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.

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: Aubrey and the Terrible Ladybirds by Horatio Clare

In Aubrey and the Terrible Ladybirds, published by Firefly Press, award winning author Horatio Clare takes us back to Rushing Wood; the home of rambunctious Aubrey and all his amazing feathered, furry and sometimes frightening friends! The follow-up to Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot (for which Horatio won the Branford Boase Book Award) it promises to be just as exciting. And it doesn’t disappoint!

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Aubrey and the Terrible Ladybirds by Horatio Clare illustrated by Jane Matthews

In which a small boy and a house spider try to save the world….

It’s the Easter holidays, you’ve just become as small as an earwig, the swallows are back (and offering you rides), and a spider wakes you up in the middle of the night and asks you to save the world. As if that weren’t enough, the Ladybirdz turn up from Bohemia to find they’re not welcome in Rushing Wood….

Aubrey is a bit fed-up. The start of the Easter holidays has been somewhat unsettled with his parents arguing all the time. It’s a welcome, if slightly startling, distraction when Aubrey finds a new friend to share his woes with in the shape of Ariadne, a large spider. And when Hirundo the swallow turns up offering adventure, he can’t resist! With the help of the Swallow Stone he finds himself flying on the back of the bird seeing his home as never before.  However, he soon realises even this magical moment can’t take his troubles away especially when Ariadne reveals there are creatures suffering everywhere and the threat of The Great Hunger is approaching!  Aubrey is not the only one to feel unsettled; a new family of ladybirds have arrived in Rushing Wood hoping to make a home for themselves.  Little do they realise the uproar their arrival is going to create and the turn of events that follows could change the shape of Rushing Wood forever.  Aubrey soon finds himself drawn into a magical journey taking him to France and Italy, making new friends and discovering that maybe there is a way for even the smallest of people to make a difference.

Aubrey’s adventures continue in brilliant fashion in this full-of-fun second instalment with lovely illustrations by Jane Matthews bringing the story to life.  The award-winning Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot is a hard act to follow, but the author absolutely does it justice.  As ever, Aubrey is surrounded by brilliant characters only he can hear and talk to. I’ve always loved the idea of being able to shrink and be tiny (think Mrs Pepperpot or The Borrowers) so it instantly appealed to me when Aubrey discovers he can do this with a bit of help from the Swallow Stone. The narrative takes you on a fantastical journey through time and space, yet again bringing to life the magic of nature. The Ladybirdz family are fun characters, forming part of a tale which deals with complicated issues like the use of pesticides in farming; migration and even family upset, in an accessible way never patronising the reader.  I enjoyed the array creatures who join the story such as the top-hat wearing spider Aloysius Wolf Von Wolf (brilliant name!), Bernado the Bee, Eric the Earthworm and of course the slightly mad swallow, Hirundo. But really Aubrey shines through as the ordinary boy with EXTRA-ordinary abilities – not just in talking to animals but seeing the world differently.   Aubrey and the Terrible Ladybirds has a wonderful plot full of original and imaginative ideas that entertain throughout, demonstrating how we need to pay attention to the world and each other before it’s too late.  Tolerance of others and respect for nature can make all the difference in a world that belongs to everyone.

 

Find out more at www.fireflypress.co.uk. Follow Horatio Clare on Twitter @HoratioClare.  With thanks to Firefly Press for sending me this book to review.

New review: Gaslight by Eloise Williams

Gaslight is the second novel by Eloise Williams, published by Firefly Press.  Eloise grew up in Wales and studied for a masters in Creative Writing at Swansea. She also worked in the theatre and studied drama. Gaslight is set in Victorian Cardiff and gives a wonderful insight into life behind the scenes in a Victorian theatre, as well as a cracking adventure!

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Gaslight by Eloise Williams

I was found at the docks in Cardiff, lying like a gutted fish at the water’s edge. All Nansi knows is that her mother disappeared on the day she was fished out of the docks. She can’t remember anything else. Now, with no family to turn to, she works for Sid at the Empire Theatre, sometimes legally, sometimes thieving, trying to earn enough money to hire a detective to search for her mother.

Everything changes when Constance and Violet join the theatre. Nansi is forced to be part of Violet’s crooked psychic act.  But it’s Constance who is keeping the real secrets. Nansi is about to learn that her world is even more dangerous that she realised. Can she save her mother? Can she save herself?

Nansi’s life at the Empire Theatre is hard and fraught with danger.  With the vile Sid being her ‘father’ figure – something he constantly reminds her of – she has no choice but trust him and all his schemes, just to keep a roof over her head and the hope of finding her mother alive.  Nansi’s only comfort is her friendship with an orphan called Bee, who is more like a younger sister to her. Nansi is fiercely protective of Bee, determined to try and make her life easier.  With no memory to help her, Nansi is without clues to her mother’s disappearance and it’s only when the new arrival Constance takes up residence in Nansi’s room, that it appears that her trust in Sid is truly misplaced. The mystery surrounding her mother’s disappearance starts to unravel.   What follows is a dangerous and thrilling adventure to find the truth- and avoid disappearing herself on the way!

