The Genius Aged 8 1/4 by Jeremy Strong – A Book Review


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The Genius Aged 8 1/4 by Jeremy Strong is the second Little Gem that dyslexia friendly publisher Barrington Stoke sent me to review last week. Jeremy Strong has written dozens of books for children, the most famous of which is probably The Hundred Mile an Hour Dog, which all my children loved. I am a big fan of his books about Mad Iris the demented ostrich who lives at Pudding Lane primary school, also published by Barrington Stoke.


His books are always entertaining and sometimes, as is the case with this book, laugh out loud silly. I absolutely adored this, and thought the terrifically lively illustrations by Jamie Smith only added to the humour of the very silly story.

Mr. and Mrs. Poppleton, are, it has to be said, a little bit stupid. They only work out that they are about to have a baby when the baby actually arrives. When he does, they really don’t know what to do with him. They love him a lot, but their parenting skills leave a lot to be desired, as do their naming skills. They call him Squeaky Squawker Reface Splurp Bottom.

Luckily the little boy grows up very, very fast indeed, and also turns out to be a child genius. One of the very first things he does, apart from stopping his parents play ‘throw the baby across the pond’, is insist that his name be changed to Alfie.

Once this is accomplished, Alfie has to take all the grown ups in first his town and then his country, and even others, in hand, in a series of madder and madder adventures in which the adults are all bonkers and Alfie is the sole voice of reason.

This is a wonderfully funny book that is not only great for boys and girls aged 5-8 to read alone, but absolutely brilliant to share with children. I defy you to finish it without giggling, it’s that silly.

You can read the first chapter here.

A Twist of Tales by Julia Donaldson – A Book Review


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As you know, every few months I get unreasonably happy when a small padded envelope of treats from publisher Barrington Stoke plops onto the doormat. It’s always such a lovely surprise, and their output is so diverse and so interesting, I never know quite what I’ll find in store for me. It’s never dull, though.


This month they sent me two of their lovely Little Gem books to review. Little Gems are made for those children who are beginning their journey into independent reading. They’re a perfect size for children’s hands to hold, and are always produced to such a high quality they’re like gifts.

As with every book they produce, these books are dyslexia friendly in a range of ways you can explore on their website.

A Twist of Tales is by author of The Gruffalo and ex Children’s Laureate, Julia Donaldson. She has retold three classic folk tales from around the world, which have been delightfully illustrated by Peter Bailey.

It’s lovely to see short stories being offered in a non huge anthology format to children, and as a fan of folk and fairy tales I was delighted to see a fresh take on some classic story tropes. She has chosen The Kings’ Ears, a story from Wales, but which has its roots in classical literature; The Strange Dream, an English story and The Clever Girl, a story from Russia. Each story has strong ties to various classes of folk tales, and although I’ve not read these versions before, I have read many like them. Innovation is not really the point of these stories, and their reworking is a huge part of their charm. They’re well told, funny, entertaining and a wonderful way of linking old and new story telling traditions.

The book is suitable for independent readers aged five to eight, both boys and girls. The stories are also the perfect bedtime read, and would be terrific to share with children either at home or in a classroom setting.

You can read the first tale here.




Maskerade by Terry Pratchett – A Book Review


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Maskerade is the eighteenth book in the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett. My son, Oscar has just finished reading it to me. It says something about his enjoyment of this one that there was more than one occasion when he read over his daily ten pages without even noticing, and he was so desperate to find out what happened he was almost late for school when he was reading the final chapter to me.

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VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310W

Maskerade brings back the witches, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, as well as Nanny’s evil cat, Greebo. This time they are on the road again, going from Lancre to Ankh Morpork to find out what has happened to one of their own, a young woman called Agnes Nitt, who tired of Lancre, has gone off to be an opera singer instead.

Sub plots abound, with Nanny’s cookbook making a surprise hit, and the Watch popping up, along with one of our absolute favourite characters, The Librarian.

The actual plot is a riot of in jokes about the nature of theatre and opera in particular and a some wonderful puns on the greats of musical theatre. There are a great many jokes here, and Pratchett seems to have a whole lot of fun writing it. Almost as much as we had reading it.

This is one of my favourite Discworld books and it was a real pleasure to share it with my son. Recommended to teen readers for the usual reasons, i.e. it can be a bit sweaty and this one is rather laden with innuendos. Excellent stuff!

By The Shores of the Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder – A Book Review


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This year I have been slowly working my way through Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series. I never read them as a child, and for some reason had decided that I wouldn’t like them at all. I am very happy to have been proved wrong, and the series has been one of my great reading pleasures of 2016.


