton, and the flying bear rug speaks to many a fantasy author’s imagination – it reminded me of Mary Norton’s bedknob.

The darkness and magic are vividly conjured. Although not a wizard, Alfie’s Harry Potter tendencies mean he can feel the intensity of his powers as a physical manifestation; and the castle itself is a wonderful mixture of modern and ancient, with hidden passages, concealed rooms, rich tapestries and a chandelier in the Great Hall – which works with an electric light switch, but the switch doesn’t light bulbs, it causes a mechanical arm with a flame to individually light all the wicks. It’s well described, pitched perfectly at the intended age group, as are the descriptions of the characters:

“Her nose was sharp, her fingernails were sharp but Alfie soon realised that the sharpest thing about her was her voice.”

This was such a captivating read – it flowed so well – and ticked all the boxes of children’s literature – down to descriptions of food wherever possible, an absent parent, a phenomenal Christmas celebration, and a play within the main drama where all is revealed. If I was a child again, I’d hope for at least ten in the series – it would be my mainstay. Gabrielle Kent has really taken all those tropes and reimagined them into a great little book. This start to a new series is fabulously promising.

Buy it here. For a capable age seven and over.

There’s A Bear on My Chair by Ross Collins

bear on chair

So I’ve had a bit of a feast of picture books recently. I know we’ve bought too many when my children can’t get them out of the bookcase because they’re rammed too tightly. This one, however, never gets put away, so it’s available to read every day. The front cover sums up the story – a disgruntled Mouse gets angrier and angrier when a Bear won’t get off his chair. For anyone who’s ever witnessed children squabbling over a seat (hehemm *pretty much every day*), this is hilarious for parent and child alike, and also teaches a little bit of a lesson.

Sometimes it’s hard to work out what makes a picture book stand out from the rest. This one ticks many boxes. The illustrations start to work and tell the story even from the title page. Then, as has been spoken about a lot recently, the pictures themselves tell the story as much as the text – the two work perfectly in conjunction with each other – if you isolated either text or pictures, it wouldn’t be enough to tell the whole story.

I love the complacent and slightly bemused look on the bear’s face, and the mouse’s expression – betraying unhappiness, disgruntlement, anger, impatience – so much in such a cute face. Even his jumper gives him a distinct personality. The children loved the different things the Bear got up to in his chair, from reading the newspaper to preening himself in the mirror, to reclining half asleep, to looking determinedly at his phone and ignoring the mouse (“my Dad does that” said one of the kids I read it to!). The mouse is also a delight to look at – getting angrier and angrier – and then more disconsolate when the bear won’t budge.

The text is a joy to read – and reminded me hugely of Dr Seuss – yes the rhymes and rhythms are that perfect. The entire book concentrates on rhyming with ‘bear’, so that the mouse has to ‘declare’ about it not being ‘fair’, the bear on his ‘chair’, with references to ‘underwear’, and ‘hair’ and ‘flair’. It’s magical. And the ending is pure comedy. I loved it – buy it from your local independent bookseller. Or here, from Waterstones, or on the Amazon sidebar.

With thanks to Nosy Crow for sending me a review copy.

The Sword of Kuromori by Jason Rohan

sword of kuromori shield of kuromori

My mum once told me one of the things she really liked about reading fiction was learning something new. Not just in terms of historical fiction, but in any fiction when the author lets slip insights about a place or a hobby or even something you just didn’t realise existed.
The Sword of Kuromori is not only an Alex Rider-style highly visual adventure with pace and passion and wit, but also a subtle lesson in Japanese language and culture. Teen Kenny Blackwood arrives in Tokyo expecting to spend some time during the school holidays with his father, who is residing there. However, even on the plane to Japan some peculiar events occur, and when he is taken aside at the airport and interrogated, things get even stranger. Before long he finds out that he can see mythical creatures that other people can’t, and that he’s been secretly signed up to a life-changing mission that will save America from catastrophic tragedy.
Jason Rohan’s knowledge of Japan sings from the pages of the book. He paints each scene so vividly, be it the expansive transport terminals, the lush landscapes and temples, or the colourful shopping areas – each setting is pitched so that the reader feels they know Japan despite not having been themselves. Moreover, the action never stops – Kenny seems to attract the attention of more than one type of mythical monster, all of which are strikingly hostile, and he has to use his wits and skills to bat them off. He is accompanied on his adventure by a feisty and attractive female sidekick – who becomes more and more central to his journey. She happily reminded me of Bixa from Phoenix by S F Said.
With strong allusions to other tales of masters and apprentices, from The Karate Kid to Star Wars – this book resonated with me by being familiar and yet totally unfamiliar at the same time; familiar in tone to other adventures of self-discovery and awareness, yet unfamiliar with its Japanese language and mythology. The mixture produces the perfect package. And despite the many monsters, this is also a grounded tale of family and friendship, of good versus evil and our ability to master our minds and conquer our fears.
I was particularly glad of the glossary of Japanese words at the back, the subliminal teaching of Japanese numerals, and being immersed in the food and culture of another region. I’m moving swiftly on to reading the just published book two, The Shield of Kuromori.
A highly recommended read. For age 9+. You can buy both books here or on the Amazon sidebar.

