New review: Goodnight, Boy by Nikki Sheehan

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Nikki Sheehan has written fantastic books for middle grade children including Swan Boy recently nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal 2017.  Her new novel, Goodnight, Boy, is her first for Young Adults and written in both prose and verse and is published by Rock the Boat.

Goodnight, Boy by Nikki Sheehan

The kennel has been JC’s home ever since his new adoptive father locked him inside. For hours on end, JC sits and tells his dog Boy how he came to this country: his family, the orphanage and the Haitian earthquake that swept everything away.

When his adoptive mother Melanie rescues him, life starts to feel normal again. Until JC does something bad, something that upset his new father so much that he and Boy are banished to the kennel. But as his new father gets sicker, JC realizes they have to find a way out. And so begins a stunning story of a boy, a dog and their journey to freedom.

Told in a mixture of verse and prose, Goodnight, Boy describes a life that no child should ever have to live.  Rescued from the streets of Haiti by a Haitian-American Doctor, Melanie, and taken back to the US to start a new life, JC finds himself yet again being dealt the hand of injustice with no idea when he will escape.  Stuck in the kennel with his dog Boy, it is through ‘conversation’ with Boy that JC shares his life story and we hear of the traumas he has experienced. Stolen from his family at a young age, thrown in an orphanage to be sold, enduring disease and totally unwanted; it is more than most could ever survive.  How unfair that JC now finds himself stuck in a nightmare again and with his new ‘mother’ Melanie seemingly disappeared.  Kept a prisoner by his ‘adoptive’ father, it’s impossible to know how or when he’ll escape.  But his relationship with Boy, who provides companionship, keeps JC from being completely alone.

Goodnight, Boy is quite an incredible, poignant story. The strength of the writing is demonstrated by the empathy you feel whilst reading; it’s achingly real. With pacing that gives time for moments of reflection and to draw breath, and with the mix of verse and prose Goodnight, Boy is like nothing you’ve ever read before.  There are moments of humour and the relationship between JC and Boy is utterly endearing.  You can’t help but feel JC’s sharing is actually a kind of emotional healing for him – even if he is stuck in a dog kennel.  As he talks, he works his way through the horrors of his life but also reflects on those moments of hope that have given him courage.  JC’s stream-of-consciousness show the complex nature of love, family life and remind us of the turmoil of natural disasters and the extreme poverty many people live in. His resilience is a lesson to us all. How does one boy survive such terrible times?  If you come from nothing, then there’s everything to hope for. And with a little bit of hope, perhaps anything is possible. A fantastic YA novel.

For more information visit www.nikkisheehan.co.uk/

Perfect picture books published by Pavilion!

I’m delighted to be reviewing these four very different, but all very gorgeous picture books, published by Pavilion on the blog today.  My New Room by Lisa StickleyJust like Daddy by Lucy Freegard; Little Red by Lynn Roberts-Maloney, illustrated by David Roberts and Woolf by Alex Latimer, illustrated by Patrick Latimer are a wonderful example of the amazing picture books available for children’s enjoyment today.

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In My New Room by Lisa Stickley, we meet Edith again, after her first outing in HandstandThis time Edith has a new bedroom and her toys are each helping her settle in.  Featuring wonderful characters such as Gary Guardsman, Clarissa the Cow, and Major Ted, we discover that having a new bedroom can be an exciting time for everyone – even the toys! And a big bed isn’t as daunting as you might first feel, especially if you’ve got all your special toys around you. I absolutely LOVE Lisa Stickley’s unique style; childlike illustrations with bold colours and wonderfully imagined scenes.