By The Shores of Silver Lake is the fourth book in the sequence. Laura and her family are on the move again, following the railroad builders, who her father is working for, across the vast prairies until they reach a plot of land they want to settle.

Rather like Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott, what strikes me about these books are their modern sensibility. Despite being patently old fashioned thanks to the time in which they were written, Laura, like Jo in Little Women is feisty and independent. She thinks very much like a modern girl, and it is her occasional refusal to be docile and obedient, to question and to do things differently that I think, makes these books the classics they deservedly are. Laura speaks to the wild spirit in all of us, and her tom boyish ways actually make these books have crossover appeal. The bloodthirsty adventures the family experience on their travels also help to make these books work for both boys and girls.

There is a real note of melancholy in this book that seems to be missing from the earlier volumes. Some of it is to do with the family learning to cope with Mary’s blindness, but a lot of it is to do with Laura’s gradual understanding that she is growing up, and will not be able to roam wild much longer. School beckons again, and Laura’s mother is more concerned about giving Laura the education and training she needs to become a teacher. Laura’s cousin, Lena shows Laura just how soon her childhood will become a thing of the past.

There are also the usual hardships here, with the Ingalls family battling against the elements, the wildlife and the hard living people they settle amongst. There is excitement aplenty and the story of the railroads, which Laura is intrigued by, is fascinating.

These books are wonderful to share as a bed time story for both boys and girls, and are wonderful for independent readers aged eight and up.

Silence Is Goldfish by Annabel Pitcher – A Book Review


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Silence is Goldfish by Annabel Pitcher was sent to me by the Amazon Vine programme in exchange for my honest review.


I loved Annabel Pitcher’s debut novel, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece. It was strong, new fiction with a fresh authorial voice that really made her stand out. She wasn’t afraid to tackle difficult subjects and she did it superbly well. I had hoped for more of the same with this, her third book.

I haven’t read her second book yet, by the way, but Ketchup Clouds is on my list, and despite not having enjoyed Silence is Goldfish half as much as My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, I am still fully intending to read it.

So, Silence is Goldfish.

It just didn’t work for me. Pitcher still writes great, strong prose that packs an emotional punch. In this book we are introduced to Tess, a fifteen, almost sixteen year old, who when confronted with difficult truths about her family, cannot find the words to express herself. So, instead she turns to muteness and makes it her power. By not speaking out, she finds that she can express herself in ways that have a surprising impact on her family and friends, and it give her unexpected strength.

So, all this is great, except for three things that I found really didn’t gel.

Firstly, Tess herself. For the most part I really liked her. I liked the fact that she was complicated as a person. I like the fact that she was prickly and difficult and sometimes downright unlikeable. I enjoy characters who are more than just a cardboard cut out to propel a particular emotion or message, and Tess is complex.  On the other hand I found that some of the things about her just did not ring true for me. I am referring in particular to her vivid imaginings about her potential new father. They just seemed so babyish from a girl like Tess who has clearly gone through a lot, and in other parts of the book and in her conversations with her friend Isobel, shows that she is quite savvy.

I realise that this fantasising is desperate wish fulfilment on Tess’ part, but I thought she tried to cling onto the fiction long after the truth was clear for everyone to see, and it made her less believable for me. Her narrative arc is all over the place. Some of the time Tess reads like a 12 year old, others more like a 17 year old. It’s like Pitcher was having trouble deciding what kind of person Tess should be and ricochets between two extremes, never really reconciling them. A girl who fails to run away and confides in a plastic torch, but who goes out to the pub drinking and is clearly up to speed in terms of teen sex, thanks to the chats we see her having with Isobel, is one messed up kid. Maybe that’s what Pitcher wants to portray, a child/woman teetering on the edge of discovering herself, but it just didn’t read like this to me.

Secondly, I found Tess’ parents tricky too. Her mother is like a cypher, and at times borders on the non-existent, and yet it seems to me that the small parts of the book in which she does get to partake, that she would not be either so dumb about Tess’ situation or so passive in the face of what’s going on both with Tess and with her relationship with Tess’ dad. As for Tess’ dad,  he was my absolute breaking point in this book. I could not understand how either Tess or her mum could love a man who is so weak, narcissistic and such a liar. He may have good points that outweigh his almost abusive treatment of Tess in particular, but these are so few, and come so late on in the book that he just could not redeem himself for me. His micro management of Tess also makes his willingness to let her go out drinking in a pub at one point in the book somewhat unlikely, and this soured things for me in terms of believability.