A wonderful Victorian romp with echoes of Dickens, Gaslight is a thoroughly enjoyable read. The narrative unfolds at a good pace and the setting is vividly described, creating a deliciously dark picture of a life in Victorian Cardiff.  From the grimy streets to the spotlit stage, the atmosphere positively draws you in. I loved Nansi; she is bold and brave and doesn’t allow her fears to get the better of her.  She’s exactly the sort of heroine I loved reading about when I was a girl! She holds on to the hope of finding her mother and this is carried throughout the novel, even when she’s at her lowest ebb. Her relationship with Bee is lovely and I love that the author weaves the joy stories can bring into their lives.  Scary and gritty at times the cast of characters includes thieves, mudlarks and even an evil asylum proprietor.  As the plot thickens, the brilliant storytelling takes you on a thrilling journey, with twists galore.  The added interest of life in a Victorian theatre and the intrigue behind the scenes ensures Gaslight will entertain all readers!

Postscript…I think my favourite character must be the maid at the end…called Dilly!! Thank you Eloise; very happy to have inspired the name (as I discovered through the wonder of Twitter!)

Watch the book trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SEfQGT_-EYw

Find out more at www.eloisewilliams.com and www.fireflypress.co.uk. Follow Eloise on Twitter @Eloisejwilliams .

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

Spring special round up!

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I’ve had a lovely few weeks finding out just some of what’s new and coming soon from the world of children’s books.  Thank you to all those who’ve joined the blog over the last month and shared some book-ish inspiration; it’s great to see there’s so much to celebrate in the world of children’s and YA literature. We started with stargazing and ended with bananas and Beyonce!! With reviews, introductions to debut novels and author interviews, it’s been a busy month.

A snapshot of our spring special interviews:

“I want my books to feel ‘realistic’ and address genuine challenges, but I also want to them to entertain and provide a certain amount of escapism for the reader.” Jenny McLachlan, author.

“When you get right down to it, every child is different but they all deserve the chance to become readers” Hannah Rolls, Editor, Bloomsbury

“..I think hope is important, because stories can be there to guide us through difficult times. They are a light in the darkness, and so it’s important not to switch out the light.” Gill Lewis, author.

“I’m concerned about the ways our loyalty to our own group can mean refusal to empathise and understand others.” Alice Broadway, author.

“Throw all the bad stuff you’ve got at your main character… and then make it even worse.” Simon James Green, author.

“Publishing is the most glorious random thing; no one really knows what will be ‘the next big thing’!” Rachel Hickman, author & Deputy MD of Chicken House

“Writing is a skill like any other–one which you get better and better the more you do. If your first attempt doesn’t quite make it, try again.” Hayley Barker, author.

“There’s so much to learn from hearing authors speak live about their writing, their influences and their experiences.” Victoria Henderson, Director of Chiddingstone Castle Literary Festival.

With an ever growing TBR shelf, look out for lots of new reviews coming soon!.  Thank you to all the publishers for sending me these books to review:

 

 

 

Just in time for spring: it’s a publishing day!

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There are some great authors celebrating their book birthdays today – just in time for spring!  Have a look at these and you may just find you want to add to your TBR shelf!

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A Berlin Love Song by Sarah Matthias (YA)

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?  

Set against the backdrop of the Second World War, this is a love story of passion, unexpected friendship, despair, loss and hope.

Having thoroughly enjoyed a sampler of A Berlin Love Song, I can’t wait to read the novel. I love the idea of a circus as the setting for a novel – there’s something very romantic about it. And what a gorgeous cover!  Described as ‘beautifully written and meticulously researched’, this story also reflects on what has been referred to as the ‘forgotten Holocaust’ – Hitler’s persecution of the Roma people.  Forbidden love is a theme often seen in YA novels; from the extract I’ve enjoyed, A Berlin Love Song speaks with a passionate voice.

Published by Troika Books, MD Martin West says of Sarah Matthias: “Like the best writers of historical fiction, Sarah brings the past vividly to life. A celebration of the Romani way of life, and the powerful, moving story of two individuals caught up in history, this is one of the most compelling and moving stories you will read all year.”

With thanks to Troika Books for my copy of A Berlin Love Song. 

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Royce Rolls by Margaret Stohl (YA)

Sixteen-year-old Bentley Royce has it all: a hit reality show about her family, a mansion, adoring paparazzi, and everything else that comes with the red-carpet ride of a true LA star.  But after five seasons on ‘Rolling with the Royces’ – and OMG dealing with her narcissistic sister Porsche, a media-obsessed mother Mercedes and gambling addicted brother Maybach – Bentley wants out.  

Luckily for her, without a hook for season six, cancellation is looming and freedom is on the horizon. But as Bentley’s family starts to crumble one thing becomes startlingly clear: without the show, there is no family. Then things starts to get real.  Really real, like, not reality-show real.

