Book Review

Book Review: Shadowboxer by Tricia Sullivan.

ShadowboxerThai martial arts, international crime, celebrity and mythical creatures combine in this masterful new tale of two people facing incredible dangers, from award-winning author Tricia Sullivan.

Nothing she’s faced in the cage will prepare her…

Jade is a young mixed martial arts fighter. When she’s in the cage she dominates her opponents—but in real life she’s out of control.

After she has a confrontation with a Hollywood martial arts star that threatens her gym’s reputation, Jade’s coach sends her to a training camp in Thailand for an attitude adjustment. Hoping to discover herself, she instead uncovers a shocking conspiracy. In a world just beyond our own, a man is stealing the souls of children to try and live forever.

Every now and then I see a book talked about that hooks me instantly, I proceed to read it and love it, and then wonder how on earth I’m going to even attempt to review it. Shadowboxer is one of those books. I never realised I wanted a book about a female fighter as much as I did until I read this book and then it went and exceeded every expectation I didn’t even know I had.

Jade, our main character, is truly awesome. She’s tough talking, tough acting and this has the potential to get her into lots of trouble both inside the cage where she fights and outside it. She has huge potential as a fighter, but she’s angry. So angry, and this is putting that potential at risk – you can’t have a fighter with poor self control. She gets sent to Thailand to focus on training and that’s where the secondary plotline of the book really starts to twist around Jade’s story.

We have another great girl character you see, Mya. The first couple of times we meet her I must admit I was a little lost as to what was going on, there’s a strong mythology feel to her story and it didn’t relate to anything I knew. I had the gut feeling that I just needed to go with it though and this was absolutely right, the more I saw of Mya’s world the more I understood what was going on. Since reading the book I’ve discovered that the story around Mya in particular draws from Thai mythology – I definitely want to read more now and learn about these fascinating stories.

The plot is really exciting, I was warned that once I started reading I wasn’t going to want to stop – this was very accurate. There are plenty of twists and turns and unexpected reveals – there were a couple of things that became apparent about key characters that I really hadn’t expected, though they felt very true to the characters and what we knew about them. It’s really hard to talk about them because you really do need to discover them as you read, I’m looking forward to re-reading the book knowing what I now know.

This book has a really fresh feel to it. It is exciting, energetic and just down right brilliant. I find I can sometimes get a bit lost when reading written fight scenes but in this book there was absolutely no chance of that happening. They’re written really clearly and are very engaging – the author has martial arts experience and this shines through in the writing. The characters leap off the page, they’re well imagined and feel very real. There’s plenty of diversity represented within this book, many of the characters are from different ethnic backgrounds.

I absolutely loved this book, my only sadness was that it had to end. I think I could have read about Jade for a lot longer!

Shadowboxer is published by Ravenstone in the UK from 9th October 2014. Whilst I was provided with a review copy of the book all of the opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review

PoPB: Danny’s Adventure Bus by Lucy Marcovitch & Paul Cemmick and Where the Poppies Now Grow by Hilary Robinson & Martin Impey.

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Pair of Picture Books Tuesdays on Juniper’s Jungle bring two reviews of picture books.

Danny’s Adventure Bus by Lucy Marcovitch & Paul Cemmick (illustrator). Tamarind Books.
DannyWhen Danny and Mum get stuck in a traffic jam, Danny pulls out his special driver’s hat and takes the bus on a great adventure through deserts, high mountains and deep beneath the ocean…

Where will he turn up next? Keep your eyes open…

I liked the idea behind the story of this book a lot, bored with being stuck in a traffic jam Danny takes over driving the bus and takes it on a very odd journey. Each time Danny evades a traffic jam and drives the bus through another unusual place he encounters another traffic jam to evade and so the story goes on. The landscapes that the journey takes in are brilliantly varied, and the things causing the traffic jams are inventive. The story telling is very structured, it follows the same pattern each time and the way the text is structured across the pages there are some great opportunities for predictions. I personally wasn’t a huge fan of the writing style, a few of the phrases felt a little cumbersome when I read it out loud but like I say this is purely my personal feeling about it and I’m sure it wouldn’t bother many readers.

The illustrations are bright and bold, they’re colourful and really stand out. This is an active story and the illustrations reflect this, there’s certainly a feel of motion and busyness to them that works really well. There’s a playful nature to many of the illustrations – a bunny rabbit ice skating at the top of snowy mountains, a goatherd wearing a peg on his nose – I enjoyed spotting all of these.

