The Gritterman by Orlando Weeks

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The Gritterman by Orlando Weeks was sent to me for review by the Amazon Vine review programme.

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Apparently, Orlando Weeks used to be in the band The Maccabees, whose song Toothpaste Kisses is rather charming. This is by the by except that I also found The Gritterman rather charming.

It tells the story of The Gritterman from the title, in his own words. He’s elderly and his world now consists of selling ice cream in the summer, but always dreaming of his favourite season, winter. In winter The Gritterman turns his ice cream van into a gritter, and gets to disappear into the snowy landscape with his thoughts.

This particular winter will be his last gritting the roads. He is being made redundant, and as the Gritterman sets off on his final journey he has some serious thinking to do.

This is sad and whimsical, with more than a hint of Raymond Briggs about it. I loved the illustrations, also by the author. He does a masterful job of creating the perfect sense of isolation and softness that the snow brings, blotting out the sharp lines of the world and creating a new, kinder landscape, but which never lets you forget the sharpness lurking underneath it.

The book can be paired with a twelve track album, also by Orlando Weeks, which is an acoustic journey into the world of the Gritterman, and includes the text as a spoken word performance over the music.

 

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Monster by Michael E. Grant

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I was sent Monster by Michael E. Grant in exchange for my honest review by the Amazon Vine programme. It will be released on October 17th, and is available for pre order now.

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I chose it largely due to my son exploding with excitement when he saw that it was being offered to me. He spent his whole summer holidays immersed in the Gone series, which precedes the action in this book, and was devastated when he finished the last book.

I haven’t read the Gone series, and although this follows on from it, I didn’t feel lost at all as I was reading. The initial chapters summarise neatly and effectively what happened in the previous series, and I liked the fact that the author had worked hard to make what was effectively a plot recap into a logical and necessary part of the new series.  There are flashbacks through the book from characters who appeared in the first series that give you enough of their background to understand events without labouring what went before.

Shade Darby was a witness on the day a mysterious dome disappeared at Pedido Beach, releasing a bunch of teenage survivors back into the civilisation. It was the day her world changed forever and she is still living with the guilt and regret borne out of her actions on that day.

Her feelings have crystallised into an obsession with what happened in the dome and trying to ensure she is prepared for what she knows is coming next, as parts of the meteor that caused the dome to grow in the first place are due to fall to earth. She is determined that she will be armed and ready. What she doesn’t know is, so are other people.

This is a tense, dystopian fantasy which reminded me in parts of Charlie Higson’s Enemy series, largely in its unflinching and sometimes brutal style. This is a hard read in parts. Bad things happen, and they happen to good people and the reader has to cotton on fast as the narrative speeds you ever onwards. This is largely action driven and is written in a very filmic way, which makes it very easy to read. If that were all I would find the book too shallow to have held my attention all the way to the end, but it is redeemed by some really interesting plot lines and ideas that I hope will bloom in the next books in the series.

What I really liked here is that Grant makes the connection between mutations and those in regular life who are ignored or marginalised or already treated like they are mutants and cleverly weaves contemporary themes like the position of trans gender people in society for example, into the plot. His characters are the marginalised, the damaged, the dysfunctional. He looks at what happens to the people we ignore or demonise when they get power, and it’s fascinating.

Father Christmas and Me by Matt Haig

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Father Christmas and Me by Matt Haig was supplied by Netgalley in exchange for my review. It will be published on October 12, 2017, but is available to pre-order now.

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This is the third book in the Father Christmas series. I reviewed A Boy Called Christmas some time ago on the blog, but haven’t yet read the second book, The Girl Who Saved Christmas. I think it would be difficult to fully appreciate Father Christmas and Me without having read at least one of the previous books, despite the fact that Haig does provide flashbacks in the book, but I didn’t feel that having missed out the second volume hampered my enjoyment too much.

The book is set in the magical village of Elfhelm where Father Christmas lives with the elves, spending all year preparing for the most magical of events, Christmas Day. The story is told from the point of view of Amelia, the young orphan girl who was the heroine of The Girl Who Saved Christmas. She has come to live in Elfhelm with Father Christmas, but is struggling to fit in, feeling isolated and all too human. Her mistakes cost her dearly, as the evil Father Vodol uses her vulnerability to exploit the rift between humans and elves so that he can overthrow Father Christmas.

