Keeper of Secrets by Sarah J. Dodd, illustrated by Becky Thorns

Keeper of Secrets (Paperback)
Cover art by Becky Thorns

Yet again, I have found myself requesting a book from Net Galley based to a large extent on my really liking its cover when I saw it pop up in my Twitter feed this week. That is possibly not what the author would want to hear, but an incredible piece of artwork that catches the eye is so important if a reader is to bother to pick up a book even just to read the blurb, particularly where the author is new to the reader as Sarah J. Dodd is to me.

A cover can only tell the reader so much, however, especially when it is a tiny image on a screen and on reading the description of the book I soon realised that this was not at all what I might have expected – having thought initially that the cat pictured was a domesticated one – but a much deeper story about rewilding, the balance of nature, and the pain of love and loss.

Emily wakes in the unfamiliar setting of Badger Cottage, her temporary home while her vet father covers for the absence of their new landlord’s daughter. Flinging back the curtain to look outside, she is startled by the presence of a large cat-like creature, with a limp rabbit swinging from its mouth – something that her father dismisses as her imagination. Wrapping herself in the special blanket that her late mother bought for her, she manages to go back to sleep after hiding in the cupboard beneath her cabin bed – giving her father a fright when he comes back to wake her up and finds her apparently gone.

Shortly afterwards, landlord Rufus turns up and hands Emily’s father a campaign leaflet, telling him he expects his support. The leaflet is one protesting against the reintroduction of Lynx to the area around the village of Littendale, and Emily’s father quickly realises that Emily’s beast is one of the animals. While Dad tries to explain the merits of the Lynx’s presence, and states that they are no threat to humans or the local farmers’ lambs, Rufus does not share this opinion, and makes it clear that while they are under his roof, he expects them both to take his side.

As Emily tries to fit in, she meets one of the farming families who live close by and the local poacher, and quickly becomes aware that there are many who do not welcome the Lynx. When she discovers the body of an adult female which has been shot, leaving an orphaned kitten, Emily decides to look after the young animal in secret, frightened that whoever has been responsible for its mother’s shooting will turn on it. Determined to find out who is responsible, Emily faces hostility from those in Littendale who see the Lynx as a dangerous problem and her as an intruder. With no friends to turn to and her relationship with her father not as warm as it once was, Emily faces a real battle to uncover the culprit and save the kitten from the same fate as its mother.

As the dominant species on our planet, there are very few areas unaffected by the efforts of humans to assert that dominance in whatever way they see fit. In some cases, this has resulted in the destruction of entire habitats or species entirely through man’s actions, whether intended or not, and slowly we are coming to realise the damage we have brought about. In the case of the Lynx, a species which was hunted out of existence in the UK several hundred years ago, there are plans afoot to reintroduce it to the Loch Lomond area in Scotland in an attempt to control the deer population in a similar way to that presented here. Although fictional, this story explains the benefits of such a scheme to the environment clearly, as well as addressing the concerns of those against in a non-judgemental way, leaving the reader in no doubt as to just why it would be a good idea. As someone who had no idea that such a thing was even being considered until I read this book, and then went away to search for more information on the internet, I have been most definitely convinced of the scheme’s merits.

Also convinced are Emily and her father, and when Emily finds the orphaned kitten she takes it upon herself to care for the animal with little thought about the practicalities of such a task. For her, the young cat is a reflection of herself as although she still has her father, he has become distant since the death of her mother and Emily feels so terribly alone. While at first she is hopeful of finding friends at the farm, she is very soon reminded that she is an outsider with her views differing from the Littendale children’s. Removed from the support network that she had prior to moving, she puts all of her efforts into caring for the kitten with the result that she is unaware that she is putting herself at risk. As she schemes and plots to hide what she is doing, I found myself really feeling for her and desperately hoping that someone would be able to help both her and her father – not only with the kitten, but with the grief that they are experiencing.

This would make a great class reader in upper KS2, and would even work as a Christmas story with most of the narrative leading up to Christmas Day. That beautiful cover I mentioned earlier means that it is one that my class would see as being for everyone, rather than a boys’ or girls’ book as they sadly do with so many reads. With its strong environmental messages, and presentation of the issues of bereavement and loss, it is one that would promote some great discussions in class around those themes.

As always, enormous thanks go to Firefly Press and Net Galley for my advance read, ahead of publication on September 2nd. 5 out of 5 stars.

The Exploding Life of Scarlett Fife by Maz Evans, illustrated by Chris Jevons

Cover illustration © Chris Jevons

Funny books seems to be gaining approval as proper reads at long last, after years of being looked down upon by many adults who seem to think that there is virtue only in more serious reads. At least in part, this must surely be due to the quality of what is being written currently and if I were to be asked to suggest a list of authors whose humorous reads were worth reading then Maz Evans would most definitely feature quite prominently.