There’s a lot of focus on the need for the representation of diverse characters in books. This book, published by Tamarind Books, is a great example of how this can and should be done. Danny and his mother are black, but they just happen to be. They’re not written any differently, they’re just the main characters in the book. It’s really great to come across books where this is the case, here’s hoping we see more and more!

Where the Poppies Now Grow by Hilary Robinson & Martin Impey (illustrator). Strauss House Productions.
WTPNG “This is Ben and his best friend Ray
Who are two of the children that like to play
Out in the field where the poppies now grow.”

Childhood friends Ben and Ray find their innocent war games become real as the Great War rages around them.

Set during the First World War, in simple rhyme, Where The Poppies Now Grow takes readers on a journey of friendship set against a changing landscape of innocence, of war an then finally, of piece.

This book is beautiful. It takes a really difficult, emotive subject and puts it across in a wonderfully careful, thoughtful manner. With each page the poem telling the story of Ben and his best friend Ray is built up, starting with their youthful games and following them through adulthood and their wartime experience. It’s gentle but unflinching, it does not shy away from the horrors of the First World War but conveys them in a very age appropriate manner.

Martin Impey’s watercolour illustrations are the perfect pairing for the text of this book. I love his art style in any case and it works so well for this book. The illustrations use lighting and weather very cleverly to convey mood and tone, in the early pages as the war is getting closer to the two main characters’ lives a storm appears to be nearing, the scenes that take place at the front line itself are played out against dark stormy skies. Similarly to the text, the illustrations do their very best to convey how awful the circumstances appropriately and quite subtly.

There is so much going on this year marking the 100 years since the First World War broke out, and I know they will continue for the next 4 years until we reach the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. I think this book is a must have addition for primary school libraries, it’s perfect for key stage 1 and could just as easily be used as a resource with other age groups. There is already a second book by the same author and illustrator pairing – The Christmas Truce – which I will be looking out for, and according to the publisher’s website there will be a third book published in 2016 (though they’re keeping the details of this a closely guarded secret at present).

Both books featured in this post were borrowed from my local library.

Book Review

MG Monday: Pea’s Book of Birthdays by Susie Day.

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Middle Grade Mondays on Juniper’s Jungle feature books aimed at 8 – 12 year olds, or younger. This week, Pea’s Book of Birthdays by Susie Day earns her turn in the spotlight.

PBoBIt’s Pea’s birthday, and all the family are gathered around to celebrate. But there’s one person missing – her dad. She has never known him, but is the story Mum always told her (the one about Dad being a pirate) really true? What is this mysterious Piratical Father doing now? So begins Pea’s quest to track down her dad once and for all . . .

This series of books featuring Pea Llewellyn is one of my absolute favourite series, regardless of target age. So much so that after I fell completely in love with Pea, her sisters and mum and all of the rest of the cast of characters in the first book I decided that I needed to not immediately read the next books in the series but instead space them out and savour each one. This weekend I finally picked up this, the third book in the series.

Having dealt with the family’s move to London in Pea’s Book of Best Friends and then deciding what you want to be in the future in Pea’s Book of Dreams, this time Pea’s focus is more on personal identity and knowing who you are and where you come from. Pea has never known her father, all she knows is where her mum met him and that he left shortly after she was born. Knowing that he is out there somewhere, and reminders about family leave her wondering about him and wanting to track him down. The book takes place over the month of May when Pea and her sisters and mum all have their birthdays, Pea’s is latest in May and she shares it with her mum so what better opportunity to try and track down the mystery Ewan McGregor (no, not that one).

One of the things I adore about Pea is that she’s such a thinking girl. She’s a budding writer, always creating characters and plot lines, and when she’s not doing this she has a tendency to overthink her current situation. In this book trying to choose a birthday party theme that is sufficiently “mature and sophisticated” proves really hard, she doesn’t really feel grown up but feels like she ought to. Pea is so much the kind of young person I was, I know I would have loved reading about her when I was similarly aged (pretty much like I do now). Life is full of anxieties, even when you’re young, and seeing them dealt with in such a reassuring manner is just brilliant.

The family dynamic between Pea, her sisters and mum is just brilliant. So too is the dynamic of the Paget-Skidelskys who live next door, and then the relationships between both families. I would have loved to have good friends living next door like this. I particularly like Pea’s friendship with Sam One, I always like seeing girl boy friendships in the books I read.

