Friday, 30 September 2016

CATS AND CURSES, by Elen Caldecott. Reviewed by Saviour Pirotta

Title: Cats and Curses [The Marsh Road Mysteries, Book 4]
Author: Elen Caldecott
Published by Bloomsbury
Format p/b and ebook
Publication date: 11th August 2016

I am a big fan of the Marsh Road Mysteries, and of Elen Caldecott's books in general, which are brilliant page turners that weld Enid Blyton and Malcolm Saville's sense of mystery with twenty first century sensibilities and values.

This is the fourth book in the series and the five members of the crime-busting gang are back for another adventure. Meet Piotr, Andrew, Flora and the beyond-cool Sylvie.  Andrew's mum is recovering from the shock of being involved in a fire and ready to go back to work, helping out at the local junk shop. But things don't go according to plan. On her first day, she takes delivery of a mysterious package - a mummified Egyptian cat. The gruesome artefact seems to have put a curse on the shop. Strange things start happening: glass objects shatter in locked cabinets, eerie shadows appear. It has an adverse effect on Andrew's mum, and her friend the junk shop owner.

The fab five suspected human intervention and they are soon uncovering clues and tailing suspects, each member of the gang bringing their own unique skill to the investigation. The climax, in a builder's yard is a fantastic mis-en-scene and the resolution truly satisfying.

It's not just the story that makes this book a joy to read, it's the sense of friendship the characters have for one another, and the celebration of family in its various guises. The scene where Andrew gives his mum a special hairdo to cheer her up is a gem. A highly recommended read.

Saviour Pirotta
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Twitter: @spirotta


Monday, 26 September 2016

SHE IS NOT INVISIBLE by Marcus Sedgwick

Review by Jackie Marchant 

This was shortlisted for the inaugural YA Book Award and, to be honest, I preferred it to the winner, but that’s another story.  There is so much to this book – a great plot, a mystery, a puzzle or two, a dash of thriller and a tough challenge, all bound up with excellent writing.  

It begins with Laureth trying to convince herself that she’s not abducting her seven year old brother, even though she’s at the airport with him and her mother’s credit card.  It takes a while to realise why young Ben is an essential companion as she tries to find out why her father has disappeared in New York when he’s supposed to be in Switzerland.  It’s only towards the end of the first chapter that you realise Laureth is blind.  Even then, it takes her a long time before she quietly confesses to someone.  She doesn’t want to bring attention to herself as she fears they will send her back for travelling with a seven year old. 

What chance does a blind sixteen year old girl have in finding a missing father, when her only aid is a young boy who thinks this is a planned trip to visit him?  But Laureth is resourceful and, despite what she thinks, responsible.  She manages to meet the person who contacted her father to tell him that he’d found his notebook.  As Lauren answers all her father’s fan mail, she now knows that her father is not where he’s supposed to be and, even worse, he’s lost his precious notebook.  Her father is a writer and, as one myself, I know that loss of a notebook is an absolute disaster.  But when Laureth meets up with the person who found it, they are not what they seemed and the mystery only deepens.

Then there is the content of the notebook.  To the reader, lots of quirky notes about coincidence, strange cults and suicides, but to Laureth the frightening truth that her father might be in real danger.  So she goes off to New York with her little brother to find him.  Then the trouble really starts.  But I will say no more as I don’t want to give anything away.

This is not your usual page-turner.  As well as gripping, it is original and quirky, beautifully written, with realistic characters and plausibility.  It’s described as a thriller, but it is so much more than that.


Thursday, 22 September 2016

UNDER WATER by Marisa Reichardt, reviewed by Pauline Francis

I chose this debut novel because of this sentence on the front cover: “Sometimes the safest place to be is underwater.” I was intrigued because I really don't like water at all. The hard cover on the right is even more disturbing to me, so I've shown you both.

Morgan is seventeen, lives in California and used to be a great swimmer, until a terrible event at school made her afraid to leave her apartment.

Sadly, we’ve become used to reading about school massacres, even used to reading about yet another loner who has taken revenge on his rejecting world. Reinhardt takes us in into new territory: what happens to the survivors? How do they recover from their trauma? Life can never be the same again, so how does a young person grow into a new one? Morgan is such a survivor. We know this early on. The tension lies in not knowing exactly what happened to her.

This novel skilfully and slowly takes us into Morgan’s mind as it is written in a very sparing present tense and first person, like a mental diary. Just when the reader is beginning to get the measure of her and her progress, thanks to her therapist, Brenda, a new thread of the trauma floats to the surface. The reader is constantly asking, ‘Is she going to get over this?’