Margaret Stohl is the co-author of the New York Times bestselling Beautiful Creatures series. She grew-up in the shadow of Hollywood so was well-placed to be inspired in all things fame and celebrity! In an age where reality TV consumes the channels, I expect this novel will be very well-received by its intended teen audience.  Out in paperback today published by Bloomsbury, Royce Rolls promises to be a “laugh-out-loud funny romp with a twist of mystery”.  With all those crazy names, I think it will be!

Thank you to Bloomsbury for my copy of Royce Rolls.

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Dragon’s Green by Scarlett Thomas (Age 9+)

Effie Truelove is a pupil at the Tusitala School for the Gifted, Troubled and Strange. When her grandfather is brutally attacked, Effie promises to look after his magical books. But then shady book-collector Leonard Levar gets hold of them and Efiie has to embark on the most dangerous adventure of her life…

I am very excited about reading this story!  Not only are the initial pre-publication reviews impressive (‘The most exciting debut in children’s fiction since Harry Potter’ Joanne Harris; ‘An enthralling tale, set in a sprawling world that swallowed me whole’ Kiran Millwood Hargrave), the story includes evil publishers, ominous booksellers, magical worlds and secret powers. A pretty enticing combination for a book-ish person! Aimed at 9-12 year olds, this story promises to ‘remind you of the joyous power of reading and the adventures that await’.

Published in hardback today by Canongate, this is the first book for children by Scarlett Thomas, who has also written great books for adults.

With thanks to Catherine Ward for arranging my copy of Dragon’s Green

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Gaslight by Eloise Williams (Age 9+)

1899. All Nansi knows is that her mother disappeared on the day she was fished out of the docks. She can’t remember anything else. Now, with no family to turn to, she works for Sid at the Empire Theatre, sometimes legally, sometimes thieving, trying to earn enough money to hire a detective to search for her mother.

Everything changes when Constance and Violet join the theatre.  Nansi is forced to be part of Violet’s crooked psychic act.  But it’s Constance who is keeping real secrets. Nansi is about to learn that her world is even more dangerous that she realised. Can she save her mother? Can she save herself?

Gaslight is Eloise William’s second novel, aimed at 9-12 year olds.  The beautiful cover is inviting enough, but add to this the mystery, historical setting and backdrop of a theatre, it sounds fantastic.  Described as a ‘darkly delicious romp’ and ‘gorgeously raw and Dickensian’ and with a heroine who sounds suitably brave, I have a feeling I’m going to enjoy it.  Gaslight is published today by Firefly Press, who suggest that fans of Emma Carroll and Katherine Woodfine will love it!

With thanks to Firefly Press for my copy of this book.

I think I’ve got some reading to do…..!

Happy Book Birthday!

Marge and the Pirate Baby by Isla Fisher

Marge and the Pirate Baby by Isla Fisher with illustrations by Eglantine CeulemansMarge

Yo ho ho, me hearties, Marge is Back! This time there’s a baby on the loose. Meet Zara, the naughty little cousin who never sleeps and loves to steal treasure. Marge thinks she’s a pirate and maybe she’s right. 

But will the imaginative babysitter be on her best behaviour? And can Jemima save the day at her Uncle’s wedding?

Jemima and Jake are delighted that their colourful, larger-than-life (but small in stature) babysitter, Marge, is coming to look after to them. But they’re less than delighted that their baby cousin Zara will be there too.  She does nothing but cause trouble, making playtime hazardous and far less enjoyable.  However, with Marge in charge, they soon realise that perhaps there is hope for fun even with Zara getting in the way and generally causing mayhem.  From playing pirates in the garden to swimming in the local pool and even at a wedding, Marge soon shows them who is boss! Even with Marge’s eccentric ways, everything that needs to be done gets done and more importantly to them, Jemima and Jake have a great time!

Featuring three stories in one, Marge and the Pirate Baby is a great read, perfect for younger middle grade children.  The second in the series and told from the point of view of Jemima, the eldest child in the Button family, expect some laugh-out-loud moments and wonderful surprises.  Who wouldn’t love a babysitter who insists she has links to royalty and rainbow coloured hair?!  Marge is quite possibly the best babysitter ever – helping the children build camps and giving them ice cream before lunch, with lots of freedom to be themselves but making sure they do as they’re supposed to. I love her eccentricities and madcap way of doing things.  Marge shares her experiences as a pirate, an intrepid explorer and member of the royal household throughout, inspiring her young charges. Isla Fisher perfectly captures the mayhem that can surround looking after children –as well as the delight children feel when a grown-up behaves in an unexpected way!  And the illustrations brilliantly bring to life marvellous Marge and her young charges.

These stories cleverly reflect real situations that children can feel worried or nervous about like learning to dive and being a bridesmaid, with Marge coming to the rescue and giving just the right encouragement when needed.  Young readers will be inspired to be brave, look out for each other and perhaps not be so quick to judge a situation. I love the fact the Button parents think Marge is a totally ‘normal’ babysitter, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I think every family should have a Marge! I would thoroughly recommend these stories; great for reading aloud or enjoying independently.

Find out more at www.piccadillypress.co.uk and www.eglantineceulemans.com.

With thanks to Piccadilly Press for sending me this book.