One thing I must highlight is the ease with which Susie writes diverse characters. This whole series of books is filled with them, all included seamlessly and naturally. Their differences are acknowledged but not dwelt on, they’re simply presented as the way of things which is of course what they are. This series is one that should be held up of an example to show that it can be done!

I loved how funny this book was at the same that it was covering some really important issues. The blend of the drama and comedy of real life works really well and results in a hugely readable book that is appealing and very lovable. The whole series is like this, and that’s why I love it so much and find myself recommending it as often as I can. The next book in the series is Pea’s Book of Holidays which includes a visit to Corfe Castle (inspiration to Enid Blyton) – I wonder how long I will be able to resist it? Not long I wouldn’t think!

Pea’s Book of Birthdays is published by Red Fox in the UK. My copy of the book is one I purchased myself.

Book Review

Book Review: Iron Sky: Dread Eagle by Alex Woolf.

IronSkyThe year is 1845. Since Napoleon’s famous victory at Waterloo, France and Britain have been locked in a long and bloody war for global supremacy. This breathtaking steampunk adventure introduces an alternative 19th century of giant airships soaring through the skies above the English Channel, fantastical, steam-powered automata, aerial steam carriages, floating cities, giant mechanical birds and a new kind of secret agent. Enter the world of Iron Sky…

In this version of reality, an ageing Napoleon is threatening a full-scale invasion of Britain. Opposing him is Sir George Jarrett, head of the Imperial British Secret Service, helped by an all-female team of aerial spies known as the Sky Sisters. The youngest of them is Lady Arabella West. As war clouds loom, airships start to disappear, and rumours spread of a mysterious terror in the skies. Arabella, with the help of her automaton sidekick, Miles, sets out to investigate.

I haven’t read many steampunk books, but those that I have read have been brilliant. When I heard about this new book coming from Alex Woolf I had high hopes, I’d enjoyed everything else of his I’d read and had a feeling that this book was going to be pretty great.

The story takes place over only a short period of time with the bulk of the book occuring in just 3 days. This works really well, keeping the action going and adding a sense of immediacy to the book. After a brief prologue that roots the book firmly into its historical context the plot gets going very quickly. We meet Arabella, our leading lady, as she undertakes a mission in her role as one of the aerial spies Britain is using in its efforts to defeat Napoleon’s efforts to invade once and for all. From the very first pages Arabella’s story is filled with action, this continues throughout much of the book. Whether she is trying to break in to somewhere to acquire information, or lead a reconnaissance mission she has a knack both for getting into and back out of trouble.

Like many reviewers I’m always on the lookout for really great female lead characters. Arabella is most certainly this, and the fact she is one of the Sky Sisters – 5 female aerial spies each with their very own highly specialised skill set was a most welcome discovery. It made me think of two other books I’ve loved in recent years, Code Name Verity and The Beauty Chorus. Whilst all three books feature teams of young women flying planes as part of military efforts they’re all then incredibly different, but I was pleased with the realisation.

In addition to loving Arabella I completely fell for automaton Miles (a Mobile Independent Logical Englishman Simulacrum). I think I’d like my only Miles, his ability to analyse situations instantly and tell you just how bad your plan is would certainly be useful! The other character that really stands out in the book is Commodus Bane. He’s just so completely and utterly awful, I found him really disturbing and found myself trying to hold the book a little further away when he appeared on the pages!

This is a very attractive book. It’s a hardback book with beautiful end pages, a map (I do love a book with a map) and four double-sided glossy gatefold pages covered in design illustrations (for more about how Alex came up with the various airships and other devices make sure you read his brilliant guest post here). It’s clear that a lot of care and attention has been put into this book’s creation and it’s certainly paid off.

My only sadness about this book is that ends just as another really exciting mission is being launched. I’m assuming that this means this isn’t the last we’re seeing of the Sky Sisters, I can’t wait to be able to read more about their adventures!

Iron Sky: Dread Eagle is published by Scribo Books in the UK. Whilst I was provided with a review copy of the book all of the opinions expressed are my own.

Blog Tour · Book Review

Blog Tour: Review of A Little in Love by Susan Fletcher.

I’m very pleased to be sharing my review of Susan Fletcher’s new book A Little in Love as one of two stops today on the blog tour. Please see the banner in the side bar for the list of other stops the book will making over the next couple of weeks.