I have to confess that I have only read the first in her Who Let the Gods Out? series, a huge omission on my part, but her recent title Vi Spy is quite simply one of the funniest books I have ever read – a story which manages to balance its laugh-out-loud sections against some very serious parts with enormous skill. While those books are most definitely more suitable for those in Years 5 upwards, this is the first in a new series aimed at a younger audience, and is a title I have been itching to read as part of my ongoing mission to provide the same range of high quality reads for my less-confident readers as I do for their more confident classmates.

Opening with a horribly disappointed Scarlett’s rant against the unfairness of not being allowed to take home the class hamster for the weekend, we feel her pain at the injustice she believes she has suffered. Such is her resentment against her classmate William U, who has been unjustly awarded this prize, that she is still fuming when she attends the engagement party for her two aunts that evening. When she sees him mistreating the hamster there she takes action against him, which results in her mother telling her there will be consequences, as this is not the first time she has lost her temper.

A few days later, things continue to go against Scarlett at school when a new member of the class is given the starring role in the Christmas play before her lovely class teacher announces that she is going off on maternity leave, leaving the children in the care of the formidable Ms Pitt-Bull. Already not in the best of moods, William U then starts to drip poison in Scarlett’s ear with the result that Ms Pitt-Bull’s flask of smoothie explodes, covering the classroom with green goo.

Scarlett is quick to consider whether she might have been responsible for this, and when losing her temper at home results in a similar situation she is left in no doubt. Unable to control her emotions, Scarlett starts to realise that she needs to get on top of her feelings before things get totally out of hand. With the help of her Aunty Amara and best friend Maisie, Scarlett starts to put into practice strategies to help but will she be able to control her temper at the Christmas play and the wedding, or will these special occasions be ruined by her exploding life?

As adults, it is easier for us to accept that life is unfair and although we may not like it, on the whole, we deal with it. For many children, however, who do not have the maturity to deal with any knocks that life presents them with, episodes of extreme anger and all that comes with it can be extremely frightening and upsetting. Like all teachers, I have taught those individuals whose sense of injustice is such that when they lose their temper they also lose their ability to rationalise, and who will physically lash out in response to whatever has upset them. Here, although it is clear that Scarlett’s behaviour is unacceptable, it is also very clear that Scarlett herself is much loved and that is so very important. Very often, children cannot separate themselves from their behaviours and they need to see that it is those behaviours which are disliked by those around them, and not themselves. Although I sometimes think it a very great shame that some class readers are chosen because of the discussions that can be had around their content, rather than simply because they are an enjoyable story, this book is one that I would say should be shared in schools because it is so powerful in the way that Scarlett’s emotions are presented; an enormous amount of very valuable PSHE work could come from sharing it.

With its blurb promising explosions and a massive pile of elephant poo, this is a title which is already going to appeal to younger readers before they have so much as turned to the front page. Adding hugely to the storyline are the illustrations of Chris Jevons, which I really enjoyed looking at as I read on and which will be equally enjoyed by younger readers – especially the one involving that elephant poo. Perfect as a shared read for more mature children in Year 2 upwards, or an independent one for less confident older readers, this is title which I will be recommending in school to staff and children alike. A fabulous 5 out of 5 stars.

Harklights by Tim Tilley

Harklights (Paperback)
Cover illustration © Tim Tilley

I like to think I’m quite selective in what I choose to read which, generally speaking, works out very well because it means that I tend to love those books I engage with. Yes, occasionally a book doesn’t do it for me and if it is a read to which I have been looking forward enormously, it is a disappointment – but that is life. When this happens, I will take it into school without going to the trouble of reviewing it because I like to keep my blog a positive place and I know from what I occasionally see on Twitter how deeply upset authors are by unkind reviews – especially when some thoughtless blogger has tagged them in.

Over the past two or three weeks, I seem to have had a run of incredible reads and am wondering how long it can continue, because this is the latest one which I was really looking forward to and I know that I am not alone in this because having – yet again – announced I was going to read it at the weekend, I received several replies from others either telling me how much they were excited at the thought of picking it up, or were looking forward to hearing what I thought about it. Clearly, as I am taking the time to write about it, I enjoyed it and I am certain that many others will too because this is an enchanting story which is sure to delight its readers with its powerful themes of friendship and the importance of caring – not only for one another – but for the world around us too.

Friendship is one of the most important gifts that anyone can share with another person, and at Harklights it is the only thing that Wick can offer to the new arrival. Having been first given a box of matches by the owner of the orphanage in which he now finds himself, the small boy is presented as Bottletop by the repellent Old Ma Bogey who places him in the care of Wick to learn how to be a packsmith, boxing up the matches made within the confines of the building which is now his home.

After a night sleeping on the floorboards of the dormitory that they share with some of the other abandoned children, Wick takes Bottletop to the packing room to teach him how to carry out his duties and worries at the new arrival’s inability to work either quickly or accurately. Trying to console the boy, Wick breaks the rules of the establishment and finds himself sent outside to await punishment. While there, he notices a magpie dropping something which at first he thinks is an acorn but which on closer inspection turns out to be a tiny cradle containing a baby. After initially thinking this is a toy, Wick is stunned to realise the baby is alive, and does his best to take care of it together with fellow orphan – and friend – Petal.

