Book Review

MG Monday: Woozy the Wizard: A Spell to Get Well by Elli Woollard and Al Murphy.

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Middle Grade Mondays on Juniper’s Jungle feature books aimed at 8 – 12 year olds, or younger. This week, Woozy the Wizard: A Spell to Get Well written by Elli Woollard and illustrated by Al Murphy earns his turn in the spotlight.

WoozyTheWizardWoozy the Wizard is a well-meaning wizard who just wants to help his friends. But sometimes his spells (and he) get all mixed up! So then he has to get back on his broom with his pet pig and zoom around the village trying to put things right . . .

Hilarious rhyming verse for children aged four and up, starring Woozy the Wizard and his pet pig!

Woozy the Wizard looks a lot like the wizards you imagine; long grey beard, flowing cloak and pointy hat, wand in hand. Where he differs a little from other wizards however is that sometimes his magic isn’t all that good. That’s the problem facing Woozy in this book, the villagers are all sick and no matter what he tries he just can’t magic them better. Whether it’s his books not having a suitable spell, or a lapse in memory, Woozy has to try all sorts of different things in his mission to cure the village.

This story is told in rhyme with some repeated stanzas that will encourage participation from young listeners. The back cover blurb suggests this story is for those aged four and up – it’ll work well at the younger end of this as a book to read out loud. The rhyming structure makes for some amusing word choices, these are always entertaining rather than feeling shoe-horned in for the sake of the rhyme.

The book is illustrated by Al Murphy. His illustrations are bold and colourful, working really well with the humorous text. They are very clear, with strong lines and solid colours – I think that this was a great choice, busier pictures might have distracted from the rhyming text. As it was I found it easy to give both the text and illustrations my full attention. I think my favourite illustration is from when one of Woozy’s spell attempts goes wrong and Woozy and his pig end up being pelted with vegetables – it made me laugh!

This is a really great, fun book. I enjoyed it and am looking forward to sharing it with others. Woozy is going to be back in the Spring in Woozy the Wizard: A Broom to go Zoom – I’ll definitely be reading this.

Woozy the Wizard: A Spell to Get Well is published by Faber Children’s in the UK. I won my copy of the book in a giveaway by the publisher, all of the opinions expressed in this review are my own.

Book Review

MG Monday: The Lost Journals of Benjamin Tooth & The Windvale Sprites by Mackenzie Crook.

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Middle Grade Mondays on Juniper’s Jungle feature books aimed at 8 – 12 year olds, or younger. This week, The Lost Journals of Benjamin Tooth and The Windvale Sprites by Mackenzie Crook are both featured.

These two books are companion novels. The Windvale Sprites was published in 2011, and The Lost Journals of Benjamin Tooth was published in 2013.

LJoBTOne day I will be remembered as the greatest scientist that the world has ever known and so it is my duty to mankind to record my thoughts that future generations are able to study the progress of a genius.

I am eleven years old.

These are the recently discovered journals of Benjamin Tooth: alchemist, inventor and discoverer of the Windvale sprites. They chronicle his journey of scientific discovery from pompous boy to mad old man in his pursuit of the sprites on Windvale Moor. The sprites hold the key to eternal life, and Tooth is determined to capture it.

I read this book first, though I had been assured that it didn’t matter which order you read the books in. I chose to go chronologically – this book is set before The Windvale Sprites and so that made more sense to me.

I enjoyed the first part of the book very much. Benjamin Tooth is an engaging character, a young lad focused on science and his mission to excel in his scientific pursuits. Sadly, as the book progresses and Benjamin gets older I found him harder and harder to like, and found that I cared less and less about what happened to him. A couple of times I actually found myself wishing some great harm would come to him. I’m fine with characters not being likeable, but Benjamin was the sort of dislikable that made me consider putting the book down and not carrying on.

The journal format makes this book a quick read, this probably helped me to keep reading. When the sprites make their first appearance I found I was instantly taken by them – they’re an interesting creation and Benjamin’s observations of them are fascinating. I would have loved to read more about them and their society rather than his attempts to trap them.

WindvaleSpritesWhen a storm sweeps through the country, Asa wakes up the next day to find that his town is almost unrecognisable – trees have fallen down, roofs have collapsed and debris lies everywhere. But amongst the debris in his back garden Asa makes an astounding discovery – the body of a small winged creature. A creature that looks very like a fairy. Do fairies really exist?