I love the fact that Matt Haig doesn’t shy away from the darker side of life, even in his more fantastical writing. There is always hope, always magic, always love, but it has to have something to conquer and he is very good at writing about the insidious, drip feed of evil masquerading as truth and righteousness. I was amused to see the character of Father Vodol having more than a hint of Murdoch/Trump about him in this outing.

Great illustrations by Chris Mould add to what is already a terrific read and make it that little bit more Christmassy. It’s like a modern take on a Victorian moral tale, but with added humour and invention. Perfect for readers aged 7 and up.

Goth Girl and the Sinister Symphony by Chris Riddell

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I was pretty gutted when I found out on Twitter yesterday that Goth Girl and the Sinister Symphony is to be the last in the brilliant Goth Girl series by Chris Riddell. I have, as regular readers may know, a deep and abiding love for Chris Riddell’s work, whether it be his illustrations for other people, or his own work. I truly lost my heart to him when I discovered the Ottoline series, and my only consolation about the end of the Goth Girl series is that Ottoline is coming back.

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The Goth Girl series is a thing of beauty and wonder in so many ways. The books are exquisitely produced,  fat little hand friendly volumes with ribbon book marks, gloriously decadent end pages, treat mini books in every volume, and exquisite, full colour pictures on every page.

Then there’s the writing. In these books Riddell surpasses himself as an author who can appeal to every type of reader. The stories are whimsical, funny and adventurous enough to satisfy the most demanding child reader, while working at a completely other level for adults with their wonderful breadth of allusions to history and popular culture. They are just perfect.

In this book, Lord Goth, ‘mad, bad and dangerous to gnomes’, has decided to host a musical festival ‘Gothstock’, at Goth hall. As ever, Ada Goth, his daughter and her Attic Gang, are sure that Maltravers, the evil butler is up to something, and it’s their job to find out what it is and ensure that Gothstock goes off without a hitch. Added to this is a visit by Ada’s grandmother, who is scheming to marry Lord Goth off to one of the three society beauties she has brought with her. Ada disapproves of all of them, and has other plans for Lord Goth.

My favourite bits of this book are the wickedly funny caricatures of Simon Cowell as Simon Scowl, who brings his ancient orchestra to perform at Gothstock, and the beautiful depiction of Donald Trump as Donald Ear-Trumpet with his tiny hands and big cannon. I loved these so much I think they’re worth the price of the book on their own.

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett

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The Amazing Maurice is the twenty eighth book in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series and the first one that he deliberately wrote as a children’s book. It won him his most distinguished literary prize, The Carnegie Medal, largely because I like to think that children’s librarians are much smarter than literary critics and have always known genius when they’ve seen it.

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The Amazing Maurice is a cat who, like the educated rodents he hangs around with, spent too long eating things that the wizards at Unseen University threw away, and suddenly discovered he could think, and talk. Maurice and the rats have teamed up with a ‘stupid looking kid’, who can play the penny whistle, and are travelling the Disc, simultaneously infesting and ridding the town of a plague of rats, and a hefty sum of money for doing so.

As they arrive in Bad Blintz, the rats tell Maurice that this is their last con. They want to find the nirvana promised in the book Mr Bunnsy Has an Adventure, which has become their bible. Maurice grudgingly agrees, but before things can swing into action they find that sinister forces are afoot in Bad Blintz. Can they save themselves and the townspeople of Bad Blintz?

On first reading I found this a strange choice for a children’s book. The Amazing Maurice may have more than echoes of the Pied Piper fable. It may also be influenced by Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, but it is a very dark tale. It’s about the human in animals, and the animal in humans. It has moments of savagery and genuine fear and tension that many of the previous Discworld novels lack. Just as I assume that children’s librarians are smarter, I found this was the point where I realised that Pratchett knew children were smarter than your average adult, too. There is no pandering to young minds here. There is direct, straight talking, fierceness and no compromise whatsoever and it makes the book worthy of the Carnegie and every other prize you might care to mention.