When the acorn baby’s father Papa Herne arrives during the night to reclaim his child, together with two more of his kind, the tiny people offer to repay Wick’s kindness by taking him back to their forest home with them and so Wick finds himself escaping. Welcomed by most of Papa Hern’s people – the Hobs – Wick starts to learn how to take care of the forest and its residents, both animal and Hob. As Wick considers how best to rescue Petal and the other orphans, this blissful existence is one which is under threat because there is a monster on the loose: one which would destroy the forest forever…

Orphans and orphanages seem to crop up very often in children’s books and I guess that for most children – no matter what their background, or experience of life – becoming an orphan or being abandoned are – quite understandably – very real fears. The key difference here is that when Wick leaves Harklights, it is not as a result of his own scheming, or that of a friend, but through the returned kindness of the Hobs. This sudden change of fortune means that he has had no time to plan in advance of his leaving and he is totally reliant on the little people.

Not only does Wick need to try to adapt to his new home, and the rules of the community in which he finds himself living, but he also has to prove his good intentions to those Hobs whose previous experience of humans has left them with a deep distrust of the species. By paying close attention to those around him and being eager to learn their ways, Wick starts to proves himself and I really enjoyed watching him grow in confidence and ability. He is such a gentle soul – one who has every reason to deeply resent what has happened to him and never return to Harklights, but whose conscience pushes him to consider how to return to free Petal and the other children, without endangering them or his new friends.

Having worked so hard to be accepted, when events threaten to snatch everything he has gained from him, Wick is determined to do all that he possibly can to save his friends and he ably shows just why they are right to trust him. This message of trust and honour is such a strong one, and one that I hope younger readers take away from the book because it is linked intrinsically to mankind’s treatment of the natural world. This title has been compared to the classic The Borrowers stories by Mary Norton and while there are some similarities in the use of human belongings by the Borrowers and the Hobs, the little people here are far more in touch with the natural world. By clearly demonstrating how all the living things in the forest are reliant on one another, and the importance of maintaining that balance, the book conveys a powerful ecological message to its audience without being contrived or preachy.

This is such a lovely book – one that just washes over you and carries you along with it. Illustrated by the author, the pictures are simplistic and bold in style which I really liked as they do not distract from the text but allow the reader to interpret them alongside the writing. Suitable from Year 4 age upwards whether as a shared read, or an independent one for more confident readers, this is a wonderful modern fairytale which will captivate those who read it and inspire many younger readers to take a greater interest in the natural world around them. 5 out of 5 stars.

The Swallows’ Flight by Hilary McKay

Book cover for 9781529033335

Perhaps like a lot of other keen readers, I keep an eye out on Twitter for giveaways of new titles and enter those which appeal to me. Not only do the books I am lucky enough to win supplement those reads which I buy, but doing this also means that I am exposed to titles that I would possibly not choose for myself – with this, my latest prize, falling into that category. Although well aware of Hilary McKay’s name and reputation, I hadn’t read any of her books before this one arrived and was unsure after I won this as to whether or not it would work as a standalone, as several people commented on Twitter that this is a companion to her earlier title The Skylarks’ War.

Having finished it, I can now see why there were several posts telling me how envious other readers were of my good fortune because this is a beautiful story – one which requires no previous reading, and which is the sort of high-quality narrative that would make a perfect family drama serial for Sunday evening. Thought-provoking and highly credible because of the historical details that are included throughout, it is the latest in an increasingly long list of perfect reads to include alongside any WWII topic in upper KS2 and one that I know will stay with me for some time.

Our story opens several years ahead of that conflict – in 1931 Berlin, at the home of Erik who is caring for three orphaned swallows – feeding them on dead flies supplied by best friend Hans – before we travel back in time four years to Plymouth in England where a baby has not long been born: Ruby, a younger sister for eight-year-old Will, who is hugely disappointed by her appearance, believing his life to be over. Sadly, this jealousy and resentment does not fade as the two of them grow up, and the two siblings do not take to one another at all – something made worse by their having no option but to spend time in one another’s company.

A year after Ruby’s birth, another girl is born: Kate, the youngest of six siblings living in Oxford and – in common with Ruby – a goddaughter to her aunt Clarry. As the book progresses, we learn more about the children and their families as they grow up in parallel to one another. For all of the families, touched as they have been by WWI, the prospect of Britain and Germany going to war again is too terrible to contemplate and when the inevitable happens we watch as they adapt and cope with everything that fate throws at them.

It is not unusual for a book to tell the stories of several characters who are initially unaware of one another before they swiftly come together, but this tale is not like that because it is not until very near to the end that the various threads are all pulled together. In England, the families’ lives are woven together much earlier because they are already linked by Clarry, but it is unclear as to how Hans and Erik’s paths will cross with those of Will, Ruby and Kate until much later. When they do cross, it is with breath-taking impact in an event that will stun many readers – as it did me – with the way in which it has been so carefully crafted.