Asa embarks on a mission to find out. A mission that leads him to the lost journals of local eccentric Benjamin Tooth who, two hundred years earlier, claimed to have discovered the existence of fairies. What Asa reads in those journals takes him on a secret trip to Windvale Moor, where he discovers much more than he’d hoped to…

Having not enjoyed The Lost Journals of Benjamin Tooth that much, I picked up The Windvale Sprites with a little trepidation. I quickly realised though that I was enjoying this far more, and this stayed the case for the entirety of the book.

This book is set in the modern day, the main character Asa also comes in contact with the sprites Benjamin Tooth had discovered and ends up finding Benjamin’s journal and using this as his guide to discovering more about the sprites. There are sections of text that are direct copies of the text from the journal – I liked revisiting this and seeing it through Asa’s eyes. Many of the issues I’d had with Benjamin were expressed by Asa – this reconfirmed by belief that these books have a real value in talking about science and the ethics of scientific investigation.

I really enjoyed the contrast between the two books, and I do think looking back at the two books I feel a little more kindly towards The Lost Journals of Benjamin Tooth if I considerate in its context as part of a pair of companion stories. I’m glad I read the books this way around rather than in the order in which they were published. Both books are illustrated by the author, these add a lot to both stories. Overall I found these books to be an interesting and thought provoking experience though maybe not one I’m going to be in a great hurry to repeat.

The Lost Journals of Benjamin Tooth and The Windvale Sprites are published by Faber & Faber in the UK. Whilst I was provided with a review copy of the book all of the opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review

MG Monday: Archie Greene and the Magician’s Secret by D.D. Everest.

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Middle Grade Mondays on Juniper’s Jungle feature books aimed at 8 – 12 year olds, or younger. This week, the focus is on Archie Greene and the Magician’s Secret by D.D.Everest.

ArchieGreene1Archie Green receives a mysterious present on his birthday. Deep within an ancient wooden box he finds an old book, written in a language he doesn’t recognize. With the book comes a Special Instruction – Archie must travel to Oxford to return the book to the Museum of Magical Miscellany.

Soon Archie will meet family that he never knew he had, and discover the world of the Flame Keepers – a community devoted to finding and preserving magical books.

But the magical book under Archie’s protection is dangerous, and dark spirits hunt it out. With the help of his cousins, Archie must do everything he can to uncover the book’s hidden powers and save the Flame Keepers from evil.

Welcome to a wonderful, magical world where bookshelves are enchanted, librarians are sorcerers and spells come to life.

The synopsis for this book was winning me over rapidly and then I hit that last line. Enchanted bookshelves? Sorcerer librarians? This was a book I knew I had to read!

The opening chapters work really well to draw the reader in. The very first one makes only a little sense, but in that way that makes you want to keep reading so you can find out what on earth is going on. The focus then shifts to Archie, the main character, and the action really begins. Within a short space of time there’s a bit of humour, plenty of intrigue, and a mini catastrophe – I was hooked and I think anyone trying to read this at bedtime to a young audience will be met with cries of “one more” at the end of each chapter!

Archie Greene’s world is a fascinating one. Like all magical worlds there are some things that feel a little familiar, but there’s also so very much that feels fresh and new. The world building itself feels pretty effortless, the information is threaded throughout the book – definitely an advantage of having a main character who is new to the world. One of the things that I really loved was how rooted this book is in the history of world. The Great Library of Alexandria features heavily, and historical figures such as John Dee get referenced thoroughly.

Archie himself is a character I liked a lot. He makes some slightly questionable choices throughout the book, but these are always for good reasons – he genuinely believes he’s making the best decisions. There’s no doubting that he’s a brave character, there are some really nice discussions on what being brave and courageous actually means. That said, he is only as good a character as he is as a result of the characters around him. His two cousins in particular, Bramble and Thistle, are a vital component of the book and whilst Archie’s grandmother gets very little on page time her presence is felt throughout the book.

This is an adventure story at heart, and this element is well executed. The pacing of the book is good, it keeps the reader’s attention and many of the chapters end in such a way that you want to just see what happens next. I liked the way the book was believable despite being set in a magical version of our lives. Everything makes sense within the context of the book’s world, and the history that it draws upon.

