Spellslinger by Sebastien de Castell

Spellslinger by Sebastien de Castell is a new novel on the YA fantasy scene which is the first of what looks to be a most promising series of books.

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Kellen is a young man who is about to reach is sixteenth birthday. In the world in which he lives, all young people of his age are tested on their birthday with regard to their magical skills. If they pass a series of tests they become the ruling class, the powerful elite. If they don’t they are shunned from society and made to serve those in power, even those in their own families.

Kellen has a problem. His magic, which should have been sparking into life over the last few years and reaching its peak of power, is actually fading and he is about to become an outcast in his own life. To make things worse, his younger sister looks as if she will be one of the most powerful mages his people have ever known.

The book opens with Kellen about to embark on a magical duel with one of his worst enemies. Kellen thinks he can win the day by sheer cunning alone, but two things conspire against him, his sister and the arrival of a mysterious stranger, an outlaw who doesn’t play by the rules, doesn’t worship magic and who might just show Kellen a different way to be.

This is a great fantasy novel that is combined beautifully with a coming of age novel. It’s funny, gripping and in parts handles the emotional journey Kellen is on sensitively. It balances all the elements of the disparate genres it pulls from very well, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was well paced, well written and the characters were fleshed out nicely. The book ends satisfactorily in terms of the initial plot lines, but is open enough to allow for more volumes to be written and I believe the second volume will be out in the autumn of this year. I will be looking for it.

A good, solid read for children aged 10 and up, and adults who like fresh voices in fantasy fiction.

This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson

I really wish that something like This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson existed when I was a teenager. It’s an amazing book and I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone looking for a way to discuss with teens or even pre teens, anything other than the standard, heterosexual relationship situation.

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It’s simply written without being patronising. The copy I read was a reprint which has been added to and extended since it was first published to make sure that all the information available is as up to date as possible.

It appears effortless in its ability to explain complicated and often confusing ideas to people who may already be feeling pretty confused about their sexuality. It is non judgmental and deeply compassionate. It’s funny and wise and inclusive. I absolutely loved it, and despite being much older than the target demographic, I learned a lot.

I would make it mandatory to carry a copy of this in all secondary school libraries. I’d consider using it as a teaching aid in primary year six too, when regular, heterosexual sexual relationships is taught to children. It does a wonderful job of normalising whatever your feelings are about your and other people’s sexuality.

Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett

Carpe Jugulum is the twenty third Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett and features my favourite characters, the witches. The witches always cheer me up, and this book is no exception. My son, who is reading these to me, prefers the watch, but he has an abiding love of Nanny Ogg which means he’s always quite pleased when the witches turn up in a story.

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In this book, Magrat and Verence, now rulers of Lancre, are having their first child christened. The christening is pretty much pinched wholesale from every fairy tale you’ve ever read and in particular, Sleeping Beauty. It has, of course, it’s classic Pratchettian twists and turns that make you look at traditional stories and tropes with fresh eyes, and this is one of the joys of Pratchett.

There are various disasters in this novel. Granny thinks she has been forgotten from the guest list and is sulking in her cottage. Agnes Nitt is still struggling with the whole idea of her witchiness, not helped by her alter ego, Perdita, who haunts her. Nanny is outraged because Verence, as a progressive kind of monarch, has invited a priest of Om to oversee the service. Nanny remembers that Omnians burn witches and hasn’t caught up with the latest twists and turns in the Omnian saga which are laid out in the book, Small Gods. If you’ve read this novel prior to reading Carpe Jugulum, you will enjoy the character of Mightily Oats much more than if this is your first foray into the Discworld.

The worst thing Verence has done however, is to invite vampire aristocracy from Uberwald to the christening, not knowing that you must never invite vampires anywhere, even if it does sound rude. The vampires are coming, and even though they are a new and sophisticated breed of vampires, they’re just as much trouble as the old sort.

This book has lots of great jokes, time to revisit lots of characters and old plot lines to add richness to the general Discworld tapestry and plenty of interweaving plot lines to keep the pages turning. Oscar and I thoroughly enjoyed this book, particularly meeting the character of Verence’s falconer, Hodges Arrgh again. It’s funny, clever and a very rewarding read for people of all ages.

Little Town on the Prairie – Laura Ingalls Wilder – A Book Review

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Little Town on the Prairie is the next in the Little House on The Prairie series, of which, The Long Winter was the previous volume.

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The Long Winter was such a harrowing read. Laura and her family nearly starve to death in a particularly brutal winter, where they and indeed the fledgling town where they live, are saved by the daring of Laura’s future husband, Almanzo Wilder, who, along with his friend, brings vital supplies to the town’s snowbound population.

It was always going to be a tough volume to follow in terms of drama. Part of you, as the reader, craves more excitement, but there is always the knowledge that this is a real (although somewhat romanticised version) story about real people and their lives, and actually, reading this much gentler, more domestic volume, is a bit of relief. It is nice to know that Laura was not always having a hard time of her pioneering life.