The storytelling is gentle with a light touch of humour; just the right tone for turning what can seem like a life-changing event into a joyful one.  All the toys have to adapt and find their new place in the room, but they’re all there just waiting to welcome Edith and make her feel at home.  This is a really lovely story and a great addition to your picture book collection!  Find out more at www.lisastickleystudio.com

 

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Just Like Daddy by Lucy Freegard is one of the best picture books I’ve read celebrating the relationship between a child and their Daddy.  I’m certain this will have made it’s way into lots of Daddies hands over the last weekend for Father’s Day!  Full of charm and warmth, the story reminds us of the very special relationship between a father and child and all the magic and fun they have together.  Whether on the fair rides, reading stories or even tug of war, this little one is going to be just like daddy – brave and fearless! And not only this, Daddy will always love his child – even through the tantrums and the tears.

I loved that we’re reminded how fleeting those early years moments can be and how precious memories are for parents and their children. Colourful and lively illustrations bring the story to life and capture  how wonderful a Daddy can be – and how much love a child can have for their parent!  Find out more at www.lucyfreegard.com.

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Little Red retold by Lynn Roberts-Maloney, illustrated David Roberts

I absolutely adore this series of re-imagined fairytales, each set in a different time period including Sleeping Beauty set in the 1950s. Little Red is, of course, a version of Little Red Riding Hood with incredible illustrations giving a wonderful twist to the tale, featuring artwork and characters inspired by the 18th Century. A little chap called Thomas takes the central role of Little Red.  He lives with his parents who preside over the local inn and who make the most amazing ginger beer, enjoyed by an interesting mix of visitors! Little Red sets off to visit his Grandma and the tale unfolds, taking a few unexpected turns along the way.   Detailed images beautifully depict quite a scary forest, with scary inhabitants, giving a darker flavour  to the story perhaps more akin to the original fairy tale.  However, there are also humorous moments that lighten the mood and of course, ensure the wolf does get his comeuppance – but not how you might expect!

Little Red is a great way to introduce younger readers to fairy tales but with more artistic flair and interest – and perhaps even a lesson in what life might have looked like in the 18th Century! Find out more at www.pavilionbooks.com.

 

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Woolf by Alex Latimer, illustrated by Patrick Latimer

A wonderful story with a simple narrative; a perfect parable for acceptance, tolerance and diversity. The tale starts with a he-sheep and a she-wolf finding love together. They have a son who loves his home and is happy being both sheep and wolf.  But as he grows up he realises how different he is to the flock of sheep and pack of wolves he meets. Trying to fit in, Woolf pretends to both wolves and sheep he’s in disguise, but his plan only works for a short time and he gets bored of just being one thing.  Woolf is more than this but instead of making him happy, it makes him sad.  Finally his parents help him see that he is special and unique, and thus encouraged Woolf finds new friends who accept him for who he is.

Woolf is a fantastic picture book  for demonstrating the difficulties we face fitting in sometimes, and how with a little bit of love and encouragement we can overcome them. Given the stark differences between wolf and sheep, children will instantly recognise the problem this could create and identify with Woolf trying to find friendship, and the lengths he goes to, to fit in.  The narrative springs to life through great illustrations, capturing Woolf’s character perfectly as he plays the part of both a wolf and a sheep.  With a positive message about accepting yourself just as you are, this is a great picture book to have in the classroom and at home. Find out more at www.alexlatimer.co.za

 

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With thanks to Pavilion for sending me these books to review.

New Review: The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

Stephanie Burgis is the author of books for both children and adults.  Born in America, but now resident in the UK, Stephanie has always been an avid reader enjoying stories such as Lord of the Rings and Pride and Prejudice as a young girl. I absolutely loved her stories about Kat Stephenson set in Regency England and I am pleased to say The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart published by Bloomsbury didn’t disappoint!

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

Aventurine is the fiercest, bravest kind of dragon, and she’s ready to prove it to her family by leaving the safety of their mountain cave and capturing the most dangerous prey of all: a human.

But when the human she captures tricks her into drinking enchanted hot chocolate, she finds herself transformed into a puny human girl with tiny blunt teeth, no fire, and not one single claw. She’s still the fiercest creature in these mountains though – and now she’s found her true passion: chocolate! All she has to do is walk on two feet to the human city, find herself an apprenticeship (whatever that is) in a chocolate house (which sounds delicious), and she’ll be conquering new territory in no time . won’t she?