Thirdly, the goldfish convention really didn’t work for me either. It was, at times, just too surreal. It adds an element of ridiculousness that I found undermined the serious messages Pitcher was trying to get across. It’s a clumsy, ill conceived narrative device that just didn’t work for me at all. It would have been more believable for me if she had talked to a diary, even though it’s cliched.

I think this whole book would have worked better if Tess had been portrayed as being younger. It would have explained some of the fantasising and the talking to inanimate objects and babyish relationship with her parents. As it is, it’s almost like two books welded together, one which comes across as a Jacqueline Wilson type novel, and one which is an Annabel Pitcher novel struggling to get out from under the wreckage.

It has flashes of greatness, but it’s a bit of a mess. Nevertheless, I suspect fans will enjoy it, and it would make a great book for girls aged 12-15.

Songs About a Girl by Chris Russell – A Book Review


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Songs About a Girl by Chris Russell was sent to me by the Amazon Vine review programme in exchange for my honest opinion.


I’d already been told by a friend of mine who had read this that she loved it, and she thought I might too. I’m glad to say she was right.

It isn’t the usual kind of thing I love, I have to say. It’s very readable, not too thinky, quite whatever the teen version of chick lit is, full of improbable plot lines and ridiculously far fetched romances, but nevertheless it struck a chord. It reminded me very strongly of the books I used to love myself as a teenage girl, and transported me right back to those times when I had my favourites and read and re-read them over and over again. It has all the things in I would have looked for in a book back then. It has a strong female character who is a bit of an outcast, misunderstood but loyal, artistic and slightly suffering for her art. It has gorgeous boys in it, that tear the heroine’s heart in two having to choose between them. It has drama. It has high octane excitement. It’s just teenage girl wish fulfilment writ large.

Charlie is a sixteen year old girl who loves taking photos and is considered to be an outsider geek at school. She lives with her dad after her mum died when she was very young. Her mother’s memory haunts the book and her back story is part of the unsolved mystery of this book, which will hopefully be resolved in the second book of the trilogy, due out in 2017.

Charlie’s life is transformed when she gets a message from an ex school mate, who just happens to be one of the hottest boys in the hottest boy band on the planet. He remembers her from school and wonders if she wants to come and take pictures of the band for their fan page. As you do.

Charlie, after some hesitation, says yes, and what unfolds is a page turning romantically complex story with a darkly mysterious sub plot that lifts the book out of the ordinary and makes it super compelling.

Recommended for girls aged 11 and up.

Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett – A Book Review


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Interesting Times is the seventeenth book in the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett. My son, Oscar and I are reading our way through the series. Well, he’s reading them to me, and Interesting Times has taken us through our summer holidays, just in time for him to start Maskerade as he goes back to school.


Interesting Times was mis-remembered by me as the book about starting the newspaper (this is in fact, The Truth), so I was quite surprised as he started reading, to find that it is in fact, the novel about Rincewind, the luggage and them being reunited with Twoflower, the young man from the Agatean Empire that Rincewind acts as a tour guide for in the first two books of the series (The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic).

In this book, Rincewind is sent, by magical means, to the Agatean Empire in order to secure peace between its leaders and Lord Vetinari, the Patrician of Ankh Morpork. Rincewind, as is the norm, manages to cause absolute chaos on his travels and nearly dies on a number of occasions, before being sent off to his next adventure which comes a few books down the line in The Last Continent.

The book is a thinly veiled pastiche on the Chinese/Japanese feudal empire and its politics. It is, more specifically, a kind of oriental mash up and satirises everything from Chinese communism and the Red Army, to nightingale floors and beyond.

The book doesn’t quite work for me. I think that by this time, the Rincewind character is getting a bit repetitive. The reunion with Twoflower is quite touching and this time, Twoflower is given more dignity and is less of a bumbling tourist, but you get the sense that Pratchett is going through the motions a bit here. Some of it works well, some less so, and some of it is pretty heavy handed.

Having said that, Pratchett at his worst is always better than a lot of other writers, and there are, as ever, some laugh out loud moments and some absolute gems of lines and ideas.

As ever, the book is really suitable for teenagers who will get more of the jokes.

Boing Boing by Alexander McCall Smith – A Book Review


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Boing Boing is a Picture Squirrel picture book, written by Alexander McCall Smith and published by Barrington Stoke, who sent me this book for review purposes.


Picture Squirrels are a recent imprint by Barrington Stoke after the success of their books for older children. These, as the name suggests, are picture books, aimed at the early years market, up to the age of five. As with Barrington Stoke’s Little Gem books, they are made to be dyslexia friendly, with clear font, lots of space between words and around the lines of text, and gorgeous, rich illustrations, in this case by Zoe Persico.

