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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

King Flashypants and the Evil Emperor by Andy Riley – A Review

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Amazon Vine gave me the chance to review Andy Riley’s new book: King Flashypants and the Evil Emperor. It looked like just the sort of book my son would love, so I snapped their hand off.

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It is, for those of you who read this kind of thing, in much the same vein as the Mr. Gum books by Andy Stanton, and the Stinkbomb & Ketchup Face stories by John Dougherty. It was particularly reminiscent of the Stinkbomb & Ketchup Face stories.

The book is great for the reluctant or transitional reader. It has simple, easy to read chapters, larger than average font and lots of white space on the page. There are tons of cartoon style illustrations to break up the texts and lots of nice jokes and ideas in the illustrations, also by Andy Riley.

The story is about Edwin, a young king who rules his small kingdom with compassion, a lack of sense and an enormous amount of free chocolate. His subjects all love him until the day the money, and consequently the chocolate runs out. They depose Edwin with the help of the evil Emperor Nurbison, who rules the kingdom next door.  It is up to Edwin to reclaim his country and save his people.

The book is funny and fast paced. It’s a dream to read alone or to share with children, and they will love all the characters of which there are a lot of stand outs, who will hopefully become regulars as the series progresses. I particularly liked Jill, the grown up lady who actually runs the country for Edwin, and Emperor Nurbison and his patented evil laugh.

Brilliant for 7-12 year olds. Particularly recommended for boys and reluctant readers. The story is a stand alone adventure, but there is the promise of more to come at the end of the book. It is to be hoped they continue. They’d make a valuable addition to a primary school library or reading corner.

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett – A Book Review

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Soul Music is the sixteenth novel in the Terry Pratchett Discworld Series, and the latest that my son has finished reading to me as we work our way through the lot.

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I remember loving Soul Music when it first came out, but on re-reading I am not so enamoured as I was, although Oscar absolutely loved it. He loved it so much in fact that his usual ten pages became fifty yesterday as he insisted on finishing it, because he wanted to know what happened at the end.

Soul Music is about rock ‘n’ roll reinvented for the Disc as ‘Music With Rocks In’.  In this book though there are really two stories. The first of which deals with what happens when Pratchett time slips the history of Rock ‘n’ Roll through a Discworld sensibility and manages to create an entire mountain of puns and sly allusions to our own understanding of it as possible. The second is his furthering of the story and character of Death, by introducing Death’s grand-daughter, Susan to us.

To me, the two stories do not make particularly happy bedfellows on re-reading. The narratives are at times, rather clumsily bolted together to make a whole, but when you think about the magnificence of Susan in Hog Father, this is tame stuff in comparison and you feel that the story of Death trying to forget, and Albert trying to save him, and Susan coming to an awakening of her unusual birth right, would have made a much better story on its own.

Oscar loved it though, and that’s what matters. He particularly enjoyed all the terrible jokes, and was delighted that the wizards make a memorable return in this book. He was particularly happy about the Librarian creating a magical low ride motorbike in the basement of the Unseen University.

This is everything you would expect from the Discworld, it’s just a bit less polished than normal, but enjoyable nonetheless. It is recommended for teens, and I would, as always, suggest that you start at the beginning of the series if you want to get the true magnificence of what comes later, as part of what makes these books so enjoyable is tracing all the references to previous adventures as you build on your vast knowledge of the Discworld.

 

Born Scared by Kevin Brooks – A Review

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Amazon Vine offered me the latest novel by Carnegie Medal winner, Kevin Brooks to review a few weeks ago. After reading and being traumatised by The Bunker Diary, I was somewhat hesitant. Then I pulled myself together and said yes. I didn’t enjoy The Bunker Diary, but I admit that it was a compelling read and every teenager I’ve spoken to who has read it, including my thirteen year old, loved it. I decided to give him another go.

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Born Scared is a very different kettle of fish to The Bunker Diary. It is still quite a traumatic read, but the difference in this book for me, was the very real sense of hope in the book, something I found missing in The Bunker Diary and which was one of the reasons I found it so hard to finish.

