Book of the Month: Prisoner of Ice and Snow by Ruth Lauren

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Introducing a new feature to the website and blog….Book of the Month! And our first choice is a fantastic debut adventure by Ruth Lauren, Prisoner of Ice and Snow, publishing today from Bloomsbury.

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Prisoner of Ice and Snow by Ruth Lauren

Valor is under arrest for the attempted murder of the Crown Prince. Her parents were cast out from the royal court. Her sister was banished for the theft of a national treasure. Now Valor has been sentenced to life at Tyur’ma, a brutal prison built from snow and ice. But that’s exactly where she wants to be: her sister was sent there too, and Valor intends to break her out. From the inside.

No one has escaped Tyur’ma in over three hundred years though, and if Valor is to succeed, she will need all of her strength, courage and love. If her plan fails, Valor faces a fate worse than any prison….

Prisoner of Ice and Snow is set in the fictional land of Demidova. It’s a thrilling adventure featuring Valor, who lives up to her name as a brave and fearless heroine, stopping at nothing to free her twin sister, Sasha.  Sasha has been imprisoned for stealing a music box; an artefact of such importance it can stop impending war.  Meticulously planning her own capture and an impossible escape, Valor’s determination to free her sister is palpable from the first page; even if it means treason against her country and the royal family her parents once served.  Inside the fearsome prison for children, it quickly becomes clear all is not what it seems; Valor finds herself fighting a hidden enemy as well as surviving the brutal regime of the prison run by the ruthless Warden Kirov. Initially not wanting to trust anyone, Valor keeps her counsel and becomes even more determined when she discovers Sasha was framed. The sisters soon realise their fate is tied up with solving the mystery behind the theft as well as finding an escape route.  It seems that luck is not on their side and there is no choice but to put their trust in some of their fellow prisoners and accept help, whatever the motivations might be.

I read this gripping story in one sitting! It’s a fantastic adventure, with a wonderful heroine and great supporting cast. The snow covered landscape of Demidova gives a magical feel to the whole tale and the well-written descriptions create a captivating setting.  In particular the sense of foreboding around the prison is very real – you can almost feel the ice-cold air as you read! The plot is full of intrigue with the importance of the music box and indeed of Valor and her sister becoming more significant with each turn of the page. The over-riding theme of sisterly loyalty is very appealing; Valor and Sasha whilst being twins have distinct personalities and are instantly likeable.  I enjoyed the relationships between Valor and the small group of prisoners caught up in the plot; Feliks is a good contrast to the darker moments with his cheeky sense of humour and the slightly gruff Katia makes a great cellmate for Valor.  The friendships are totally believable and you can just imagine that in those circumstances they are absolutely crucial to surviving.  The more sinister characters are suitably menacing and you find yourself rooting for Valor, Sasha and their friends to defeat them. Edge-of-your-seat action scenes are well described and with a very satisfying ending, this couldn’t be a more enjoyable debut! With a sequel to follow, ‘The Seeker of the Crown’, readers will be captivated by Valor and the kingdom of Demidova.

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Find out more at www.ruthlauren.com.

With thanks to Bloomsbury for sending me this book to review.

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Bookchat: Jane Mitchell

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Some months back I read A Dangerous Crossing, by Jane Mitchell, a moving story about a Syrian family fleeing conflict in their home country (you can read my review here). I found that when I watched the news at the time, which was full of refugee-related headlines, I felt even more empathy for the people forced to flee their homes. News stories create a spotlight on issues around the globe, but when the media turn their attention elsewhere, it can seem as though that particular ‘issue’ has resolved or is forgotten. This is, of course, far from true and for me, that’s why books like A Dangerous Crossing (endorsed by Amnesty International) are so important providing a more permanent reminder of the humanitarian crisis caused by conflict.

So I’m really pleased to welcome Jane Mitchell to the blog today for a bookchat about her novel A Dangerous Crossing. Thank you for joining us Jane!