Morgan begins her recovery when a new boy moves in next door. But this isn’t a love-cures-all novel. It’s much more subtle than that. The boy, Evan, connects Morgan to the world outside that she misses and wants to return to. And Reinhardt takes pains to point out that Morgan has to do the hard work every day, reading the mantra stuck onto the kitchen wall:  
1. Breathe 2. You’re are OK. 3. You’re not dying.

Nobody can get better for her.
“’Are you proud of yourself? Brenda asks.
I guess.’
I want you to own it, Morgan.’
I very much liked the introduction of Morgan’s car, a classic (1957) matador-red Bel Air, left to her by her grandfather. It’s a strong character and adds a dark twist to the day of the massacre, to Morgan’s final revelation.

I did find Morgan’s family situation depressing: her father suffers from war-related mental health problems; some might say it is unnecessary, as are Evan’s own family issues. But as forgiveness and acceptance are at the heart of this novel, Morgan has to forgive her father as well as the loner who carries out the massacre.

This is an honest and gutsy novel that I would recommend far and wide – to anybody suffering the trauma of physical and mental abuse - and to their teachers, parents, carers and counsellors.

Pauline Francis


Sunday, 18 September 2016

A LIBRARY OF LEMONS by JO COTTERILL. Reviewed by John Dougherty

I should start with a declaration of interest: Jo Cotterill is one of my best and dearest friends, and so this review is likely to be a little bit biased. For an accurate rating, I suggest you take the figure I’ll award the book at the end of the review, and half it.
That said, I’d have loved this book no matter who had written it. I warn you, though: when you read it you might need to keep a hanky handy. It’s a very powerful and emotional story, and I found myself shedding proper tears several times.
Calypso, the protagonist, is a strong and likeable character, but there are a lot of things that she doesn’t realise about herself. She’s lonely. She’s a carer. She’s being neglected - both physically and emotionally - by her dad, who is still grief-stricken following the death of her mum five years previously. But things change when unwillingly, accidentally, Calypso makes a friend. Mae is everything that Calypso’s dad is not - warm, in touch with her feelings, genuinely spontaneous, and emotionally present - and as contact with Mae and the rest of her family grows, the protective shell which Calypso has, all unknowingly, built around herself begins to crumble. But still Calypso doesn’t realise how wrong her life has become, until she makes a discovery…
The range of issues covered in the book is enormous - young carers; mental health; emotional disconnection; friendship; bereavement; the list goes on - and in the hands of a less able writer, this could provide us with a catalogue of clich├ęs. But A Library of Lemons is not an ‘issue’ book; it’s a story, a good one, which happens to deal with these issues, but which deals with them so deftly that all we really care about is Calypso’s unfolding: how she uncovers the reality of her broken life, and learns to connect with others, and discovers that the ‘inner strength’ her dad keeps telling her about only matters if you learn to share it.
A Library of Lemons is a brilliant book, heartily recommended for anyone who’s ever felt lonely, or who thinks they may have been, or who has the capacity to empathise with those who have. And for that matter, heartily recommended for everyone else as well.
Oh, and that rating? I give it twelve out of five.
John Dougherty.


Wednesday, 14 September 2016

The Cat and the King, written and illustrated by Nick Sharratt, reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

This handsome hardback chapter book has a gold foil front cover, and every single page inside is illustrated in black and red and pink toned artwork that makes every page accessible to even non-reading children.  It's a lovely object, and a treat to open and read.  What you find inside is Nick Sharratt's first published novel, and its great fun.

This story of an innocent but proud king and his clever cat, displaced from the palace and learning to live in the more ordinary world, is charming; funny and poignant.  I love the family next door with the sulky dad who is determined not to be impressed by a king, and the children who earn medals from the king for their artwork and recorder playing.  There's are entertaining sub-plots  where we can spot which of the dozen palace servants who lost their palace jobs turn up in ordinary life as bus drivers,  shop staff, and more.  And what, exactly, will the King and the Cat use that wheelbarrow and feather boa for which were amongst their car boot sale purchases?  The story is a simple one, seasoned with jokes and with odd moments of danger to thrill.  In spite of being about a moustachioed king and a cat, it is actually about anybody displaced from their familiar home surroundings and assumptions, and having to adapt and find new friends in a new life.  We see the King in tears before he settles happily into his new life.  All that is very pertinent to today's global world, but also to the immediate lives of young children starting in new classes in school or moving house.

The story is aimed at children of perhaps three to sevenish, but there is plenty of humour for the adult who is likely to be reading the text out loud.  What a handsome Christmas present it would be to unwrap ... if its not too early to make a remark like that!