Aventurine is bored – bored of being stuck in the mountain for another thirty years until her parents say she’s old enough to go out into the world and hunt for herself. So strong are her dreams of freedom, she ignores her mother’s advice that her scales “haven’t hardened enough to withstand a wolf’s bite” and she leaves the safety of the mountain.  Aventurine can’t wait to prove her family wrong, return triumphantly with food and find her true calling (so she can stop her sister and brother driving her mad!). However, little does she realise the challenge that lies ahead of her and as she trips her way down the mountainside, a new smell reaches her nose: CHOCOLATE. Her desire to taste this is her downfall; Aventurine finds herself on two legs instead of four; a twelve year old girl with no wings and certainly no fierce dragon teeth to help her.  She must now find a way to survive, assuage her desire for chocolate and prove just how fierce she still is….

What a delightful story!  The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart instantly reminds you of the magic of stories and the brilliant adventures they can take you on. Aventurine is a wonderful heroine, ably supported by a fantastic and lively cast of characters. I particularly enjoyed Silke, the street-wise girl who has the same feisty spirit as Aventurine and offers her much needed friendship; and Marina the bad-tempered Chocolatier who takes Aventurine on as an apprentice, truly seeing her passion for chocolate.

Not only does Aventurine have to deal with the complexities of ‘being human’ she has to negotiate her way through the multi-cultural town of Drachenburg, which is full of snobbery, devious officials and of course, fear of dragons!  Her adventure is told with much humour and there are some highly entertaining moments where her dragon responses take over. You also learn the intricacy involved in making chocolate; I loved the scenes describing the creation of various sweet treats; you can almost taste them! There are lessons to be learnt and challenges to be faced through all of which you are rooting for Aventurine to succeed. In making the biggest mistake of her life, she finds her true calling as well as some firm friends and a second family.  The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart is the perfect blend of fantasy and adventure; and of course the wonder of chocolate. You won’t want to put this book down!

Find out more at www.stephanieburgis.com  and follow Stephanie on Twitter @stephanieburgis.  With thanks to Bloomsbury for sending me a copy of this book to review.

New review: A Berlin Love Song by Sarah Matthias

Sometimes you read a book and when you reach the final page, you realise the story has found its way into your soul.  Heart-wrenching, beautiful and so well written A Berlin Love Song by Sarah Matthias is undoubtedly one of those stories and stays with you long after the final page.

It is the fourth book written by Sarah; a YA novel published by Troika Books. Her first job after leaving Oxford university was with the BBC where she was involved in a documentary called The Nazi Hunter, based on the life and work of Simon Wiesenthal, a holocaust survivor who spent much of his life tracking down war criminals. A Berlin exhibition, Hitler and the Germans, Nation and Crime, further inspired her to research the wartime persecution of the Romani people, and to write A Berlin Love Song.

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A Berlin Love Song by Sarah Matthias

Max is a German schoolboy, when he first meets Lili, a trapeze artist from a travelling circus that performs every year in Berlin.  Lili is a Romani and her life and customs are very different from those of Max and his family. Their friendship turns into love, but love between a German and a Romani is definitely forbidden. As Max is conscripted into the SS and war tears them apart, can their love survive?

The story starts in present day, where Max, now an old man, is finally writing down his precious memories from long ago.  We are drawn into a narrative telling the tale of how he, an ordinary German boy, and Lili, a beautiful Romani girl, fall in love.  Theirs is a love that is a meeting of souls; a love that cannot be ignored; “a kind of madness”.  Alongside this, we are shown the impending doom of the rise of the Nazis; the impact the looming war has on everyday life and ultimately how families are ripped apart. Max’s father refuses to conform to the Hitler regime; Lili’s father won’t acknowledge the threat posed by the Nazis to the Roma.  But with the persecution of many groups identified as “gypsy scum” along with the Jews, and with the terrible punishment for those Germans refusing to respond to Hitler’s call, both Max and Lili’s families have no choice but to face the unavoidable.  It is clear that Max and Lili will be unable to choose which ‘side’ they are on; their paths are inevitable.