ALILParis, 1832.
A street girl lies alone in the darkness, clutching a letter to her heart.

Eponine remembers being a child: her swing and the peach tree, and the baby brother she loved. Bt mostly she remembers being miserable. Taught to lie and cheat, and to hate the one girl, Cosette, who might have been her friend.

Now, at sixteen, the two girls meet again and Eponine has one more chance. But what is the price of friendship – the love of a boy?

I’m a huge fan of the musical version of Les Miserables, it’s right up there towards the top of my favourite musicals list. I’ve seen it a couple of times and have more than one cast recording on my iPod. The one thing I’ve never got to grips with though is Victor Hugo’s novel that first told the story. I started reading it years ago, put it down to read something else, picked it up and read a bit more and then repeated this sequence time and again until one time I just didn’t pick it up again. The dense, long sections of history were off-putting and so it remains my oldest unfinished read. When I received the information about A Little in Love I knew this was going to be different – a book focusing on the story of Eponine, one of my favourite characters, sounded right up my street.

It is no spoiler to say that Eponine’s story is a tragic one, the blurb from the back of the book does this for me and the prologue of the book confirms it. After the prologue the book jumps back to a much earlier time in Eponine’s life, back to her earliest memories of the hardship she was born into and the parents she had the misfortune of belonging to. Narrated by Eponine the book tracks through her memories bringing the reader right up to the point at which the prologue started. This is a really effective style for this story, the first person narrative makes everything feel so much more personal and significant.

I had found that I’d understood Eponine more from my unfinished reading of the original Les Miserables, reading this was an even better experience – it functions as such a close character study. I found that by the end of the book I loved Eponine even more, seeing how she struggles with the villainous nature of her family and how big her heart is made her even more endearing. Her sister, Azelma, acts as the other side of the coin – whilst Eponine fights to rebel against her upbringing Azelma is completely fine with joining the family’s criminal activities. I found the differences between them fascinating to read, though they made me so sad too.

I found that I flew through this book, even though I knew the bare bones of the story and knew exactly what was coming at the end I was so completely drawn into this version of events – it felt like a completely new tale. Being able to focus primarily on one of the many key characters in the Les Miserables story meant there was time and space to include so much detail, making this a beautifully rich reading experience.

One thing I cannot confidently comment on is how this book will work for readers entirely unfamiliar with Les Miserables in any of its forms. I feel like I’ve known the story for too long to be able to completely remove any knowledge of it from my mind. I do think though that this book will stand on its own really well, it’s such a well written, complete story.

This has been my first Susan Fletcher book. I really loved it and will definitely be looking out for other books by her in the future.

A Little in Love is published by Chicken House in the UK from 2nd October 2014. Whilst I was provided with a review copy of the book all of the opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review

PoPB: What If…? by Anthony Browne and Doodleday by Ross Collins.

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Pair of Picture Books Tuesdays on Juniper’s Jungle bring two reviews of picture books.

What If…? by Anthony Browne. Picture Corgi.
WhatIfJoe is nervous about his first big party, and as Mum walks him along the darkening street to his friend’s house, his imagination starts to run wild. They search for the right place, looking through the windows, wondering “What if…?” while making surprising discoveries along the way.

This book explores the anxieties children may have about going to a party – something many children will experience to some degree. Joe, the main character in the book, has lost the party invite so doesn’t know which house the party is. He and his mother move along the street from house to house, trying to find the right one – each wrong house allowing Joe to air another concern about the upcoming party and allowing his mother to reassure him. The things Joe’s worried about are pretty universal, I think many adults will identify with them let alone young readers.

The illustrations generally alternate between a page where Joe and his mother are pictured alongside the next house, and a double spread looking through the window of that house. The pages which focus just on Joe and his mother are done beautifully in blue tones, their simplicity really allows the text to get the focus it deserves. The double spreads are stunning, though I didn’t personally like all of them. Whilst I understand this is a book about anxieties and fears there were a couple I found really disturbing. I love Anthony Browne’s style though – both the shaping of his people and the gorgeously rich colours used in particular.

I liked a lot of this book, but the couple of illustrations I didn’t like were enough to alter my overall feeling about it. I don’t think this is a book I’ll be rushing back to, but I’m glad I know it exists and I like the way the story handles its purpose very much.