Also unusual is the number of characters carrying the narrative forwards, all of which are so skilfully drawn as to be entirely credible. In particular, the relationship between Ruby and Will is a complex one, which many readers will recognise. It is often said that you cannot choose your family, and in this case neither would have chosen the other. In stories, a brother or sister is usually presented as a blessing – a friend, who just happens to be a relative – or at worst a mild irritation, but this is not always the case in real life. Growing up together, my younger brother and I absolutely detested one another, with far more passion than is often seen between siblings, and this did not resolve itself until we were both in our forties when we came to accept one another and declared a truce.

Of all the stories set in WWII that I have read over the past year or so, this is the first to include German characters in a sympathetic light. Children, who often have a more black-and-white understanding of history, frequently see those who were Nazis and those who were Germans as one and the same and this story makes the difference between the two explicit – presenting Hans, Erik and their families in a very positive, more human, light so that I cared about their fates just as much as I did those living in England.

WWII, whether taught as a whole, or through the investigation of specific aspects such as The Battle of Britain, tends to be a topic taught in upper KS2 and this incredible book will be a go-to read to accompany it for a great many teachers. There are a few very grim parts in the story which might upset younger, or more-sensitive, readers and although I would always recommend reading a book before it is shared in school, I would say it is especially important here to avoid any unnecessary upsets.

A wonderful read, which I cannot recommend highly enough, huge thanks are due to Macmillan Children’s books for my gifted copy. A sublime 5 out of 5 stars.

Skeleton Keys: The Night of the Nobody (Skeleton Keys 4) by Guy Bass, illustrated by Pete Williamson

Skeleton Keys: The Night of the Nobody - Skeleton Keys 4 (Paperback)
Cover illustration © Pete Williamson

For many of my class, there is very little sense of anticipation for new reads. That is not to say that they don’t get bought books, or taken to the library to choose new reads – a great many of them do – rather that on the whole they are unaware of books that are due to be published. This, however, is one of the few exceptions to the rule, with quite a few of my readers looking forward to its appearance immensely. The Skeleton Keys series is one which has been incredibly popular with my children, and is unusual in that it appeals across the board to include those less or more confident readers, and is one not considered to be a boys’ or girls’ read, which – despite my best efforts – many of the books on my shelf seem to be.

Part of this appeal is the wonderful humour contained within the books, which is accessible to those less confident readers in my class without being puerile or patronising, and part of it is the fabulous illustrations by Pete Williamson, which are the perfect match for the text. Together, these aspects have combined to make each of the books in the series a winning combination – something which is continued here in the latest instalment.

Fans of the books will by now be familiar with the introduction by Keys which leads us into the story proper – one which is set in the slumberly village of Matching Trousers, home to Flynn Twist – owner of a wild imagination in which he is the hero of his own stories. Flynn has just arrived home for his tea, and comments to his gran that the odd boy who lives across the road is standing outside again – something she dismisses as unimportant. Sitting down to eat, Flynn’s meal is interrupted – not by the odd boy, but by the cries of his baby sister Nellie from her cot and putting down his knife and fork he heads to her room to tell her a story to settle her down.

Opening Nellie’s door, Flynn is struck by how cold the room is and how dark – almost as if there is an extra shadow there – but on turning on the light, whatever was there has vanished. Looking out of the window, he spies the odd boy across the road still gazing at the house but he is distracted when his gran enters the room and spots a strange cat-sized creature sitting on the edge of his sister’s cot. The creature is one which has become unimagined – a figment of Flynn’s imagination turned real – and it is at this point that Keys arrives to take charge, together with his assistant Daisy, only for the children’s grandmother to inform him that his services are not required.

The following morning, Flynn’s gran sends him on a quest to deliver a letter to Mr Nash who lives at the nearby windmill and it is while here that Flynn becomes aware that things are very much not what they should be with the elderly gentleman. Fortunately, Keys and Daisy soon appear to try to resolve what is going on but unfortunately, Keys himself soon falls foul of the mysterious Nobody which is intent on taking over the residents of Matching Trousers. Who has unimagined the Nobody? What part does the boy across the road have to play in what is going on? And with Keys now out of action, will Flynn be able to use his imagination to defeat the Nobody and return Matching Trousers to the slumberly village it once was?

The intended audience for this series is at that age where imaginations are not only allowed to run riot, but are often actively encouraged with characters such as the Tooth Fairy and Father Christmas. Although we don’t tend to see imaginary friends in school, at least not in Key Stage 2, I remember my brother having one as a boy and for quite some time he was almost part of the family. The genius of this series is the presentation of imaginary characters as being real, something that many children will buy into, and which will provide reassurance that they are perfectly normal.

It would be hard for me to review this book without talking about the freakish farts that are referred to in the blurb, and which are dotted throughout the story. I’m sure I’ve said before that I really thought there would be a point in my life where I would grow out of laughing at this sort of thing, in the same way that I’ve grown out of a great many things, and yet it still hasn’t happened. I know that for some adults, whether they are in school or at home, the word fart seems to give them palpitations and they will not use it in front of young ears but I have never had such issues. Children revel in jokes about bodily functions and a well-timed trouser cough in any lesson – from the children, not from me, I hasten to add – can bring about total mayhem in my experience. Here, the breaking of wind is integral to the plot and is unlikely to offend anyone, other than those few straight-laced individuals for whom this f-word is too much to tolerate, and younger readers will delight in it.