Alexander McCall Smith is probably best known by adult readers for his No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series, among many other books, but he has also been prolific in recent years, in terms of his output for children. His children’s books bear the same hallmark as his books for adults with gentle, feel good humour and uplifting stories that make you glad you read them.

Boing Boing tells the story of Springy Jane, so called because as a baby she doesn’t so much learn to walk as to bounce. Her bouncing career reaches a peak when she learns to help her neighbours and community with everything from the more mundane, day to day tasks, to helping out in far more dramatic situations.

Will Springy Jane manage when her springs seize up after a watery rescue?

Of course.

This is a lovely, optimistic story with fabulously energetic illustrations by Zoe Persico that perfectly complement the text. It’s a fun book to share and would be lovely as a bed time story or something to share at nursery or in an early years classroom environment.

Grandpa Was An Astronaut by Jonathan Meres – A Book Review


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Grandpa Was An Astronaut by Jonathan Meres was sent to me by my favourite children’s publisher, Barrington Stoke, for review.


This book is one of Barrington Stoke’s Little Gem series, which of all the series of books they do, is probably my favourite. The size is perfect for smaller hands to hold, the quality is beautiful, the attention to detail is a joy, with wonderful end pages, lovely quizzes for children on the inside covers and perfect, gorgeous illustrations by Hannah Coulson. I love them so much I would like larger versions on my wall. They have a wonderful, vintage feel to them.

The story is about a young boy called Sherman who lives with his mum and his dog, Luna, at the seaside. Sherman loves being outdoors and spending time in nature, but most of all he loves space, and sharing his thoughts about space with his grandpa, who used to be an astronaut.

The story focuses on a day that Sherman spends with his grandpa. Sherman’s grandpa spends a whole afternoon playing with Sherman and they go to space, in much the same way that Baby Bear goes to space in Jill Murphy’s classic story, Whatever Next? It has the same lovely, whimsical qualities as Whatever Next? But there is a poignant element to this story that children probably won’t pick up on, but I certainly did. I found myself rather teary by the end of the story.

This is a lovely story for independent readers aged between 5-8, both boys and girls, or a lovely story to share at bed time with younger children or less confident readers. The book has Barrington Stoke’s special dyslexia friendly font and easy to manage chapters, making it perfect for transitional readers and those who struggle with more text rich books.

You can read the first chapter on Barrington Stoke’s website.



The Serpent’s Shadow by Rick Riordan – A Book Review


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I finally got round to finishing The Serpent’s Shadow, the last in the Kane Chronicles trilogy by Rick Riordan. My son and I have been reading it together for months, but he finally decided I was too slow for him, and zipped ahead and finished it himself, which meant I got to read at my own pace, and I zipped off and finished it too.


It’s kind of sad that this really does herald the end of our reading time together. I just can’t keep up with him any more. It is brilliant that his hunger to finish books outpaces me, and he has had his head in a book for most of the summer holidays already, which is wonderful. I’ve offered to read stuff to him, but like his sisters before him, he is ready to go much faster than I can speak the lines, and fair play to him.

So, let’s leave my maudlin’ moment behind and focus on the book. I have to say that I didn’t love The Kane Chronicles: The Red Pyramid,  The Throne of Fire and The Serpent’s Shadow, as much as the Percy Jackson series. I’m not quite sure what it was about them that didn’t quite gel. Perhaps it’s the turn and turn about narratives of Carter and Sadie and the whole premise that this is being read into a tape machine that I found a bit off putting. It might be that I just don’t warm to the Egyptian Gods as much. Whatever it was, the series didn’t grip me, or my children as much as his other work.

Having said that, it’s still good stuff. The same things that make the Jackson books good, work here too. You have fast paced adventure, snappy dialogue, humour and a dark edge to the story that keeps you reading on. Some of the characters are excellent. I particularly loved Bast the cat goddess, Bes the dwarf god, Khufu the baboon and the albino crocodile, Philip of Macedonia. If these characters made an appearance the chapter was made. Sadly they were bit players for the most part in this book. I really liked the character of Walt and it was good to see him come out strongly in this last book.

I am told, by my son, who is still outreading me, that the Kanes hook up with Percy in future books. I look forward to reading about them.

This book is suitable for boys and girls aged 10 and up. The Egyptian names and terms take a while to get used to, although there is a short glossary at the back of the book, and this book is not a standalone. You do need to have read the other two books in the series first for this to make any sense at all.