A Dangerous Crossing gives a completely new meaning to the images we have seen on the news over the last few years. Why did you decide to write this story and how did you go about researching it? My publisher Little Island Books wanted a book about the Syrian refugee crisis, to bring it to life for young readers, and invited me to write a story about a young refugee. It was something that was very important to me. The crisis has galvanised me over the last few years and I was hugely interested in proving a glimpse into what it must be like for one boy, one family, caught up in this war. I undertook research in a range of areas:

  • I follow the Syrian Network for Human Rights on social media. An independent, non-partisan, non-governmental, non-profit organisation, it is registered in the UK and USA. Its mission is to work to protect the human and civil rights of Syrian citizens, regardless of their ethnicity and affiliations. It documents violations against the Syrian people—including the names of people killed in the war—on a daily This is where I obtained all the names and ages of the children.
  • I met with a Syrian family who moved to Ireland before the outbreak of the Syrian war. They told me about pre-war Syria, and provided great insight into routine life for Syrian children when their country was at peace, including education, food and life-styles.
  • I read travel books about Syria and Turkey, studied the geography, layout, and means of travel through the two countries by public and private transport. I traced out routes followed by many Syrian refugees today.
  • I read up on personal stories and experiences of refugees crossing Turkey and the sea to Greece, including reports and accounts from Amnesty International and Médecins Sans Frontières, and researched the towns and cafés along the Turkish coast where smugglers meet with refugees seeking to get to Europe. I also read about how Turks arrange illegal crossings to Greece.
  • Finally, I volunteered in the Jungle Camp in Calais. In this unofficial camp, I saw first-hand the conditions in which illegal refugees survive, with bad sanitation, inadequate shelter, little medical support, and no washing facilities. I met and spent time with refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Apart entirely from the poor physical conditions at the camp, people there are socially isolated from mainstream society, with no access to education or employment opportunities, and no means of economic support. I was at the camp when French police launched a tear gas attack in response to a rush by the refugees to trucks stopped on the bridge leading to the port. These frequent attacks cause widespread panic, distress and anger, as well as physical discomfort and pain—an experience I recreate for Ghalib.

The story is so well-imagined and there are some heart wrenching moments. Did you find it difficult to write some of the more emotional scenes? It is always tough to write about something that’s emotionally distressing, particularly when the character is a child and someone I care about. I try to put myself into the character’s head and to imagine how they might feel, to make it as real as possible for the reader. As a result, I find it tiring and demanding to write emotional scenes and often find the scene replaying in my head long after I have written it.

The names of all the characters are real Syrian refugee children. What made you decide to use these names? I was looking for authentic Syrian names for my story, and I also wanted some way to remember the hundreds of children whose lives have been needlessly cut short by the war in Syria. Early on in my research, I found on the Syrian Network for Human Rights the names of children who had been killed in the war, and this seemed a fitting tribute to these lost children.

A Dangerous Crossing will, I am sure, generate empathy and sympathy for the refugees fleeing Syria. What would you say to children who would like to do something to help the refugee situation but are limited to what they can do because of their age? The age of young readers doesn’t mean that they can’t still do something positive or take important action to help the desperate plight of refugees fleeing Syria.

  • Young people can organise collections of clothing and other items to help refugees, through their schools and/or local communities. Essential goods can then be dropped off at collection points for distribution to refugees in camps and centres.
  • They can hold cake sales or sponsored walks to raise money to donate to legitimate charities, such as Medécins Sans Frontiéres or Amnesty International.
  • They can attend rallies, days of action and marches to show their support for refugees and to raise awareness.
  • They can sign petitions, and email world leaders, MEPs and politicians to demand a more proactive response to the crisis and to pressure them to provide emergency funding.
  • They can read about and share stories of refugees so that others can learn more about them.
  • Young people can make a real effort to befriend and welcome refugees who are relocated to their schools and/or communities. Refugees have been through a tough time, and welcoming them or making them feel included in their new communities is an important gesture of friendship.

Why do you think it’s important that children’s fiction focus on stories like Ghalib’s? Children in Ireland and the UK need to understand the terrible things that are happening to Syrian children. I believe passionately that words have the power to create empathy, to engender understanding, and ultimately to provoke action. The more that young people learn about this crisis, the more they will understand its underlying causes.

It is often tempting to shield children from the harsher realities of life, such as death and war, but children have a remarkable capacity to empathise when something is presented to them in a way they can understand. With such broad media coverage of the civil war, they are very aware of the crisis, but perhaps don’t quite appreciate what it means. To this end, fiction can be a wonderful medium to explore difficult topics safely. An honest storyline that doesn’t shy away from the truth enables young readers to explore multiple perspectives and gain insight into complex issues. However, when writing a distressing story, I try to remain sensitive to the young minds absorbing the difficult narrative. I always try to include a note of optimism and hope, and even a touch of humour where possible to lighten the tone.