Doodleday by Ross Collins. Gullane Children’s Books.
DoodledayMom has just one thing to tell Harvey on Doodleday-no drawing allowed! But surely drawing one little fly can’t hurt. Not until Harvey’s fly comes to life and starts to wreck the kitchen, that is! What can Harvey draw that will catch it? A spider! But the spider proves to be even more trouble. Only one thing is capable of stopping Harvey’s rampaging doodles… Mom!

One of my all time favourite picture books is Ross Collins’ Dear Vampa, whilst I didn’t love this book as much as I loved that one I thoroughly enjoyed it. The action starts pretty much as soon as the book does, despite Harvey’s mum telling him not to draw on Doodleday he can’t resist the temptation and it all goes wrong from there. Harvey’s first drawing is of a fly, which comes to life – this is what happens to drawings drawn on Doodleday and so he solves the problem the best way he can think of and draws a spider to eat the fly. The story as a result is reminiscent of the old woman swallowing the fly, and also Oliver Jeffer’s Stuck which also features a young boy trying to solve a problem and then the problem that his solution has caused.

The story is very amusing, and is kept on the brief side – a proper solution is found before things can get out of hand and silly. I must say though, if Harvey’s mum had actually explained why he shouldn’t draw on Doodleday none of what happens would have happened, she has to shoulder a little responsibility for the chaos he causes! I think this in itself could make for an interesting discussion point.

I really enjoyed the illustrations in this book. They’re filled with so much detail, particularly once the drawn creatures come to life and start causing chaos. I loved the childish creatures, their simplicity works well against the busy backdrops spread across the pages.

A really great read that will be enjoyed by readers both young and old.

Both books featured in this post were borrowed from my local library.

Book Review

MG Monday: Penny Dreadful is a Disaster Magnet by Joanna Nadin.

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Middle Grade Mondays on Juniper’s Jungle feature books aimed at 8 – 12 year olds, or younger. This week, Penny Dreadful is a Disaster Magnet by Joanna Nadin earns her turn in the spotlight.

PennyDreadfulMy name is not actually Penny Dreadful. It is Penelope Jones. The ‘Dreadful’ bit is my dad’s JOKE. But I do not see the funny side. Plus it is not even true that I am dreadful. It’s just that sometimes my BRILLIANT IDEAS don’t work out completely brilliantly. Like, I didn’t mean for my cousin to end up bald and covered in superglue, and I also didn’t mean to steal our neighbour’s dog and make him speak Russian… It is not my fault. I can’t help it – I’m just a Magnet for Disaster.

This book is, without a doubt, the funniest book I’ve read in quite some time. It is the sort of book that if I had been reading it in public I know I would have ended up getting lots of slightly odd looks from strangers – I laughed out loud so many times as I read. Split into three stories this book is an absolute delight from start to finish.

Following a double page spread introducing the three stories, the book begins with an illustrated page introducing the main characters of the book. I must praise Jess Mikhail’s illustrations, they’re brilliant and add so much to the reading experience. Whilst the stories are themselves funny the illustrations are also funny, I laughed as often at the drawings as I did at the text.

Penelope Jones is the sort of character I find myself instantly drawn to. She’s a little chaotic, a little too easily excited and the sort of character that trouble comes looking for. She never intends to do things that are even the slightest bit wrong, her plans are always foolproof… apart from the way they all inevitably lead to disaster. She’s so well intentioned, she just doesn’t see the potential for things to go wrong. She’s incredibly endearing, I can’t understand how any of the long suffering adults in her life could remain cross with her for more than a few seconds.

Penny herself is a well created character and so too are the characters she shares the pages of the book with. I loved her friend, Cosmo, and posh cousin Georgia May, they made a brilliantly balanced trio. From the adults my favourite character had to be Mrs Butterworth who runs the Post Office – I think any grown up reading this book will have come across a Mrs Butterworth in the past.

This book would work really well both for newly independent readers and as a book to share. I can certainly imagine reading it with a young reader, though the way it’s structured into three short (30-40 pages long) stories may mean that the only solution for bedtime reading is to stop halfway through a story.

This is the first book featuring Penny Dreadful, there are currently seven books featuring her. I plan to read the rest of them – I can’t wait to find out what she gets up to next!

Penny Dreadful is a Disaster Magnet is published by Usborne Books in the UK. My copy of the book is one I purchased myself.