The Boys’ School Girls by Lil Chase

taras sister trouble

There’s a type of book that my readers never seem to tire of; a book based in schools, with issues around friendship, family life, and all the bother of finding one’s place in the world. I am delighted to bring you a new series that does the job so diligently with a clear understanding of 12 year olds, and with writing that sparkles with life. This is just the sort of series I wanted to read when I was young. (I confess I hugely enjoyed reading it this past week and I’m well past childhood!).

Lil Chase has created a fictional boys’ school, Hillcrest High, which has decided to admit girls for the first time. In the first title of the series, Tara’s Sister Trouble, Tara is one of these girls and she’s very excited – not least because she has a huge crush on one of the Hillcrest boys – but also because a new school means new friends, new opportunities and her best friend will be attending too. However, when Tara’s sister also joins the school, things start to fall apart for Tara. There is intense rivalry amongst the few girls at the new school, and her sister seems intent on sabotaging any relationships she does have. It’ll take Tara a fair amount of detective work and understanding to find out what’s really going on with her sister and her friends. There are a few little plot twists in the book – and it deals with some larger issues too – break up of a family, gambling, and jealousy, but Lil Chase always deals with them showing a great deal of compassion and humour. The action rolls along at a good steady pace and the reader is compelled to feel great empathy with the main character.

abbys shadow

There are three in the series, and the next two each focus on a different girl in the set of friends. Lil Chase has handled this cleverly by writing from the first person perspective each time – but the voices don’t blend into each other. Each girl in the series has a distinct voice and personality and this shines through. It’s a clever device and very enjoyable. The next two are Abby’s Shadow and Obi’s Secrets (the last published June 4th), but I’m hoping there’ll be many more. A series your 9-12yr old will devour with relish. You can buy the titles here from Waterstones or on the Amazon sidebar.

obis secrets

Mad About Monkeys by Owen Davey

mad about monkeys

For the past few years the trend in children’s non-fiction has been to produce exquisitely packaged books, with high-end illustrations, quirky text with interactivity, and sometimes a niche subject. Mad about Monkeys hits the trend spot on. It feels and looks beautiful – even the endpapers are beautifully designed with high class illustrations of different species of monkey.

The book progresses, almost story-like, through a quick and yet slyly comprehensive look at monkeys – addressing how you tell the difference between New World and Old World monkeys, their social habits, intelligence, identifying marks, particular species and much more. The conciseness of the text here is very good – there are no spare words – information is given in short, understandable paragraphs, yet with just enough information to sate the appetite without overloading.

The titles of sections are wisely done – ‘Is a Monkey My Uncle?’  ‘Tree’s a Crowd’ and of course ‘King of the Swingers’. Much information is imparted, including details about prehensile tails, and ischial callosities (you’re all dying to look that one up now), as well as typical facts for children, such as that a Howler monkey’s call can be heard up to three miles away. There’s also a great section at the end on monkey mythology and also deforestation.

The crucial winning feature of this title though is the illustrations. From the pygmy marmoset drawn to correct proportions to the predators page, the illustrations are amazing. They seem simple, and yet are clearly intensely detailed – showing each monkey’s features so that the species is identifiable. Worthy of much admiration, and, as I mentioned, it feels luxurious. A perfect non-fiction book for the age group (6-11yrs), which nicely whets the appetite and looks so appealing that you want to read and read again. Buy it here from Waterstones or click the Amazon sidebar.