A Dangerous Crossing is endorsed by Amnesty International. How did this come about? My last book—Chalkline—was endorsed by Amnesty International as contributing to a better understanding of human rights and the values that underpin them. Such endorsement means a great deal to me: human rights are an important theme in my books and of personal importance to me. My publisher, Little Island Books, approached Amnesty International to ask them about the possibility of also endorsing A Dangerous Crossing and I am honoured that they agreed. Additionally, the Executive Director of Amnesty Ireland launched my book in Dublin.

This is your seventh novel; how did writing A Dangerous Crossing compare to your previous writing experiences? The topic of A Dangerous Crossing is such a current and burning issue that writing it was far more urgent and important for me that any other novel I have written. It is a highly political story compared to my previous works and as such, it has attracted a lot of attention. This can only be a positive thing for the desperate people in Syria as anything that brings attention to their ordeal can only be a catalyst for action.

And finally, what are your three best pieces of advice to aspiring writers? It is always great to hear of writers who aspire to write stories for publication and/or submission to publishers, and I would encourage them to keep at it. My three pieces of advice are as follows:

  • Finish your work. So many aspiring writers tell me about the work they have just started. Sometimes, when things get really tough, it is easier and tempting to put a manuscript aside and start again. The result is that lots of new writers have lots of works-in-progress, but never actually finish a complete manuscript. So my top advice is finish your work. There is a great sense of achievement in completing a manuscript.
  • Don’t send in your first draft. Editing and rewriting your work will make it so much stronger. When you rework your writing, you’ll see things that you never noticed first time around, such as plot errors, repetition, typos, and so on. It is always so much more professional to send in a polished and redrafted manuscript for consideration.
  • Be open to feedback and criticism—especially if it’s from an editor or agent. New writers can sometimes be a little precious about their work, but try to remember that it’s an editor/agent’s job to make your work as strong as possible. Be open to the feedback and look on it as a way to improve your work.

Thank you Jane for some wonderful insight into your work, amazing ideas for helping young reader’s (and indeed older readers) respond to the refugee crisis and great advice for aspiring writers.

A Dangerous Crossing is published by Little Island.  Find out more about Jane Mitchell at www.janemitchell.ie.

 

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New review: Dog on Wheels by Gillian McClure

Gillian McClure has written and illustrated wonderful picture books including We’re Going to Build a Dam, which was nominated for the UK Literacy Association (UKLA) book awards and the Kate Greenaway medal.  Dog on Wheels published by Troika Books is a lovely picture book and I instantly fell in love with the skateboarding dog Dubbin!

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Dog on Wheels by Gillian McClure

Dog pals Dubbin and Todd are going on a walk before breakfast: Dubbin on his skateboard and Todd lagging behind on paws. Not only that, but poor Todd is also carrying a huge bone which is attracting attention from another, not so nice, dog.  Can Dubbin, Todd and the bone get home safely?

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A dog with a very special skill springs off the page in this lovely picture book. Dog on Wheels stars Dubbin, a dog who can skate board, taking his friend Todd on a pre-breakfast jaunt through the town!  But Todd isn’t quite so adventurous and ends up moaning about his heavy bone – which Dubbin quite rightly says he should have left at home!  When Todd realises his bone is lost, it’s up to Dubbin, aided by his wheels, to get back the bone and both dogs to the safety of home in time for breakfast!

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The lively narrative and rhyming words create a fun story brimming with energy.  Dubbin is a great character – you’ve got to love a dog that can skateboard! Whilst Todd slows Dubbin down, Dubbin still looks out for his friend and helps Todd when he most needs it!

The lovely illustrations and text layout compliment the story and bring to life the daring Dubbin perfectly – I loved the stars that surround him wherever he skates.  Dog on Wheels is a celebration of a dog’s life – walkies on wheels! It’s a story that will make all who read it smile! Great for readers aged 3+ and a brilliant book to read aloud.

With thanks to Troika Books for sending me this book to review. Find out more about the author at www.gillianmcclure.com.