In this volume, Laura has to do her final bit of growing up, waving goodbye to her beloved sister Mary, getting her first jobs and finishing school. It’s tough. You always sense the wildness in Laura that doesn’t want to be tamed or pious or good and personally, I sympathise with that version of Laura far more than the well behaved one. I think it’s part of what makes theses books so enduring, that Laura’s own mind is so modern, despite the restraints of the time she grew up in. It was a little sad to see her wildness squashed here.

It is however, enjoyable to see her finally getting a real social life and beginning to strike out on her own and I am very much looking forward to reading about what happens next for her.

The books are still suitable for primary aged readers as even with Laura reaching almost adulthood there is nothing in here to shock or scandalise. They do become less appealing to boy readers as the series evolves however, mainly because Laura’s escapades are being tamed by the social expectations placed upon her.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Russell Brand – A Book Review

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This book caught my eye in a second hand book shop a few weeks ago because of the illustrations by Chris Riddell more than anything else. I like Russell Brand’s work, but I was understandably wary about him writing a children’s book, given the nature of his adult material and also publishers who publish celebrities simply because they were celebrities. I flicked through it in the shop and it looked alright, and I thought my son would love it because of the brilliant illustrations by Riddell, so I bought it despite my misgivings and the fact that I have always hated the story of The Pied Piper.

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He read the whole thing in one sitting, very excitedly telling me that it had lots of rude words in it. Given that he is reading me all the Disc World books I felt that horse had already bolted, so merely sighed and thought I would have to read it before I loaned it to any other children.

When he’d finished it, he gave it to my 17 year old daughter to read, who also read it in one sitting. She put it firmly on the top of my to read pile and insisted I read it because I would love it. I did read it, and I did love it. And Oscar is right. It’s full of rude words!

I’ve always hated the Pied Piper story. I always felt so sorry for the little boy on crutches who gets left behind at the end of the story. It seemed so unfair to leave him with the horrible people of Hamelin. The whole story is just downright mean.

Brand subverts this and without changing the plot at all, manages to turn it from a mean hearted parable that smacks of Victorian morality to an anarchic, funny story in which the weakest, most despised person in the story is the one who reaps the rewards.

It’s scatalogically fruity, quite demented and at times laugh out loud funny. It’s thought provoking and clever and the illustrations by Riddell only add to the anarchistic genius of the book. I found it completely refreshing and would think it is a perfect book to entice reluctant readers into enthusiasm and would work wonderfully for the tens and overs as long as you’ve got a strong threshold for rudeness.

 

Saint Death by Marcus Sedgwick – A Book Review

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Marcus Sedgwick is an author I revisit from time to time. I’ve never ‘loved’ his books particularly but every one I have read has been unsettling, clever and powerful. he doesn’t really do cosy books. They have all stayed with me in their own way and each has been profoundly different from the other. When I got the chance to review Saint Death I snapped it up. I like authors who challenge me and who constantly reinvent themselves.

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The last work of Sedgwick’s I read was She Is Not Invisible, a thriller with an unusual plot twist that I won’t spoil for you here. Saint Death is totally different. In some ways it reminded me very strongly of Trash by Andy Mulligan. It has the same intensity, the same kind of message and the same rawness to it.

Saint Death tells the story of Arturo, a teenage boy who came originally from Guadaloupe in search of a better life with his parents. They end up on the Mexican side of the Mexican/North American border, living in a shanty town and barely surviving. By the time the story opens, Arturo is alone, scraping a living working in a local garage and supplementing his meagre income playing cards.

His closest friend, almost brother, Faustino disappeared the year before and suddenly reappears in terrible trouble and needing Arturo’s card playing skills to get him out of a situation with one of the local gangs. Faustian needs money fast, and Arturo is the only person he can turn to for help.

The book unfolds over the space of one desperate twenty four hour period in which flashbacks and memories give us the story of Arturo’s life to date and we learn what the future will hold for the two young men. Each short chapter is interspersed with sections of reports and/or almost choral poetic pieces about the political and economic situation that has put Arturo and Faustian here.

The book is short and easy to read but what it says, backed up by Sedgwick’s own research is sometimes hard to read and it really is brutal. This is very much a book for teens rather than younger children. It pulls no punches about the life of people forced to live at the very edges of existence and who simply survive against tremendous odds.

I finished the book about a week ago and I’ve thought about it every day since. It’s one of those books, much like Trash, that I think should be required reading for everyone. It’s not comfortable, but it seems very necessary if things are ever to change, that we open our eyes to how the poorest of us live, and how things could be different if we were to do our bit, individually and collectively.

The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett

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The Last Continent is the twenty second book in the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett and my son Oscar and I have just finished reading it. Well, he’s been reading it to me.

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I confess that having been a Pratchett fan right from the beginning, when this was first published I had a falling out of love with Pratchett. I really didn’t like this book, and didn’t read another one for a few years after this. This is the first time I’ve revisited it, and I still believe it is a low point in the series. It seems too much of a joke, and almost like a return to the Colour of Magic in some ways. Everything is a bit obvious, a bit too funny and the finesse that starts with Small Gods seems lacking in development here.