In this book we meet Elliot. Elliot is a teenage boy who is absolutely terrified of almost everything, to such an extent that he is a lock in in his own house. Elliot narrates the novel, and according to Elliot, he has been this way since birth. Elliot believes that he remembers his birth, and that he also remembers his twin sister, Ellamay, who died an hour after they were born. Elliot believes that Ellamay is still with him, and his conversations with her litter the book.

The action in the book takes place over the course of one, traumatic day. Elliot, thanks to a mess up at the local pharmacy is almost out of the anti-anxiety drugs which are one of the only things that make his life, such as it is, liveable. His mother, not wanting to leave him, asks a friend to pick them up for her. When the friend doesn’t arrive, his mother sets out in a snow storm to retrieve them. It is when she doesn’t come back that Elliot has to take action.

This is an extraordinary book in many ways. It’s tense and absorbing and I piled through it in a couple of hours. What makes it extraordinary in my opinion is the way that Brooks handles the character of Elliot. There are no excuses or rationalisations of Elliot’s behaviour. There are no neat explanations, we are just dumped right in the middle of Elliot’s world and his mind is our filter for the whole novel.

Elliot is forced outside of his comfort zone with spectacular results, as are several other characters in the book, who may be considered normal. Brooks pushes them all to the edge and then over, and the book is littered with stories of how people behave in extreme situations.

What I thought was particularly effective was the fact that although the action of the story is completed so that the novel ends neatly, there is no sense of what happens to each of the characters afterwards, and how what they experience on this intense day, shapes them in the future, and I really wanted to know.

The book would be suitable for the pre-teen market, unlike The Bunker Diaries, because although there are episodes of violence they are not too extreme, and are resolved within the plot. I’d recommend it for children aged 10 and up. It would work for both boys and girls.

 

Replica by Lauren Oliver – A Book Review

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Amazon Vine offered me the chance to review the book Replica by Lauren Oliver a few weeks ago. I wasn’t sure if I’d like it, but my thirteen year old daughter, Tallulah, is a big fan of Oliver’s books and insisted that I give it a go, mainly so that she can read it after me. I complied.

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It is easier in the long run.

Replica, I thought, would not be a book I enjoyed. It’s a dystopian fantasy book set in America’s future. It deals with the idea of cloning, genetic experimentation and what exactly makes a human being human. It all sounded a bit sterile to me.

In actual fact, Replica far exceeded my expectations and I ended up finishing it over two days.

It’s a book with a quirk, something I’m also generally not keen on. The book is split into two halves. You can read whichever half you like first, as each is roughly the same story told by two separate protagonists, Lyra and Gemma. One half is supposed to be the ‘human’ point of view, the other that of the ‘clone’, but it becomes apparent as you read on that there are a few surprises in store, both for the characters and the reader.

Oliver takes a subject that could be quite dry and clinical and injects it with a real sense of approachability and humanity. The characters are appealing and complex. I liked the fact that neither girl was perfect, each had flaws and vulnerabilities, that at times made them a bit unlikeable, but at the same time, more understandable. Gradually, as the narratives progress you start to build a really well developed, deep understanding of both the young women protagonists, and actually come to care for them and root for them to succeed.

Although the story is complete, there are hints that it may not be entirely finished, and I found myself wishing that Oliver would write more, and quickly.

The books are clearly aimed at the teenage girl market, but I think that there are some parts of the books that, if marketed correctly, would sell them to boys too, particularly if they are interested in this genre. The book is tautly plotted, well thought out and really exciting to read.

 

Billy Button Telegram Boy by Sally Nicholls – A Book Review

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I got a most exciting parcel from Barrington Stoke, my favourite children’s publisher last week. In it was a copy of one of their latest Little Gem titles, Billy Button: Telegram Boy, written by award winning novelist Sally Nicholls and illustrated by Sheena Dempsey.

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Regular readers will know how much I rate both Barrington Stoke and their Little Gems collection. Each book is perfectly sized for small hands to hold, with top quality production values meaning each book is a real pleasure to own. As usual it employs Barrington Stokes signature font, making the books more dyslexia friendly. The usual cream rather than white pages, which also help children with reading difficulties to focus better, and plenty of space around the text, and not too many words on the page, all help to make this book easier for the independent reader.