A Berlin Love Song is a beautiful love story and a brilliant but terrible reflection of the ‘forgotten holocaust’ – the persecution of the Roma and Sinti people during World War 2. The thread of love that runs through the narrative keeps hope alive and whilst the inevitability of the war unfolds, we see that even the most physically broken of people survive in spirit. The stark realities of war are portrayed through the eyes of Max and Lili and through the very different experiences of their families.  It never ceases to fill me with horror the atrocities that took place in World War 2 and the characters are so real in this story, it feels like a true to life account.

Thankfully there are moments throughout that restore your faith in humanity.  The Roma people are beautifully brought to life – the colour, the freedom, the music and above all the spirit of the people leap off the page.  Added to this the wonderful descriptions of Lili’s home and livelihood, Circus Petalo, it is no wonder Max falls for her.  Set alongside the stifling household of his own family, Lili is a breath of fresh air.  Max’s household have very different opinions about Hitler and the Nazis; the claustrophobia and the fear of this situation are palpable and there is a sense Max finds an escape through his love for Lili. Meanwhile, the threats to Lili’s family grow ever closer and the sense of foreboding increases in intensity with every page.

A Berlin Love Song is well-paced and the juxtaposition of the romance alongside the complexities of war keep the reader captivated throughout.  Whilst desperately sad in places, the story holds the joy of love and the strength found in family at its heart. A very appropriate metaphor for our time.

Find out more at www.troikabooks.com or www.sarahmatthias.co.uk.

Thanks to Troika Books for sending me this book to review.

 

 

 

 

Guest review: Outdoor fun and nutty nature; what’s not to like?!

On this beautiful sunny day, it seems very apt to be posting about two brilliant new books by Andy Seed that celebrate nature and the world of fun that can be had outdoors.  And to tell you all about them in a guest post is my husband, Mr Dilly. When these arrived via bookpost he was quick to grab them from the TBR pile. Such was his enjoyment of them he wanted to share it with everyone, so welcome Mr Dilly and thank you for joining the blog today!

“Thank you for having me! When I was a child, I spent a lot of time playing with my friends and family – outside. Be it with cobbled together ‘guns’ and re-enacting famous battle scenes from bits of wood my dad had left lying around; riding our bikes down all kinds of slopes and frequently crashing headfirst into things; sledging down icy slopes on bits of polythene sheeting until our backsides were frozen, not really thinking of the barbed wire fence promising imminent injury at the bottom of our triumphant sledge runs!

I’m sure some of these things will spark similar memories from most of a certain age. Talking to my father, his childhood wasn’t much different in the sense that so much time was spent playing outside. That’s been the way for generations. For today’s age the lure of screens seems to have put an end to much of this, a huge shame, as staying inside and playing with what is essentially someone else’s imagination and not our own is not our ‘natural’ game.

So on the back of this comes two books from Andy Seed that I can’t recommend enough, ‘The Anti Boredom Book of Brilliant Outdoor Things To Do‘ (illustrated by Scott Garrett, published by Bloomsbury) and ‘Nutty Nature Facts and Jokes’ (illustrated by Sarah Horne, published by Nosy Crow in association with The National Trust). The perfect antidote to anyone who thinks playing outside is boring and sees nothing fun in nature. Full of ideas, fun facts, jokes and complemented with fantastic illustrations they are a great way to entertain the kids (and yourself!).