The Broken King by Philip Womack: The Darkening Path Trilogy

the broken king

Enthralling and all-encompassing, this is a fantasy novel that reaches into the depths of our modernity and triumphantly mixes it with legends of old to create a stunning new adventure. Although I wouldn’t ordinarily offer up as Book of the Week a book that’s the first in a trilogy, and ends on a cliffhanger when book three hasn’t been published yet, I am on this occasion making an exception, because book one is exceptional, and book two ends on a satisfactory note, leaving you wanting more but not disappointing.

Philip Womack takes his extensive classical knowledge and moulds it into a story that features our current world full with modern references of Sainsbury’s, mobile phones, and rock music, but then splices it with a fantasy world of shadows, murderous swans, and golden deer with wings.

Simon’s sister is taken away, kidnapped by a dark force, and with his parents and own world held in a kind of suspended time, he must venture into the kingdom of the Broken King to retrieve his sister. Along with him is sixteen year old Flora, whose brother has also been taken. The plot follows the traditional line of a journey into the unknown, with riddles to solve and dangers to avoid. However, the dark imagery is startling, refreshing and bold – Womack uses the loneliness of teenagers and weaves it into their fears and nightmares of the dark other world, he dips into territory as yet unexplored in children’s fiction – maps made from human skin.

I loved that he imposed physical scars on the two teenagers, so that the pain from their scars reminded them of their quickness to anger at their siblings, and how selfish they had been; how the kidnappings were their own fault. He touches on a subplot of a power struggle in the other world, as well as references to the troubles the teenagers have in their real lives – something that rounds their characters and keeps rooting the fantasy in reality.

There are numerous references to classical literature, the golden bough, Greek gods, Arthurian legends and comparisons of Womack’s writing have been made to Alan Garner, but this is a series firmly planted in our own times – with skyscrapers in the fantasy landscapes, portals in supermarkets, and tourists at the British Museum who aren’t what they seem.

I devoured it in one sitting – your children will doubtless do the same.
9+ years with strong constitutions.

The King's Shadow

You can purchase it here, or buy on the Amazon sidebar. The second in the trilogy, The King’s Shadow is out now and is available here .

The Imagination Box by Martyn Ford

The Imagination Box

This is one of those multi-faceted novels that delivers on every criteria. Our main character, Tim, lives in a hotel and has to create his own entertainment because his parents are busy working and he has no friends and no siblings. Then he meets one of the guests, a professor in a white lab coat, over a tray of forbidden cakes, and before long they are working together on the professor’s project – an imagination box that creates anything from your imagination. Tim seems to be the only one who can help the Professor to actually get the box to work – and before long Tim is conjuring all sorts of scientific magic. However, there are people who are willing to do anything to get their hands on the device, and Tim becomes embroiled in a race against time to keep the box in the right hands.
Throughout his pacey adventure, Tim has to navigate the adult world, determining who is to be trusted and who isn’t, as well as experimenting with the laws of science. Of course the science in the book is completely unrealistic, but there are roots in the imagination of what we could do with science, and Martyn Ford cleverly employs space-age gadgetry and technology, as well as teleporting, to ensure that young readers are excited and motivated by futuristic scientific imaginings. The book also poses some questions. What would you create if you could create anything? What would you create if you were hanging off the edge of a ten-storey building? What would you create from your dreams? Or nightmares?
Beneath all the adventure and excitement, Tim is a lonely little boy, who has to confront his deepest fears. What’s interesting is that at the start of the book we learn that Tim is adopted, and also friendless. There are deep-seated insecurities about himself here, and his relationship with his adoptive parents is barely scratched in this book – although perhaps this is to be explored in the other titles (the book is set to be the first of a trilogy, although this one works fine as a stand-alone title too).
There are also themes of burgeoning friendships, and loyalty, as Tim cultivates the friendship of the professor’s granddaughter, and also befriends a pygmy monkey (although the latter he conjured from his own head). These two characters imbue the novel with laughter, which sits well against the backdrop, so that none of the story is too dark or threatening.
I fully enjoyed it. It’s meaty, well-structured, and contains the right mix of elements for a sciencey adventure with humour and depth. One of those books that shows youngsters that an imagination is for stretching. For readers aged 9+.