Reading matters…at the Bookchat Roadshow

I’ve been fortunate to interview some wonderful authors on my blog and I’m thrilled to say some of them are here today with wise words on reading in support of the Bookchat Roadshow and the importance of encouraging children’s reading for pleasure.

 

 

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“I learned to love books, words and the worlds they created because of my Mum and now I try to pass on that love to my children – I’m so thrilled to see the Bookchat Roadshow helping this happen.”  

Alice Broadway

 

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Reading to a child is a unique experience you share together. You become travelling companions and join them on an adventure into the unknown. You meet new friends, you face adversity. You share how you feel and wonder at the world that unfolds in front of you. Finding time to read to a child is precious time. Find time. Childhood is all too short.” 

Gill Lewis

 

 

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‘No one’s ever too old to be read aloud to. Better yet, why not read aloud together. Showing your passion for reading, whether that’s reading aloud with your child or reading books together so you can discuss them, is the best way to inspire a lifelong love of reading. Pick things you can both be excited by and always go beyond the page. What do you think happens after the end of the book? Which character is your favourite? Where would you love to go in the book or which object would you most want to have from it? Reading is as much about what you put into making the book come alive in your imagination as what’s on the page. Seeing that is the gateway to writing your own stories…’ 

Alexia Casale

 

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“I love that this event is designed to support parents and carers to help and encourage their children to read and write for pleasure. That’s the key word here, for me. Pleasure. Not enough people read and write for pleasure. So anything that aims to encourage reading, writing and creativity as a form of pleasure, escape and fun, is definitely good in my book!” 

Maria Grace

 

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“I’m very pleased to be taking part in the Roadshow, because I like to read and I liked to read when I was younger too, and sometimes it’s nice to share those things that make you happy. In this day and age the empathy and other-person’s-shoe-ness that reading, both fiction and non-fiction, can help nurture and grow inside a human heart cannot be a bad thing to encourage, so let’s encourage it.”  

A. F. Harrold

 

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“I’m so excited to be taking part in the Bookchat Roadshow! As a reader, writer and story mentor with Little Green Pig, I’m very aware of the miracles that can happen when you allow children to take ownership of their reading and writing. There’s nothing better than the look on a child’s face when they realise that there really are no limits to the worlds they can explore and create, and as parents, teachers and librarians it really is within our power to help them to access to their own wildest imaginings.” 

Nikki Sheehan

 

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“Looking forward to receiving the oaths of allegiance on pain of death from all my minions at… no, wait, wrong speech. Umm…. Looking forward to helping parents getting kids reading and writing at the Bookchat Roadshow! Well, my books at any rate. Forget the other authors, pah!!!’ 

Jamie Thomson

 

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“I’m thrilled to be participating in the Roadshow and meeting parents and carers to talk about the wonderful world of reading. When I was a teacher, I saw first hand the hugely positive impact reading has on the lives of children and young people. Reading is empowering, encourages empathy and provides a calm oasis in what can be a chaotic world. A love of reading is one of the greatest gifts you can give a child which is why I’m so excited to be taking part in the Bookchat Roadshow.” 

Jenny McLachlan

 

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The Bookchat Roadshow takes place on 20th July 2017 at Harlands Primary School, Haywards Heath, West Sussex.   You can register for FREE to attend this unique event bringing together authors, industry experts and people passionate about children’s reading and writing for pleasure.  With inspirational talks and an author panel bookchat, plus a selection of exhibitors, we give parents and carers a huge range of ideas to help them support their children’s creativity. Presentations will include author Nikki Sheehan on creative writing, the team behind Scoop Magazine on celebrating stories and Barrington Stoke and reading and accessibility. With giveaways galore this is an event not to be missed!

For more information please visit www.thebookactivist.com or REGISTER your space for FREE via Eventbrite.

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New review: Alex Sparrow and the Really Big Stink

Alex Sparrow and the Really Big Stink is the debut novel by Jennifer Killick, published by Firefly Press. Jennifer studied Creative Writing at Brunel University and having always loved stories, has achieved what she thought as a child would be impossible: having a book with her name on it in the shops!  It’s a fantastic middle grade debut and has been chosen as one of the Reading Agency’s Summer Reading Challenge titles.