‘The Anti Boredom Book of Brilliant Outdoor Things To Do‘  has games galore to play outdoors.’ Blind Man’s Splash ‘ sounds great fun, and will be happening in my household when things warm up a bit…blindfolds and water pistols: what’s not to like?! Then there are things to make such as giant bubbles, which I did with my nephew, niece and son, just pure fascination and joy from them as they all competed to make the biggest bubble! There are so many activities and ideas all put together in fun and accessible way for all the family no matter what their age. Next up for my family…build a bivouac…yes I had no idea what one was either!

‘Nutty Nature Facts and Jokes’.  Well all I can say is me and my 7 year old son sat down to read this and ended up in floods of tears of laughter – his favourite joke? “How do you keep flies out of the kitchen? Put a bucket of poo in the living room’. Childish right? But that’s the point, and what an antidote to much of the other imagery floating about and aimed supposedly at kids nowadays. This book was just hilarious in parts, fascinating as well, with so many interesting facts alongside the jokes. Easy to pick up and flick though for children aged 5 onward – I say onward because I have considerable years on that and found it fantastic! On that note, I leave you with another joke: ‘Famous people who love nature – Elvis Parsley’….Elvis has left the building, and so should you; take the kids and buy these books and then get outside. You won’t regret it!”

Thank you Mr Dilly.  I will add that, to see anyone (but of course especially family) enjoying books in the way mine enjoyed these two books is quite simply a joy!  

Find out more at www.andyseed.com, www.sarahhorne.co.uk and www.garrettworld.co.uk

With thanks to Bloomsbury and Nosy Crow for sending these great books for review.

 

New Review: A Story Like the Wind by Gill Lewis illustrated by Jo Weaver

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A Story Like the Wind written by Gill Lewis and illustrated by Jo Weaver is out today, published by Oxford University Press.  Gill was inspired to write A Story Like the Wind after seeing an image of a young Syrian refugee playing his violin in front of a barricade of armed police at a border control. Gill says:  “Stories are powerful things. They can travel through time and space, carried through spoken and written word and through music and the visual arts. We need them now more than ever.”

A Story Like the Wind by Gill Lewis illustrated by Jo Weaver

A small boat drifts on the sea. Far from home, the people inside have lost everything.  But as their boat spins slowly on the rising sea, they share a song and a story.  A song and a story that keep hope alive in their hearts.  A song of freedom and a story like the wind….

Rami is just 14 years old.  He has escaped the war in his home country and is trying to make his way to freedom on a tiny boat that is now drifting on the open sea.  All he has in the world is his precious violin; all he has is hope.  And it is with this violin that he shares a story of hope with his fellow refugees; all of whom have lost their homes to the war that rages and are clinging desperately to life.  The story he shares is a fable; an ancient tale of a white stallion and a boy called Suke fighting against tyranny.  It also tells of the birth of the violin and the power of music to overcome. The fable prompts each refugee to recall memories of family and home, reminding them of the love that surrounds them, even in the darkest of times.

A Story Like the Wind is utterly beautiful; the words and illustrations perfectly intertwining to create a celebration of love, life and hope. The story evokes a timelessness reminding us that throughout the ages people have fought and overcome oppression.  The refugees share the same fears and suffer the same hate as Suke and his stallion, but they also share the same love and desire for freedom. In quiet moments of reflection from each refugee, Gill Lewis captures the heartbreak they have suffered and the devastation of war, but also reminds us why life is to be celebrated.  A man remembers meeting the love of his life; brothers poignantly remember their family home; a mother recalls the birth of her precious son.  Even in the midst of the darkest time, the music of life is a powerful melody that you can almost hear as you read this story.

‘We must all sing it, for those we have lost, or left behind. We must sing it to those who do not know they need it yet. We must keep the song alive.’

Jo Weaver’s absolutely stunning charcoal illustrations give life to Rami, the music and the memories, beautifully portraying the light against the dark. A Story Like the Wind reminds us we have so much to be thankful for – not least our freedom.  Suitable for younger readers but a story everyone should read; if any book is going to inspire a response to the refugee crisis, it is this one.