It would be very easy to be immediately a little dismissive of this book. An adventure story, set in the world of magic and enchantment, featuring a young lad who becomes welcomed into the world he didn’t know existed on his birthday. So far so familiar, right? Well yes, but to approach this book in this manner would mean missing out on a really good story set in a world I personally want to visit right now. I think I’d be an excellent addition to the team at the Museum of Magical Miscellany… now where do I find the application form?

Archie Greene and the Magician’s Secret is published by Faber Children’s in the UK. Whilst I was provided with a review copy of the book all of the opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review

MG Monday: The Girl Who Walked on Air by Emma Carroll.

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Middle Grade Mondays on Juniper’s Jungle feature books aimed at 8 – 12 year olds, or younger. This week, The Girl Who Walked on Air by Emma Caroll takes a spin into the spotlight.

TGWWOAAbandoned as a baby at Chipchase’s Travelling Circus, Louie dreams of becoming a ‘Showstopper’. Yet Mr Chipchase only ever lets her sell tickets. No Death-Defying Stunts for her. So in secret, Louie practises her act- the tightrope- and dreams of being the Girl Who Walked on Air. All she needs is to be given the chance to shine.

One night a terrible accident occurs. Now the circus needs Louie’s help, and with rival show Wellbeloved’s stealing their crowds, Mr Chipchase needs a Showstopper- fast.

Against his better judgement, he lets Louie perform. She is a sensation and gets an offer from the sinister Mr Wellbeloved himself to perform in America. But nothing is quite as it seems and soon Louie’s bravery is tested not just on the highwire but in confronting her past and the shady characters in the world of the circus . . .

Last year Frost Hollow Hall, Emma Carroll’s debut novel, was one of my best reading surprises. Historical fiction isn’t something I naturally gravitate towards but I was blown away by this beautiful read. When I read the synopsis for The Girl Who Walked on Air I had a feeling it was going to just as brilliant a read.

The book is set in the circus of the Victorian era. The circus that has performing animals and gets bums on seats with the promise of death defying feats that might just go wrong. Very quickly we get to see these aspects of the circus. Louie, our main character, was abandoned as a baby on the steps of one of the performers caravans. She was brought into the circus family though the owner, Mr Chipchase has resolutely kept her in the background – she has the very unglamorous roles of ticket seller and costume maker. She has a secret though, inspired by world famous tightrope walker The Great Blondin she’s been practising her own headline act and she’s good at it. Really good.

I loved all of the descriptions of the circus world Louie lives in, I really felt like I was walking through it with her – seeing all of the characters, smelling all of the smells, hearing the roar of the crowd. There is such a great level of detail, you can see that the author really did her research and has managed to instil it into the pages of the book. This combined with the twisty, gripping plot (Louie is of course not being kept out of the limelight for nothing) makes for a really atmospheric read.

I loved Louie so much as a main character. She’s strong and stands up for herself, she knows what she wants and is determined to make it work. She’s also very brave, the very idea of stepping onto a tightrope fills me with fear – the feats she manages are incredibly impressive. I liked her from the very beginning of book, she’s very appealing and so I was really rooting for her. The supporting characters are well created too, I liked how a number of them evolved as we got to know them better throughout the book.

This book has truly cemented Emma Carroll’s place on my list of authors I’m really excited by. She creates wonderful worlds and characters, and has made me completely rethink my personal relationship with historical fiction! When it’s written this well it’s something that I’m going to want more and more. The Girl Who Walked on Air is great, its gripping and exciting and left me entirely satisfied. I can’t recommend it strongly enough!

The Girl Who Walked on Air is published by Faber Children’s in the UK. Whilst I was provided with a review copy of the book all of the opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review

Book Review: Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie by Jeff Norton.

Memoirs‘My name is Adam Meltzer and the last thing I remember was being stung by a bee while swinging at a robot-shaped pinata on my twelfth birthday. I was dead before the candy hit the ground.’

Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie is narrated by the hilarious Adam Meltzer – pre-teen, worrywart, and now zombie. Adam’s family gets the fright of their lives when he turns up at their door . . . three months after his funeral.