Saturday, 10 September 2016

Dave Pigeon written by Swapna Haddow and illustrated by Sheena Dempsey. Reviewed by Tamsin Cooke

Dave Pigeon, by Swapna Haddow, is a hilarious, laugh out loud book aimed for children 6+.  It’s typed by Skipper (a pigeon) and tells the tale of Skipper and his mate Dave, trying to outwit a mean cat. They want to get the cat out of the house so they can live in harmony with the Human Lady.

The story is told from the viewpoint of a pigeon, and if a pigeon spoke human English, I think this is exactly how he would sound.  Skipper addresses us, the readers,  ‘if you can read this, you obviously understand pigeons,’ which draws you into the book straight away.  Plus Dave interrupts the actual story by having conversations on what the chapter titles should be. This had me roaring out loud.

Skipper and Dave are a great team, although I think Dave has an undeserved high opinion of himself. Skipper seems to be the real brains of the operation. The Human Lady is a fabulous example of a compassionate kind person. And you can’t help but wonder if mean cat is as mean as the pigeons suggest.

The short chapters are stuffed with jokes, and the superb humorous illustrations by Sheena Dempsey add much to the story.  I imagine new readers would find Dave Pigeon incredibly funny and accessible. I also think it would be a great book to read aloud either in a classroom or at bedtime… although your child might be laughing too much to ever fall asleep.


Friday, 2 September 2016

Tally and Squill written by Abie Longstaff, illustrated by James Brown, reviewed by Dawn Finch

First the blurb...

Ten-year-old Tally is a servant girl at Mollett Manor. She sleeps in the scullery sink, and spends her days scrubbing, polishing and ironing (when she's not secretly reading books). Then Tally and her squirrel friend, Squill, find a secret library hidden under the manor - a magical library where the books come to life! When Mollett Manor is burgled, can Tally use the knowledge she finds in the books to catch the criminals? Can they even help her solve the mystery of her missing mother?

Tally and Squill in a Sticky Situation is the first in a new series of books from Abie Longstaff. Abie is perhaps best known for her Fairytale Hairdresser books for younger readers, and her charming writing style is easily recognised in this new series.

Tally lives a hard life scrubbing and cleaning for her guardians at Mollett Manor. A foundling child raised by the servants of the house, Tally knows that she once had a mother (she can remember little bits about her) but somehow she was lost and then found by the servants and raised by them. She is also very very smart. Tally knows the power of books and libraries and she knows that any time she gets in trouble, a book will be there to help her, especially the books of the Secret Library.

The story takes us along with Tally on an adventure where she captures burglars, solves crimes and tunnels into a mystery - oh, and meets a very special friend; a clever and cheeky little red squirrel that she names Squill.

Wonderful descriptive passages to read aloud
This is a very enjoyable book, and one that packs a lot of punch for its size. The book is ostensibly short, but it is linguistically challenging and perfect for a developing reader. There are lots of gorgeous new words that a freshly independent reader might not otherwise have come across, all embedded in a beautifully illustrated book allowing for supported contextualisation.The book also makes great use of more complex literary elements such as footnotes, and it also manages to include many positive references to the use of non-fiction material for both enjoyment and to solve problems. The positive message about enjoying non-fiction, and using libraries is very satisfying in a book for children who are just beginning to expand their reading skills and establish a reading habit.

Ok, so that's the boring educational bit.... but the big thing is that Tally and Squill are a delight! The story is fun and adventurous and Tally is brave and smart and inspirational. When the going gets's feisty Tally right up there in front - and who doesn't love a red squirrel? The text is harmoniously coupled with the illustrations of James Brown (illustrator of the Elspeth Hart series). The illustrations are filled with life and movement and they work particularly well with Longstaff's lively text.

All in all, this is a book to read with a child, help them chew on the delicious new words, let them guess at the meanings and use the excellent illustrations to work out the puzzles. Read along, share, and enjoy the adventure with them. I was reading it on a plane and the little girl behind me was leaning over my shoulder to get a better look. When I finished it I asked her father if I could give his daughter the book as a gift. He said "well, thanks but she's not much of a reader." His daughter frowned at him and said, "that's not true, I just haven't found one I like yet." Wise words.

She took the book with a big grin and, stuffing her ipad in the seat pocket, she spent the rest of the journey with Tally and Squill. At the end of the flight I felt a little tug at my sleeve and looked down to see the little girl still clutching the book.
 "I really like squirrels," she said, "and this little girl is very clever so I like her."
"I like her too," I said. "I like her a lot."

Tally and Squill in a Sticky Situation is written by Abie Longstaff, illustrated by James Brown
Published by Little Brown, July 2016

Review by Dawn Finch
Children's writer and librarian
President, Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP)
CWIG Committee Member