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For more information visit www.gilllewis.com and www.joweaver.co.uk. This book is endorsed by Amnesty International. Thank you to Oxford University Press for sending me a copy of this book to review.  Read my interview with Gill Lewis here.

New Review: Ink by Alice Broadway

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A fantastic debut YA novel from author Alice Broadway, Ink is a brilliant story creating a world that at it’s heart is perhaps not so different from our own.

Ink by Alice Broadway

There are no secrets in Saintstone……Every action, every deed, every significant moment is tattooed on your skin for ever. When Leora’s father dies, she is determined to see her father remembered forever. She knows he deserves to have all his tattoos removed and made into a Skin Book to stand as a record of his good life. But when she discovers that his ink has been edited and his book is incomplete, she wonders whether she ever knew him at all.

In Saintstone, everyone carries a record of their lives on their skin.  That is, except for the Blanks, who choose not to have their skin marked and are therefore outcast. As is tradition in Saintstone, Leora’s father’s skin bearing the marks of his life in tattoos, will be bound into a book.  The soul weighing ceremony will then decide whether his life has been worthy enough for the book to be given back to the family and kept as a permanent memory.  Those found to be unworthy are forever destroyed; the ultimate shame and sorrow for any family.  It is whilst waiting for the date of the ceremony that Leora’s life and indeed her beliefs start to unravel.  Having lost the anchor that was her father, she now discovers that his life was not as blameless as she thought. Leora begins to question everything she thought she knew. She has the unusual gift of being able to ‘read’ others’ lives through their tattoos – sometimes revealing more than she wants to know about them. What lies has she been told? Are the beliefs as portrayed in the fables she has always held so dear really the truth?  If not, then perhaps even the foundations of society are corrupt.  Leora’s life becomes ever more unsettled, as she tries to decide where her future lies.

I loved this book.  Ink is a brilliant story; the kind of book that makes me love being a reader.  I picked it up and didn’t put it down until I’d finished it. Leora is a wonderful character whose voice comes through loud and clear enabling you to connect with her instantly through her thoughts, her actions and her relationships with others.  Leora’s relationship with her mother, her best friend Verity and even her employer Obel demonstrate the complexity of the many relationships we have in life and were brilliantly described. Life-changing events beyond Leora’s control cause her to reconsider everything – something I am sure we can all relate to.

The author creates a create a vivid picture of Saintstone and it’s customs. It was interesting to imagine how a society might look with everyone covered in tattoos. At first the idea of a ‘skin book’ made me feel queasy, but as you understand the significance of them as memories, you feel totally differently about the idea. They are a connection; a physical memory that can be ‘read’ again and again, and oddly this became quite beautiful.  It also raises interesting questions about the true impact of our life choices even from beyond the grave.  If we all had a visible record of our lives and choices, how would we ‘measure’ up? Can we ever really know the truth of a person’s soul? Who should decide if our lives have been ‘good’ enough? And of course, should those who choose not to live this way be punished?

“For the first time in my life, I’m doubting my faith, and it terrifies me. For the first time, I want to change the rules. For the first time I wonder: does it matter what it says on your skin, when what’s at stake is your soul?”  Leora, Ink.

Ink was full of moral choices and could spark many a debate about religion, prejudice and the fear of being ‘different’.  It describes a society in flux, with traditions and principles based on old fables or fairy tales and how we cling to these in difficult times.  But also how these can become a prison for so many. The extremes that some will go to protect and preserve tradition and use fear to control society are reflected on and create some stark choices for Leora.  For me what set this book apart was the huge depth the fables written into the story gave to the culture and the people in it. The importance of stories in the story is brilliant – as is the importance of art and creativity, which is beautifully brought to life throughout.  With some brilliant plot twists and nerve-racking moments, Ink is totally absorbing and I literally cannot wait for the next book.

Find out more at www.alice-broadway.com or on Twitter @alicecrumbs. You can read my interview with Alice here.  Thank you to Scholastic  for sending me a copy of Ink to review.