One of the many joys of this series is that you do not need to read it in order, and this latest title will again work as a standalone one. If – like my class and me – you are a fan, you will be delighted that Keys’s sidekick Daisy is as delightfully horrid as she ever was and the story bears all of the trademark exclamations and wordplay that feature throughout, as well as the wonderful illustrations I mentioned earlier – although you may be put off carrots for life by one of them. With Book 5, The Wild Imaginings of Stanley Strange, to look forward to at the end of September, the series shows no signs yet of running out of steam – something which I for one am delighted about.

As always, huge, huge thanks go to publisher Little Tiger for my review copy read ahead of publication on May 13th. A fantabulant 5 out of 5 stars.

Digger and Me by Ros Roberts

Digger and Me (Paperback)
Cover illustration © Thy Bui

I’m not terribly good with animals. On the whole, close contact with them scares me and this is particularly true of dogs. Over the past year or so though, through the drip-feeding of cute images popping up in my Twitter feed, and programmes such as Supervet, I have starting to soften and find myself thinking about how lovely it might be to have a furry friend to stroke and hug, and to accompany me on my walks.

Certainly, the benefits of owning a dog are numerous – to both physical and mental health – and for many children who have found the lockdowns over the past year extremely difficult, their beloved pets have been there to provide a shoulder to cry on as well as the opportunity for fun, love and cuddles. Although my children who own pets also have other animals such as cats, chickens and hamsters, it is stories about dogs that as a class they especially enjoy, and so when I was offered the opportunity to read and review this title I jumped at the chance.

Unlike the other doggy tales on my shelf, this story is not told from the pet’s viewpoint but from his owner James’s. When we are introduced to James, it is at school – with dog Digger safely at home. Nearing the end of Year 6, James and his classmates suddenly find themselves with a new teacher, Mr Froggatt, who has taken over after the previous stand-in has returned to teaching a younger class. Later, over dinner, James tells his mother Jackie how much he liked Mr Froggatt, while his mother’s boyfriend Dave starts to tell her how much better off James would be in a different school. Disinclined to agree with anything Dave has to say on principle, James asks to be excused and takes Digger upstairs to his room where he completes his homework.

A couple of days later, James goes to his father’s to stay the night, as he does every week, taking Digger with him. This time, it is his father’s partner Kathy who irritates him with the attention she pays his father and her appeal to James to prevent Digger sleeping on his bed and shedding hairs on it. Again, James asks to be excused and goes to his room and makes a start on a new task for Mr Froggatt – some poetry.

The following afternoon, returning to his mother’s after school, James is annoyed when Digger is excited to see Dave and unable to rationalise his feelings takes the dog into the utility room and starts to groom him. Brushing his coat until it gleams, James runs his hands over Digger’s front legs and is horrified to discover a lump. Alerting Jackie to his discovery, James now faces the prospect of his pet visiting the vet and the news not being good. As he goes back and forth between his parents and their partners, James struggles to cope with all that is happening to him. With his time at primary school running out, he starts to see that Digger is not the only one on his side as he comes to terms with his life never being the same again.

Parental separation is so commonplace now that it is all too easy for adults to accept it as normal when to the children involved it is anything but. In his heart, James understands that his parents weren’t destined to be together, but that does not stop him hoping for their reunion and the disappearance of their partners, both of whom he resents enormously, particularly as he feels that neither of them appears to fully accept either him or Digger. So many children will recognise this pain as one that they are feeling, but the skilful way in which the story is told may well make them question whether or not they are being fair to the new adults in their lives. That is not to say that children should automatically like their parents’ new partners – far from it – but as an individual whose parents divorced, I know that I was perfectly horrid to my stepfather, who was actually a really lovely man, and on reflection many years later am now deeply saddened by my behaviour.

Despite advances in medical science, cancer still has the power to absolutely terrify many people and I guess, before Covid at least, was one of the main causes of illness or death in the adults that our children know and love. For James, who has lost a much-loved uncle, the fear he feels at the possibility of Digger being seriously ill, or worse, is exacerbated by his dog being his confidante as he shuttles between his parents. With Digger and the routine of school being the only constants in his life, in the poetry that he writes for Mr Froggat, James finds an outlet for his feelings. Without the pressure of it being marked or for moderation, as so much writing sadly is in Year 6, he is able to not only be honest in what he is feeling but is able to develop his own style and write for the pleasure of it – something which again, many children have knocked out of them in the drive for evidence.

Whether as a class read or a book to be enjoyed reading alone, this is a story which will bring so much pleasure to its readers. Yes, there are some parts where things are not going James’s way but ultimately this is a feel-good title which will leave its readers happy with the way in which it ends. It is one of those books that you can almost hear calling to you when you are forced to put it down and, having left it last night at a point towards the end of the book where it was unclear what was going to happen, I found myself wondering about it when I woke up – such was my desire to see how things worked out for both James and Digger.