Soon Adam’s back at school trying to fit in and not draw extra attention to himself, but when he sees his neighbour Ernesto transform into a chupacubra, and the beautiful Corina (Adam’s number one mega-crush) turns out to be a (vegan) vampire, undead life is never going to be the same again.

A hilarious adventure caper – if Ferris Bueller met Shaun of the Dead – all about friendship and being yourself . . . even if you’re undead.

Sometimes I look at my bookcase when I’m trying to choose my next read and find myself yearning for something that’s completely fun. On these occasions I always start looking over the Middle Grade titles I have waiting for me, this is almost always where the funniest books on my shelves can be found. Everything I’d heard about Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie made me think it was going to serve my desire for a fun read very well indeed.

Adam is a really engaging lead character, he’s funny and self-deprecating without either feeling over done. I found his frustrations with returning to his life to find out how much of it has already changed both touching and amusing, the way Adam just got on with things worked really well. I also enjoyed the introduction of his two fellow non-humans; Corina the vegan vampire and Ernesto the chupacubra. All three have their own issues with their supernatural side, I felt this made their burgeoning friendship all the stronger. I very much liked that the chupacubra was included – it’s nice to see some of the lesser used supernatural species get a little attention from time to time.

There is a great quest aspect to this book, Adam doesn’t understand why he is a zombie and decides to find the bee that stung and killed him. I learnt something from this element of the plot – I’d always been under the impression once bees stung they died, a quick search taught me this only holds true for honey bees. Once I’d educated myself I got straight back to reading, willing the trio on as they tried to track down the responsible creature. The way this all plays out is very satisfying, I really enjoyed that whilst the quest is for the answers Adam’s looking for both Corina and Ernesto also get to develop a lot throughout its progression.

The book contains lots of footnotes, something I have very mixed feelings about. I’ve read books where they’ve been really badly done and had a hugely detrimental effect on how I’ve felt about the book. When they’re done well though they can add a lot to the reading experience and the footnotes in Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie are done really well. They added a lot to Adam’s character and often made me laugh.

This is the first of Jeff Norton’s books that I’ve read, despite being very aware of his hugely popular Metawars series I’ve never picked one up to read. This was a great introduction to his writing and I now have every intention of catching up. In the meantime I’m going to be purchasing a few copies of Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie as gifts over the next few months – I have some young readers in mind who I know will love this as much as I did!

Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie is published by Faber Children’s Books. Whilst I was provided with a copy of the book by the publisher all opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review

Book Review: The Tornado Chasers by Ross Montgomery.

TornadoChasersWhen Owen Underwood’s family move to Barrow, it’s because there’s nowhere safer in the Valleys – and safety is very important. Especially when the threat of tornadoes, and giant bears, is constant.

But in Barrow, safety is taken to extremes. Children have to wear bright yellow at all times and are never allowed outside except to go to school. How can Owen face an entire summer of that?

In secret, Owen and his friends form the Tornado Chasers. Their mission: to get as close to a Grade 5 tornado as possible. It’s time for them to face their fears!

And then… And then…

The second hilarious, thought-provoking, highly original book from an extraordinary young talent – you’ve never read a novel like it!

The first couple of chapters of this book quickly draw you into the somewhat unusual version of our world that provides its setting. It feels like a world where health and safety fears really have taken over – every element of life in the small town of Barrow is governed by a risk averse attitude. I was immediately drawn into Owen’s story, feeling very sorry for him and the new friends he was making as the impact of all of the safety rules became increasingly clear.

The book very much feels like it’s a cautionary tale, we all know the age old wisdom that the more you tell someone they can’t have or do something the more they want to do exactly the opposite. It’s no wonder therefore that Owen and his friends come together with a wish to rebel and to go and chase one of the tornados responsible for so many of the restrictions placed upon them.

The description of this book as hilarious, thought-provoking, highly original is spot on. There were definite laugh out loud moments but there were just as many, if not more, moments that left the reader with something to think about. Considering perceptions is a real theme running throughout the book – there are characters that are being seen one, perhaps flawed, way by the characters but we the reader can perhaps see them a little more clearly as we’re seeing them from a distance.

Owen’s group of friends are a wonderfully mixed bunch, seeing how they come together in spite of their differences was lovely. Their first meeting in particular was brilliant, I found myself thinking back to the wonderful groups from the many Enid Blyton books I read as a child. I liked as well the way that the group of characters included a person of colour and person with a disability without either of these things defining the character – something I hope we’re going to be seeing more and more of in children’s literature.