Joe All Alone by Joanna Nadin

Joe All Alone

This was an unputdownable read, but tough at the same time. Not because the language is difficult, but because it doesn’t reflect well on our society and makes for uncomfortable reading. Thirteen year old Joe is left alone while his mother and her boyfriend go on holiday to Spain during half term. Although initially he seeks pleasure in his freedom – eating what he wants and playing for unlimited amounts of time on his Xbox, it soon becomes apparent that not only has he not been left enough provisions and money, but that he is lonely, ignored and certainly not mature enough to deal with his situation, despite his best attempts. He’s an exceedingly likeable character, and Joanna Nadin has captured the feelings and thoughts of a 13 year old boy very well. Told in day by day instalments, not exactly like a diary, but documenting the passing of time for the reader, Joe eventually makes friends with a fugitive girl, Asha, who’s sheltering at her mock grandfather’s flat across the way from Joe’s. This affords him some contact, and draws the mock grandfather’s attention to his plight.

The story pulls out some modern dilemmas. Joe describes his neighbours to us, but it’s clear that there is no real community among them. He also points out traits about his school – the attempt to explain budgeting to the children, the interested concern of one teacher, the role of bullying outside the classroom, as well as the wider agenda including the perceived implications of going ‘into care’, troubled children, and of course the first spark of feelings with a girl.

Saying that, there are wonderful touches of humour which lighten the atmosphere, and Joe is a reader, which comes across in his references to Huck Finn and fairy tales. From both of these, and Joe’s friendship with Asha, the reader is left with a feeling of hope and uplifted spirits in what can be changed, and what can be imagined.

I would also make one last remark – the cover for me was slightly misleading – it shows a boy seemingly jumping on his bed with joy, and bears the strapline ‘No parents, no rules, no problem?’. Although I can see how this does depict the story, I would be wary that the cover portrays it more as a ‘Home Alone’ type venture, whereas in actual fact this was quite a dark moral tale for our times.

You can buy it here from Waterstones, or see the Amazon side bar.

I highly recommend. For ages 11+

How To Write Your Best Story Ever by Christopher Edge

how to write your best story ever

As a writer I am constantly overwhelmed by the amount of advice out there for budding authors. Blogs, podcasts, books, individual tweets, facebook groups. The advice goes on and on. In the end, I always feel if you want to write, sit down and WRITE. However, for the youngest among us a blank piece of paper can be quite frightening and a little guidance can help. Christopher Edge, author of fiction such as the Penelope Tredwell series, has written a sensational learning accompaniment to creative writing. In fact, it made me revisit some of my own writing and proved an invaluable resource for my daughter, who is fast rivalling me for story-telling prowess.

Firstly, thanks to imaginative and colourful illustrations, it doesn’t look like a learning resource at all. It comes across as a fun, informative and creative non-fiction children’s title. The first half covers a range of different ideas and definitions and starts with how to get inspired. It draws on the very powerful question ‘what if?’, as a start to using imagination, and also explains that the simplest newspaper headlines can inspire a novel. It highlights making notes, using dreams and just having a go, even if you don’t know where the story will end up. In between the hints and inspiration are informative notes about grammar and vocabulary. Christopher Edge outlines setting a scene, delineating a character, and how to incorporate setting and character into the action. He explains tenses and why not to mix them up, how to open a story, incorporate dialogue, introduce red herrings, how to end – and then how to edit. This is a really important skill, and something that’s easily forgotten in the rush of excitement brought by finishing a story. Re-examining your own text though can be crucial to making improvements and Christopher handles it well with a web of questions to help edit.

There is a huge amount of detail and interesting pieces set out in fun ‘inspiration stations’, such as fabulous titles, quotes illuminating how a character is portrayed in dialogue, as well as little circular bubbles with hints “If you can’t tell which character is speaking you might need to change the dialogue”, and ‘red alerts’ to explain difficult grammatical constructs.

The second half trots through the different genres, from adventure through crime, horror, mystery, comedy to writing about love, history, sports and so on. It is certainly comprehensive. And for the last spread alone, it inspired me to make it book of the week – the last page gently explains that writers can find their inspiration from other writers. Reading is the key. It highlights some great opening lines from children’s fiction – including two of my personal favourites – “When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news” Stormbreaker, Anthony Horowitz, and “There is no lake at Green Camp Lake.” Holes, Louis Sachar. If it inspires the next Horowitz or Sachar, Christopher Edge has done a really great job. You can purchase it from Amazon on the sidebar, or from Waterstones here

With thanks to OUP for my review copy.