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Alex Sparrow and the Really Big Stink by Jennifer Killick

Alex Sparrow is a super-agent in training. He is also a human lie-detector. Working with Jess – who can communicate with animals – they must find out why their friends, and enemies, are all changing into polite and well behaved pupils. And exactly who is behind it all. This is a humorous tale full of farts, jokes and superhero references. Oh, and a rather clever goldfish called Bob. In a world where kids’ flaws and peculiarities are being erased out of existence, Alex and Jess must rely on what makes them different to save the day.

Alex Sparrow is a boy whose mission in life is to be a superhero of the secret agent variety (think Nick Fury). He doesn’t share this too much with the boys at school, for fear of losing his ‘friends’.  But Alex’s idiosyncrasies become more obvious when his ear becomes a human lie detector causing horrifically smelly results! Little does Alex realise he’s not the only one who’s been ‘gifted’ a superpower. Jess, a girl at school who he’s never had much to do with, has her own unique power; she can talk to animals with equally odd results.  Together they make a hilarious team. Whilst the rest of the school kids, including Alex’s so-called friends, shun them for being ‘weirdos’ Alex and Jess set about uncovering a dastardly plot led by an evil teacher. Who knew the hidden lives teachers lead?! As you can imagine, this leads to some unusual and action-packed scenarios, featuring everything from a brave and noble goldfish to a fairly irritating pigeon – and lots of twitching and farting.

I particularly loved – and laughed at – Alex’s voice overs narrating their every move, fully immersing himself into a secret-agent-come-superhero guise. Even more amusing was Jess’ reaction to this, given her straight-talking personality and refusal to be anybody’s sidekick!  The banter between Alex and Jess is brilliant and brings each of their characters bouncing to life. The barmy plot keeps you guessing and laughing out loud all the way through. With twists and turns galore, Alex Sparrow is a school comedy caper perfect for kids – and I think lots of grown-ups will enjoy it too. It also brilliantly reminds us that being different is what makes us human and true friends are often found when we least expect it.

Find out more at www.jenniferkillick.com.

With thanks to Firefly Press for sending me this book to review.

YA Book launch: Nikki Sheehan & Lisa Heathfield

On Wednesday evening I found myself eagerly awaiting the train to London, hoping it wouldn’t be late.  Thankfully it wasn’t – Southern Rail were running on time!!

I was going to Waterstones Clapham to celebrate the launch of two books – one I know well, one I haven’t read.  Goodnight, Boy is a brilliant YA novel from Nikki Sheehan (you can read my review here).  Flight of a Starling is Lisa Heathfield’s third YA novel and if her previous offerings are anything to go by, it’s sure to be brilliant.  Incidentally both books have gorgeous covers!

It’s always such a nice kind of event to be invited to and I felt privileged to join family, friends, book-ish folk (blook bloggers, agents, publicists) and of course the authors in celebrating.  After some delicious Prosecco had been consumed, the speeches began, with congratulations from the editors at Rock the Boat (Nikki Sheehan) and Egmont (Lisa Heathfield).  Nikki and Lisa then went on to thank their families, friends, publishers and other members of the book circle, including fellow authors who were there to help celebrate.

Writing a book is a lengthy process and then within minutes of release it takes on a life of it’s own which must be an amazing – and scary – feeling for an author.  It was lovely listening to both authors describe who had supported them and helped them produce these wonderful books.   Nikki spoke about the people who had been instrumental in her being a writer including her sons: ‘Without them there would be no point in writing’.  Yes that did bring a tear to my eye, especially as I’m a mother of sons too.

Lisa mentioned that she used to be a teacher and that two of her ‘pupils’ were there whom she thanked.  As it happened they were standing next to me, and I was so excited by this I had to speak to them.  It turns out they still call her ‘miss’ – old habits – and even though it was about nineteen years ago they still keep in touch.  I was excited because working in a school as I do, you can have such a positive influence on children’s lives (or not) and clearly Lisa had been an inspiration to these girls, now grown-up women.  That they were there to support her and clearly felt very emotional about this book, was wonderful to see.

Clutching both the books, I got back on the train with the nice warm feeling that comes after being at one of these events.  I love books.

For more information visit www.nikkisheehan.co.uk and www.egmont.co.uk

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.