I would say this is probably more aimed at Years 5 and 6, although more mature readers in Year 4 would also enjoy it. For anyone who has read Carlie Sorosaik’s I, Cosmo or the Dog’s Eye View books by Blake Morgan, this is a must-read. Enormous thanks to publisher Little Tiger for my copy received ahead of publication on May 13th. A fabulous 5 out of 5 stars.

The House on the Edge by Alex Cotter

The House on the Edge (Paperback)
Cover illustration by Kathrin Honesta

At the start of the current academic year, I was asked to group the titles on my little library shelf by genre and so I set about sorting my reads into adventures, mysteries, science fiction etc. Some books are very easy to place in a particular category, while others tend to drift from one to another depending on what mood I am in when they are returned. This title though is the first for a young audience that I have seen described as a thriller – something which immediately made me curious – and when I saw it was up for request on Net Galley, after seeing proof copies being raved about by fellow bloggers, I immediately requested it.

I am now now faced with a quandary: do I create a new category for thrillers on my shelf, or do I try to make this fit one of the already existing sections? For this is a book unlike any other that I have read – one filled with mysteries, one which had me on tenterhooks throughout, and one which would also claim a space amongst my ghost stories or those reads which are closer to what happens in real life.

The story opens in the house of the title – The Lookout – which sits at the edge of a cliff overlooking the beach and sea. Although for many this might be an idyllic setting, for Faith life is far from ideal as she tries to get younger brother Noah ready for school while caring for her mother, who has taken to her bed following the departure of the children’s father. As the two children leave for school, Faith listens as Noah tries to tell her again about the sea ghost living in the cellar who he says he needs to help. Faith’s attention, however, is soon focussed elsewhere – on the crack in the back garden and whether or not it is expanding.

On reaching school, Faith is approached by Noah’s teacher, Mrs Hollowbread, who reminds Faith that she needs to speak to her mother as she is concerned about the siblings – something Faith is keen to avoid at all costs and which results in her lying to the teacher, telling her that her father will do so instead in a few weeks’ time when he returns.

When she arrives back at home later that day, Faith is unhappy that her self-centred and uncaring Uncle Art is there and she repeats the lie to him, not knowing that Noah is listening. After Art leaves, Noah tells her that the sea ghost has told him that dads don’t come back and the siblings argue, with Faith increasingly desperate to hide her family’s situation from anyone outside the house.

As things at home go from bad to worse, Noah goes missing and unable to hide what is going on any longer Faith loses control over what has been happening. How is Noah’s disappearance linked to the sea ghost? Will the children’s father return? And if the crack in the garden gets any bigger, just what will happen to The Lookout?

The awareness of poor mental health is something that is gradually improving in our society, and with the inclusion of discussions in school now – whether through PSHE lessons, or events such as Children’s Mental Health Week which took place in February – our children are gradually learning that it is okay not to be okay. Sadly, for many adults – for whatever reason – they cannot seek the help that they need while mentally ill, and so it is with Faith’s mother.

With no trusted adults to turn to, Faith slips into the role of carer to both her mother and Noah – something that no child should have to contend with, and yet something that so many do. Ill-equipped to cope with the pressures she finds herself under, my heart ached for her as I progressed through the story and her life slowly unravelled. Noah, on the other hand, is cushioned against much of what is going on by Faith and sees things so very differently through his much younger eyes. Frustrated hugely by his sister’s refusal to believe in the presence of the sea ghost, he decides to do things his own way – leading to his disappearance.

This is such a richly complex story, which would make a fabulous class reader in upper KS2. Not only does it tackle the important issues of parental mental health and the demands put upon young carers, but there is a real sense of mystery about it which will have the reader on the edge of their seat throughout. There are so many twists and turns in the plot with regard to the family, the sea ghost and the fate of the house itself, that right until the very end assumptions I had made about what would happen were proved wrong – something that really pleased me, because with some books it is quite irritating that you are almost creating spoilers for yourself as you read.

This is Alex Cotter’s debut middle grade title – a second is due next year – and is one which will surely make her an author to take note of. Enormous thanks must go to publisher Nosy Crow and Net Galley for my advance read ahead of publication on July 1st. 5 out of 5 stars.

An Alien in the Jam Factory by Chrissie Sains, illustrated by Jenny Taylor

An Alien in the Jam Factory - An Alien in the Jam Factory (Paperback)
Cover illustration © Jenny Taylor

Having never written a book, I have never had to give one a title. Sometimes, when a read is initially brought to my attention, I find I cannot come up with any ideas as to what the story might be about, with only its name to go on, and on other occasions – as is the case here – it is immediately apparent. This is, obviously, a story about an alien in a jam factory but what is less obvious is that it is a wonderfully funny and beautifully illustrated tale about friendship, perseverance and self-reliance.

Our hero is not the alien, but Scooter – a young boy with an incredible ability to create things – whose family owns the jam factory of the title. They have not always done so, but have taken over having left the employ of Dodgy Doughnuts, the establishment next door, where they have been forced to make jam which is – quite frankly – not jammy enough.