It’s funny, of course. There’s a lot of mention of widdling in jam, but it’s also funny in an extremely macabre, sharp way that cuts to the bone of what Pratchett is doing, showing humans to humans and talking about what it is to be humane.

On re-reading it with Oscar, I only have more praise for it. It’s one of those books I think should be compulsory reading in schools. Sod Lord of the Flies or Animal Farm. This is the one.

Mr. Penguin And The Lost Treasure by Alex T. Smith

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Mr. Penguin And The Lost Treasure by Alex T. Smith was sent to me Amazon Vine in exchange for my review.

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Readers of the blog will know that I am a huge fan of Alex T. Smith and his Claude series, about Claude the stylish dog and his best friend Sir Bobblysocks. I was delighted when I was offered the chance to read this brand new adventure, which looks to be the start of a new series.

Mr. Penguin has come to Cityville to make a new start, after a fairly disastrous attempt to be a more traditional penguin. He dreams of adventure, fuelled by his love for the stories he reads, and decides to set up his very own detective agency, aided and abetted by his best friend, Colin the spider.

Things are looking bleak for Mr. Penguin when the story begins. He is down to his last fishmonger sandwich, and despite having put an ad in the local paper, business is non existent. That is, until he is contacted by the owner of the local museum asking him to search for hidden treasure that could save the museum from being closed down.

Mr. Penguin and Colin are on the case, and what ensues is a wonderful take on an Indiana Jones style adventure, but with a lot more penguin action. Colin is my favourite character. His terse nature and his ability to kung fu chop his way through most problems are absolute genius. I am also quite a fan of Gordon, the somewhat taciturn pigeon.

The story is fast paced and very funny. It has all the charm and humour that makes the Claude stories such a delight to read. The illustrations by Alex T. Smith are gorgeous, including the beautiful end plates and the production quality overall is high, making this a truly beautiful thing to own.

Longer than the Claude books, this is a more developed chapter book for the more confident solo reader, or a story you can share over several nights of story time. Perfect for children aged four and up, and me.

 

The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell

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My son has been a huge fan of Cressida Cowell forever. He was genuinely upset when the  How To Train Your Dragon series was over, and he re-reads them all the time. The Wizards of Once is Cowell’s new series, and after having read it, I think he will love it. Possibly more than he loves How To Train Your Dragon.  He’d have already pinched it off me by now, but he’s on an outward bound holiday, so I got to read it uninterrupted.

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The story is set in a mythical, pre-Arthurian Britain in which magic and men are at war with each other. In the woods live the Wizards surrounded by sprites, elves, talking animals and giants.  In the fortress live the Warriors and their iron weapons that are intent on wiping out magic forever. Witches, the most evil creatures in the land, have already been wiped out and now the Wizards and their ilk are being hunted.

Except that everything is not quite as it seems. Xar is a Wizard. He’s thirteen, the youngest son of the chief Wizard. At thirteen, a wizard’s magic comes in. Except Xar has no magic yet. It does not stop him being wild and reckless and cooking up increasingly more risky plans to find a way to access his elusive gifts. One one of his adventures he bumps into Wish, the Warrior princess, daughter of the ruler of the Warriors. Wish is not meant to have any magic at all. She is meant to be a bloodthirsty and fearless fighter, and yet her destiny seems to be taking her in quite another direction altogether.

The two meet and in doing so, discover that Witches might not be quite so extinct as everyone had imagined.

This is a splendid adventure. It’s beautifully realised, with the most marvellous, atmospheric illustrations by Cowell. It’s funny and dark, adventurous and thoughtful and  full of promise for the rest of the books in the series to follow. The characters are great, and I loved every last bit of it. It would be a brilliant book to read aloud at bedtime or to a class, and I think those who are already fans of Cowell’s work will love it, and those who are introduced to her through this, will be smitten. Perfect for children aged seven and up.

Birthday Boy by David Baddiel

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I was sent an advance copy of Birthday Boy by Netgalley in exchange for my review.