There are some pretty big twists and turns as the book progresses, a couple of times I was pleasantly surprised by the direction that the book took. The ending left me thinking for a long time, I’ll certainly be interested to hear how younger readers get on with it. I do think it’s a very fitting ending but I also think it’s likely to be one that might need some discussion – I imagine like anything this will vary from reader to reader but is worth considering if you’re giving the book to someone.

I haven’t read Ross Montgomery’s first book Alex, the Dog and the Unopenable Door but on the strength of this book it’s definitely earned a place on my books to read list.

The Tornado Chasers is published by Faber Children’s Books. Whilst I was provided with a copy of the book by the publisher all opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review

Dead Ends by Erin Lange.

I know I said no more reviews for a while, but I wrote this one towards the end of last year before I’d decided to take a reviewing break so I thought I would share it today – publication day for Dead Ends. After all, what’s the point of making rules that can’t be bent a little?

imageDane Washington and Billy D. couldn’t be more different. Dane is clever and popular, but he’s also a violent rebel. Billy D. has Down’s syndrome, plays by the rules and hangs out with teachers in his lunch break.

But Dane and Billy have more in common than they think – both their fathers are missing.

They’re going to have to suck up their differences and get on with helping each other. There are answers to be found.

Powerful, funny, moving – the ultimate coming-of-age novel.

This book is really deceptive. You start reading it expecting it to be about two boys working together on a treasure hunt, and the fact that one of the boys has Down Syndrome leads you to expect this will inevitably play some part in the story. You’re right of course, but you also get so much more that you’re not expecting and it leaves you thinking about it after you’ve stopped reading, and wondering how on earth you’re going to convey your thoughts about the book in a coherent manner. Or that was my reading experience in any case.

The book is narrated by Dane. He’s a wonderfully grey character, he has anger management issues and a very specific way of seeing the world but then at the same time is a good student with clear goals and future plans. In an early chapter he explains how he is getting increasingly close to being excluded from school and sent to the other school in the area which is tantamount to a dumping ground – he’s desperate for this not to happen, but he’s very aware that his temper is likely to overrule his desire to stay in school.

We see Billy D, the other main character of the book, solely through Dane’s eyes. This doesn’t stop Billy D from seizing his rightful share of the narrative, he’s a well written character and based on my experiences a decent portrayal of a teen with Down Syndrome – including the fact that he too is a grey character, whilst he’s hugely likeable he also has some less appealing character traits.

The major plotline is the focus on Billy’s mission to find his father, he has an atlas with clues to oddly named towns across America and believes he’ll find his father by solving the clues. He involves Dane in the solving and following of this trail, offering in turn to help Dane to find his absent father though this is something Dane does not want to do. I liked the clue solving aspect of the plot, and the focus on unusual place names appealed to my word loving brain. This story twists and turns, some of the reveals along the way are real jolts – each adding another layer of depth to the story.

Throughout the book Billy D challenges Dane; the way he acts, the language he uses, the very way he sees the world. There is always a danger when you have a character becoming friends with a character with a disability that the latter becomes relegated to purely being in the story in order for the main character to go on some sort of redemptive personal journey. There are of course elements of this at play in this book, but whilst yes Dane does develop as a result of his friendship with Billy D, Billy also develops as a result of his friendship with Dane. The author tries her absolute best to avoid falling into the cliches often seen in books featuring characters with disabilities and the book is a really positive read as a result. There is some occasional use of ableist language, but this both feels true to the narrative and really jars with the reader – I think this will leave readers thinking about their own views and attitudes and those of the people around them.

One of the facets I liked best about this book was that this story reinforces the fact that actions have consequences. Both of the boys in this story make bad choices, often for good reasons but poor decisions all the same, and they have to bear the consequences of these choices. This results in the book having a realistic, believable and satisfying conclusion rather than a fairytale style neat ending.

This book is an excellent read, there’s so much to take from it, and I think every reader will find something to identify with. I know I’m going to be pressing my copy into the hands of other readers, I want everyone to spend time with Dane and Billy D.

Dead Ends is published by Faber Children’s. Whilst I was provided with a review copy of the book all opinions expressed are my own.