Scooter is the brains of the operation, inventing all sorts of wild flavours and the technology to create them, but what he would really like is a pet – something his parents won’t allow for hygiene reasons. Asleep in bed in the flat above the factory one night, he is woken up by a noise and on going to investigate discovers not only a perfectly round hole in a window, but also a small, orange alien which appears to be trying to scoop something out of the jam pool.

The alien is also extraordinarily creative, and when they discover plans by Daffy Dodgy – the dastardly owner of Dodgy Doughnuts – to break in and steal the secrets of the factory, they must work together to foil her. Will Scooter be able to keep the alien’s presence a secret from his parents? Will he be able to keep his ideas out of Daffy Dodgy’s thieving hands? And will he be able to discover a flavour of jam safe for the alien to enjoy?

The blurb on the back of the book promises that this is a hilarious adventure packed with clever inventions, and indeed it is. I’ve read some very funny books over the past few months – and some, sadly, which have left me cold – but in the main they have been aimed at an older audience. This title – at less than 200 pages long, and jampacked (sorry!) with wonderful pictures by Jenny Taylor – will appeal enormously to children in lower KS2 upwards, but is not one at which the less confident readers in my Year 5 class would turn their noses up as being babyish.

Something of which I was unaware when I bought this read is that its protagonist has been affected by the condition cerebral palsy. I am always keen to include a broad range of titles on my little library shelf which reflect our diverse society and this will be a very welcome addition, but not for that reason alone. As I’ve said elsewhere on my blog, I look forward to the day when a great book is read simply because it is a great book, rather than to tick boxes, and I’m especially pleased that this was recommended to me via Twitter just because it is a wonderful story.

I believe that this is the first in a new series – the way that it finishes certainly leaves the way open for a sequel – and I really hope that it is. I for one am keen to see what Scooter and his little orange friend get up to next. A fabulous 5 out of 5 stars.

The Nightsilver Promise by Annaliese Avery

The Nightsilver Promise (Paperback)
Cover illustration by Natalie Smillie

The more books that I read, the more authors to whom I am introduced. With either too many books being published, or too little time in which to read them – I know which option I would say is correct – sometimes it is tempting to just stick to those reads which are written by those authors I know and love. That would be an enormous mistake, however, because over the past year I have read some fabulous debut titles with this being the latest of them.

Satisfyingly complex, and set in a creepy and sinister alternate London, this story will appeal to fans of Vashti Hardy and Philip Reeve – names which will be familiar, surely, to all fans of children’s books and which will also tell you just how much I loved this read, because in my eyes – like those of many readers – those authors can do no wrong. Packed with mysteries and peril, this story is one which bears comparison with the Brightstorm and Mortal Engines series, and yet is stunningly original and will knock your metaphorical socks off.

13-year-old Paisley Fitzwilliam inhabits a world driven by the heavens – one in which each individual’s life, or track, is mapped out for them by the Chief Designer. As she heads to the Mechanist chapel to find out what the stars have planned for her, she stops to buy a newspaper with a lead story relating her scientist mother’s insistence that a comet heading towards earth is just that – a comet – and not, as many believe, a great dragon whose arrival has been foretold by the Dragon Walkers.

On reaching the chapel, Paisley is duly presented with a parchment recording her fate – one which does not tally with her plans – and in shock she leaves to return home. Vowing not to share what she has learned with her family, Paisley’s attention is caught by a commotion in the road ahead – a shop girl who is Dragon Touched being hauled out of her place of work by Men of the Yard amidst shouts from the assembled crowd calling for her death.

Later that evening, Paisley’s mother Violetta presents her scientific discoveries regarding the comet to a disbelieving audience, some of whom accuse her of blasphemy. Unperturbed, she carries on with her work until a terrible accident happens, in which she is believed to have been killed.

When a stranger breaks into the family home and tries to abduct her younger brother Dax, Paisley is left with little option but to try to piece together the mystery of what has happened. Together with their mother’s apprentice Corbett, the siblings look for clues to understand their mother’s work – placing themselves in greater and greater danger – as Paisley tries to alter the course of her track and protect Dax from those who would seek to harm him.

The London created here is one which will be recognisable to many and yet is one which is very different. Its society is one governed by its beliefs, and when Violetta’s new discovery threatens those beliefs there is uproar. As twenty-first century readers, it would be easy for most of us to dismiss such beliefs as nonsense, but there are still a great many people whose lives are at least in part governed by horoscopes, tarot cards and suchlike. With so many conspiracy theories doing the rounds on social media, and people spouting nonsense about the vaccinations now available to protect against Covid, it is easy to see this refusal to accept the evidence presented as entirely credible.

Paisley is the latest in an ever-increasing list of powerful heroines to inspire our children, especially the girls. Keen to be an explorer like her late father, and with a scientist for a mother, she refuses to take the news of what her future will be without a fight. When Violetta disappears, Paisley takes on responsibly for Dax without a second thought and is quick to start rationalising their situation, and what actions she should take, not only to protect him but to investigate where her mother could be.