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Until this point I’d only ever read David Baddiel’s novels for adults, which I enjoyed very much. I have to be honest and say that I had a little trouble imagining how he would transition across to children’s writing though, but as my ten year old son rates him highly, I thought I’d give this a whirl.

Having read Birthday Boy I can now see why my son loves his books. Deftly written, the plotting moves at speed so that there is no chance of the reader becoming bored or distracted, the narrative simply doesn’t allow you to stop.

Sam Green wakes up on his birthday, after months of fevered excitement and planning. The day is as wonderful as he anticipated, and that night, looking through his new telescope and spying a shooting star, he wishes that every day could be his birthday.

Over the course of the book, Sam finds out the truth of the adage, ‘be careful what you wish for,’ as birthday after birthday dulls his appetites and starts taking a ruinous toll on his family. He has to figure out a way to stop the magic working and get his ordinary life back.

The moral of the tale is handled with humour and a lightness of touch that mean the narrative never gets bogged down in wordiness or sentimentality, which I like. There are some great supporting characters. I particularly love Sam’s long suffering guinea pig whose facial expressions are a running joke throughout the book. There’s a good mix of characters and great, strong roles for girls. I also loved the grandparents, who seem to be an homage to Charlie’s grandparents in Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. It’s particularly lovely that there is more than a nod to Baddiel’s own father, Colin.

The book is generous, kind and funny, taking inspiration from some classic tropes of children’s fiction and making them fresh for a new generation of readers. Perfect for children aged 7 and up.

Anne of Green Gables: A Graphic Novel by Mariah Marsden and Brenna Thummler

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Anne of Green Gables was one of my favourite books as a child. My copy was a tattered hard back that had been my mother’s and it was a wonder, given how many times she had read it, that it lasted long enough to be handed down to me. I read and re-read it until it disintegrated.

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I was dubious when Net Galley allowed me to read a review copy of the graphic novel by Mariah Marsden and Brenna Thummler. I really wondered what on earth they could add to such a classic book, with such a world wide following of fans.

As it turns out, they add a lot.

One of my great sadnesses as an adult, encouraging children to read, was how hard it was to get kids to read the classics that I had loved as a child. They’re often too wordy and slow for all but the most patient and confident of readers, and I was really beginning to be concerned that the love for these books was on the wane with children. However, I really think that turning the stories into graphic novels, particularly such beautiful and well thought out ones as this, could be their saving grace.

I cannot praise this book highly enough. The illustrations by Brenna Thummler are superb. They perfectly capture the mood of the book for me. There is so much life and joy and movement in these illustrations that the entire book just bursts to life before your eyes. It’s perfectly matched by the skilful paring down of the essentials of the s tory by Mariah Marsden. Her ability to sum up the essence of Anne Shirley in so few words is a skill.

I loved this book so much I read it twice. I was sent a digital review copy, but when the book is published on 30th November 2017, I will be ordering a paper copy of my own, and getting one for my mum for Christmas as well.

The Last Hero by Terry Pratchett

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The Last Hero is the twenty-seventh book in the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, and one, which when I started reading it with my son, I realised I had never read before. It was a real pleasure to read something new (to me), and which, unlike The Shepherd’s Crown, did not make me cry.

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The Last Hero is more of a novella, and our version is a beautiful, large format, cloth bound book with full colour plates that are beautifully drawn by Paul Kidby. Oscar, my son, particularly enjoyed this format as he had a real chance to examine all the pictures and see the Discworld up close, so to speak. My favourite illustration was the Librarian, his was the turtles swimming through space.

In this book, Cohen the Barbarian and his ageing horde have a bone to pick with the dice playing Gods who gamble with the lives of ordinary Disc dwellers (if there is such a thing) and heroes alike. Cohen decides to go out with a bang not a whimper, and they set off to deliver the gift of fire back to the Gods.

Back in Ankh Morpork, the Patrician enrols the help of the wizards to try and stop the world ending and with the help of Leonard of Quirm and the City Watch, they launch a vessel filled with their brightest and best, and Rincewind to save the day.

Many different strands of Disc lore weave together to make this modern myth come to life. I think it’s best described as a romp, and one we thoroughly enjoyed reading.