The story is charming. Billy lives with his mum and dad who run the village shop and post office. The story is set in the time of the telegram, which Nicholls explains to the modern reader without managing to be either patronising or boring. Billy dreams of having the important job of delivering the telegrams, and when the regular telegram boy gets sick, there isn’t anyone but Billy to hold the fort.

Billy’s dad teaches him what to do, and Billy learns the rules. The story unfolds as Billy discovers, through his telegram delivery, an unlikely love story in the village and helps to set the path of true love running smoothly. Through this, Billy also learns when to break the rules for the greater good.

There are moments of lovely humour, underscored by the delightful illustrations of Sheena Dempsey and the text and pictures marry together beautifully to make this a really gorgeous little tale. It’s probably more for girls than for boys, but the job of the telegram boy and the humour lift it out of run of the mill romantic stories and might well achieve the crossover enough to interest boy readers too.

The book is recommended for child readers aged 5-8. It would also be a lovely story to share at bedtime with younger readers.  You can check out the first chapter on the website.

I think these Little Gem books would make such beautiful gifts if you’re looking for a present for a book mad child. This book has such lovely details that really make it stand out from the usual fare. The end papers are illustrated with puzzles for the reader, and there is the usual fold out flap to use as an integral book mark. Each section of the story is divided into chapters to make the story more ‘grown up’ while still keeping the picture book qualities that transitional readers love.

Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence – A Book Review

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We all know the kind of books we like to read, and it is very easy, given the boom in children’s publishing in recent years, to stick to the kind of things we know we will enjoy. This, however, is a shame, when there are so many new genres, themes and novelists out there waiting to be discovered. As an Amazon Vine reviewer, I get offered all kinds of things to review, and quite often I will pick something that challenges me, rather than something safe, because I hope I will be amazed by something new, something that shakes me out of my tried and tested rut.

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Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence was exactly this sort of book. It didn’t tick any of my boxes in terms of what I would choose to read, but I was intrigued enough by the synopsis to order it and take a chance on it.

I’m so glad I did. I loved this book. It was beautifully written, absolutely gripping and compelled me to the very last page. I read it in one, twenty four hour period and was irritated when I had to put it down to get on with real life.

The book tells the story of Marlon Sunday, a sixteen year geek, who at the beginning of the book feels like all his birthdays have come at once when he is asked out by the girl of his dreams. Marlon can’t quite believe his luck, and he is absolutely right not to, when things go hideously wrong a few hours into his first and only date.

Marlon’s life goes into free fall, and we are absorbed into the complexities of his young life as he struggles to make sense of things and pick a way forward that seems right to him. Marlon is faced with horrible choices, and his courage is immense in the face of the dilemmas he comes up against.

The wider issues in the book deal with gang life in London, racial divisions in communities, a lack of faith in authority to deal with issues that affect people viscerally and how generations of feuding can rip apart the hope and futures of young people who would rather not get involved, but see no other way out.

The book pulls no punches. It’s not an easy read, but it is immensely satisfying, clever and really powerful. Highly recommended for teens, both boys and girls.

Men At Arms by Terry Pratchett – A Book Review

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Men At Arms is the fifteenth book in the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, and sees the return of the City Watch. In this book you feel that Pratchett really has committed to the Watch as a sub series of the Discworld books. He takes it into more concrete territory here, extending story lines, plotting into future  books and really hooking the readers into the cast of characters that got their first outing in Guards Guards.

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My son absolutely loved this story of the assassination of one of the Clown’s Guild and the mysterious deaths plaguing the city, all played out against the backdrop of Commander Vimes marriage to Lady Sybil. In this book you get to meet Angua, a fantastic character who goes on to be one of the backbones of the watch, Detritus finds his forever home, and the Patrician begins his journey to the complex three dimensional character he finally ends up as in later books.

You also get to see Pratchett moving further into his role of social commentator.

Reading this book with Oscar, during recent weeks, where intolerance and fear of the ‘other’ has blossomed and spread into violence and hatred on our streets, I felt so strongly that this book should be mandatory reading for all. It made me miss Terry and what he would make of these extraordinary times we are living through, and listening to my son read it was equal parts pain and pleasure.

A book for our times. As ever with Pratchett’s oeuvre, not really one for primary school children unless you are very relaxed about swearing and explaining things like the seamstress’ guild. Perfect for teens.

 

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