With its strange floating boroughs ever-present above the city, and mechanical devices linked by their use of the mysterious metal nightsilver, which does not obey the rules of physics that we would understand, the world that Annaliese Avery has created is a richly-detailed one in which the reader is immersed from the very start of the book until the ending which leaves us with a great many unanswered questions, which may or may not be answered in the sequel. I have absolutely no information as to when the second title in the series will be published, or even what it will be called, but having read this I would say it is definitely one to watch out for.

Possibly towards the upper limit of pages usually contained in what would count as middle grade at just under 400, I would suggest this is a title most suitable for readers in Year 6 upwards. There are a handful of children in my Year 5 class who would be able to enjoy this, but for most of them its length and the level of detail in the writing would be a little too challenging for them to fully enjoy it. This is most definitely a story that deserves to be lingered over and savoured by those who would fully appreciate it. A magnificent 5 out of 5 stars.

Otherland by Louie Stowell

Otherland (Paperback)
Cover illustration © George Ermos

Writing the blurb for a book is surely an enormous responsibility – one which takes a huge amount of skill. With limited space on the back of a book, the writer needs to divulge enough of the story to hook in the reader, but without giving too much away; there are a great many books where the cover has appealed to me enormously only for me to return them to the bookshop shelf because I have not been grabbed by what I’ve read.

More recently, of course, that blurb-reading has mostly taken place virtually and this is one title where the combination of my favourite cover artist, George Ermos, and the promise of a dangerous magical underworld led me to pre-order it from my local independent bookshop. Having seen tweets including images of copies in the wild in larger shops and branches of Waterstones, I felt rather envious of those readers able to pick up their copies ahead of publication so was thrilled when I had a call to say mine had come in a week early and rushed to collect it at the earliest opportunity, bypassing my TBR pile completely.

Squeezing in a chapter ahead of April’s Primary School Book Club on Friday night, I then spent my Saturday fitting in chapters around all of my mum jobs and first haircut in five months, finishing at teatime with the warm feelings of satisfaction and pleasure which can only come from a book that you have truly immersed yourself in. And it is one that you will want to wallow in because this is a fabulous read – one packed with humour, magic and adventure, and one containing several Dr Who references – something which always endears me to a story!

Myra and Rohan share a birthday and while this would usually be a cause of celebration for most children, Myra is not feeling particularly cheerful at the prospect of spending time at their joint party, to be held at Rohan’s house. Experience has taught Myra that something will go wrong, and – as usual – it will be her fault, leading her to try to avoid this by making special plans for this year’s celebration, determined that for once it will all go off with a bang.

Unfortunately, Myra’s well-intentioned surprise leads to another disaster and while the adults deal with it, Rohan storms off to his little sister Shilpa’s bedroom, with Myra in tow. Here though, things are also not what they should be and when Shilpa vanishes before their eyes, and a mysterious winged woman appears, Myra quickly realises that magic is responsible for the toddler’s disappearance.

Determined to bring Shilpa home, Myra and Rohan accompany the woman on an unbelievable journey to Otherland where they meet the Queen of the Fairies who has not only stolen Shilpa, but has plans for her. She tells the children that she is prepared to hand over the infant on one condition: that they complete a Knight Game and pass three tests that she will set them. With no option but to agree, so begins the biggest challenge of Myra and Rohan’s life as they battle to not only rescue Shilpa, but avoid being trapped in the Fairy Queen’s domain forever more.

I’ve seen several comments on Twitter comparing this read to the film Labyrinth and I think this is not an unfair comparison to make. That is not to say that this is simply a retelling of the classic film, because that is very much not the case; anyone expecting that will be disappointed. Stories of fairies abducting human babies and magical quests have existed in folklore for hundreds of years at least. This is a fresh and innovative use of the genre for the 21st Century, and one which will bring a great deal of pleasure to its modern audience for many years to come yet.

Myra and Rohan are a great pairing. Brought together by the shared circumstances of their births, they are not friends initially in the true sense of the word. Myra sees Rohan as perfect: something she very much believes herself not to be, while he sees her as an individual who does nothing but wreak destruction, albeit unintentionally. When they are forced to collaborate, not only do they start to see each other in a new light, but also themselves as they start to question whether they are the best judges of their own characters. Throughout the book, there is a pleasing amount of friction between them which leads to some very dry humour in parts, which I really enjoyed – all too often the characters on a quest are the best of friends and this annoyance with one another gives the story a much more believable edge.

Although the book has what I would call a tidy ending – one which pleasingly resolves all of the threads running through the story – it has been left in such a way that further adventures could be had and I would very much like to see more of Myra and Rohan. With so much folklore and mythology left untouched here, there is enormous scope for more to come. Whether or not that wish is granted, this would make a fabulous read for confident readers of Year 4 age upwards, who are looking for stories of magic but are not quite ready for, say, the Widdershins Sisters stories by Michelle Harrison; I know many of my Year 5s would absolutely love this story. A wonderfully magical 5 out of 5 stars.

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