Book Review

MG Monday: The Grunts in Trouble by Philip Ardagh.

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Middle Grade Mondays on Juniper’s Jungle feature books aimed at 8 – 12 year olds, or younger. This week, The Grunts in Trouble by Philip Ardagh gets the focus.

GruntsMeet Mr and Mrs Grunt. Oh, go on. They’re not that bad. No, actually, they ARE. Maybe worse, even. But Sunny, their sort-of son, is okay. They stole him from a washing line as a baby. He was hanging by his ears, which probably explains why they’re so wonky (but not why he has sticky-up hair that NEVER lies flat, even if you pour glue into it or try taping it in place). Sticky around and you’ll also meet Lord Bigg of Bigg Manor, Bigg-hater Larry Smalls, Mimi the Bigg Manor boot boy (yup, she’s a girl) and…Well, you’ll have to READ the book to find that out. But I should mention the bees. Did I warn you about the bees?!

There are a number of middle grade series that I have written on a list to try, ones that I hear about from my Beaver Scouts or from parents who have children of the appropriate age. When I do read the first book in the series sometimes it’s a case of love at first page and I find myself wondering when on earth I’m going to find the time to read all of the other books in the series. Then there are books that are an interesting enough read but I don’t feel any drive to read more – this is how I felt about The Grunts.

I can definitely see the appeal of this book to younger readers. It’s funny and engaging with larger than life characters who move from one amusing moment of trouble to the next, with each problem proving larger (and potentially funnier) than the last. I personally found that whilst the story was amusing it didn’t really make me laugh out loud, I think I had started reading expecting it to be more funny than it actually was.

This book is illustrated by Axel Scheffler who is probably most familiar for his work on The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child, written by Julia Donaldson. I reviewed one of his self-penned Pip and Posy books a little while ago, you can see that here. I really like his style and it works well in this book, seeing The Grunts and the other characters brought to life in the pages – I think I’d be hard pressed to pick a favourite character.

One thing I wasn’t quite sure about with this book was the somewhat rambling nature of the narrative. The book has a storyteller style narrator who often goes off on tangents that are only partially related to the story itself. These are sometimes quite funny and entertaining, but at times I found myself wishing that the narrator would just get on with the story. I am very sure that this aspect of the book will work very differently for different readers and that some will absolutely love it.

I’m very glad that I’ve read this, the first book to feature The Grunts, and that I’ve now met the characters. I won’t be rushing to read any more of their stories, but I’ll certainly try some of Philip Ardagh’s other series in the future.

The Grunts in Trouble is published by Nosy Crow in the UK. My copy of the book is one I purchased myself.

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: 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

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.

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: Fantasy League by Mike Lupica.

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Middle Grade Mondays on Juniper’s Jungle feature books aimed at 8 – 12 year olds, or younger. This week features Fantasy League by Mike Lupica.

FantasyLeagueFrom the #1 bestselling author of Heat, Travel Team and Million-Dollar Throw comes a story of every football kid’s dream come true.

12-year-old Charlie is a fantasy football guru. He may be just a bench warmer for his school’s football team, but when it comes to knowing and loving the game, he’s first-string. He even becomes a celebrity when his podcast gets noticed by a sports radio host, who plays Charlie’s fantasy picks for all of Los Angeles to hear. Soon Charlie befriends the elderly owner of the L.A. Bulldogs — a fictional NFL team — and convinces him to take a chance on an aging quarterback. After that, watch out . . . it’s press conferences and national fame as Charlie becomes a media curiosity and source of conflict for the Bulldogs general manager, whose job Charlie seems to have taken. It’s all a bit much for a kid just trying to stay on top of his grades and maintain his friendship with his verbal sparring partner, Anna.

I’m a huge sports fan and love reading books where sport plays a major role. American football is not that close to the top of my list of favourite sports, we just don’t get to watch enough of it in the UK for it to earn such a place, but it’s one that I find myself learning about increasingly often. My a bit better than basic knowledge of the game was certainly enough for me to follow this book with ease and really enjoy it.

The plot of this book errs towards the real life fantasy in the best possible way. Charlie, the main character, is football obsessed – he plays for his school team, plays lots of fantasy football and analyses the game down to teeniest details. Its this hyperfocus that makes him special – he sees things in the game that others simply don’t spot, and draws predictions from them that may seem outlandish initially but rarely fail to come true. This is how he ends up advising his beloved, struggling, local NFL team – definitely the stuff that dreams are made of.

There’s so much to love about this book, the plot is gripping to the point that I found myself holding my breath a couple of times when games of football were drawing towards a close. The central characters are also all very endearing – I could easily have read a book twice as long as this one and not even begun to get bored of them. Charlie himself is fascinating, particularly this way he has of analysing football – I think he’s a great advertisement for a love of statistics! His best friend Anna, well I’d have liked to have seen her a little more – she’s described early on as being the only one who understands and loves football the way that Charlie does and as a sports loving girl I really loved her. By the end of the book I understood why she wasn’t featured as strongly as I’d have liked her to have been, and I had to remind myself that it was Charlie’s book after all. The elderly owner of the L.A. Bulldogs, Mr Warren, was a wonderful character, I could feel his warmth spring off the page.

This is such a great story. It carries a number of messages, all seamlessly threaded through, and as such would provide some great discussion opportunities. I think this book will be loved by many, it’ll be an instant sell to sports mad tweens but I think far more will enjoy it if they’re just persuaded to pick it up and start reading.

Fantasy League is published by Philomel/Penguin in the USA from 16th September 2014. Whilst I was provided with a review copy of the book all of the opinions expressed are my own.