I confess that it was lovely to see the Librarian get such a juicy role in this book and his shape shifting scenes were the thing that saved this for me.

Having said that, Oscar really enjoyed it. He always loves anything with Rincewind and the Luggage in, and he was delighted to see them return here, roaming through the continent of XXXX, a thinly veiled Australia, which heaves with jokes about kangaroos and sheep and Mad Max type figures and which he found rip roaringly funny.

He was sad that it finished. I wasn’t.

As ever. It’s a book for teens at best, unless you’re broad minded and willing to explain a lot of stuff to an enquiring mind.

Black Cats and Butlers (Rose Raventhorpe Investigates book 1) by Janine Beacham

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I was sent Black Cats and Butlers, the first volume in the Rose Raventhorpe Investigates series by Amazon Vine in exchange for my honest opinion. I thought this would be rather like the Katherine Woodfine book, The Painted Dragon, that I reviewed a few weeks ago. I like a historical whodunnit so I was happy to try something new.

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Black Cats and Butlers is a fun read. It’s an easy read, not too taxing and the emphasis is on more of a romp than any attempt at historical accuracy from the author Janine Beacham. The story is set in a fictional version of York, called Yorke, yet it is recognisable in many of its features, including the cathedral, which features prominently in this book.

Rose Raventhorpe is the only daughter of a wealthy couple who are, for some reason, living in Yorke, despite the fact that Rose’s father is a member of parliament and Rose’s mother is always going to London to have her portrait painted, conveniently leaving Rose alone. In this story, the only person who Rose can rely on is the butler, Argyle who acts as parent, friend and confidante to Rose, as well as a kind of nanny/governess.

Rose’s life is torn apart when Argyle is the third butler in Yorke to be assassinated by The Black Glove. Rose is determined from that point on to track down Argyle’s killer and hopefully solve the mystery of whoever is also removing the watchful cat statues which are said to act as guardians to the city of Yorke.

Along the way, Rose gets caught up in romance, a secret society of butlers and tangles with body snatchers.

This is a funny, page turner of a book that would be ideal for 8-12 year olds.

King Flashypants and The Creature from Crong by Andy Riley – A Book Review

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King Flashypants and the Creature from Crong by Andy Riley is the second book in the King Flashypants series, the first being King Flashypants and the Evil Emperor. I was sent the first book to review by Amazon Vine, and Oscar and I enjoyed it so much I snapped up the second book when it was offered to me.

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King Edwin is a boy who also happens to be king of Edwinland. All his subjects love him because he’s a kind boy, and he also likes sweets as much as his subjects. When the story opens everyone is a bit miserable because Edwin’s right hand woman, Minister Jill has put a stop to all the sweet eating and is making everyone eat ten lots of fruit and vegetables a day.

Things look up when a hermit who lives in a house of dead wasps arrives from the wilderness to say that the land is about to be ravaged by a creature called the Voolith. Edwin decides to go on a quest and save all his subjects from death by challenging the creature to single combat.

The plan goes awry when he is challenged to a duel by the evil Emperor Nurbison, who hates Edwin with a passion and who wants to conquer Edwinland for himself.

Can Edwin defeat the Voolith, foil Nurbison’s evil plans and somehow avoid eating ten portions of fruit and veg every day?

I’d tell you, but then you might not read the book.

This is just as much fun as the first book in the series. Andy Riley does all the illustrations as well as the text and I particularly love the way he depicts Emperor Nurbison. Also Nurbison has the best laugh of all evil villains ever.

A great chapter book for children aged 7-10. Funny, silly and full of great jokes. It took me a few days to finish it as I was reading several other things at the same time, and my son hovered around the desk every day pestering me until the day he could take it away and have it for himself. He’s thoroughly enjoying it. We hope there are many more in the series.

Claude: Going for Gold by Alex T. Smith – A Book Review

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My family are united in their love of Claude, the delightful dog and his equally delightful sidekick Sir Bobblysock. We have loved Claude from the beginning and he never fails to please. Claude, Going for Gold was sent to me to review by the Amazon Vine programme in exchange for my honest opinion.

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Honestly and promisedly, we love it. Alex T. Smith is both a brilliant illustrator and a brilliant writer. His books work for both adults and children because his humour is beautifully multi-layered. Children will enjoy the slapstick nature of Claude’s adventures and adults will love the subtle humorous asides. I particularly love the character of Sir Bobblysock for these qualities.

In Going for Gold, Claude and Sir Bobblysock are stumped as to how to spend their day when they get inadvertently caught up in a sporting parade that takes them to an arena sports day. Claude dons a pair of borrowed ‘snazzy knickers’ and competes in many different events. Success eludes him until Sir Bobblysock spots some nefarious activity going on near the trophy table.

A wonderful transitional book which would be a fabulous addition to any primary school library and which would work equally well for both boys and girls. A delight to share as a bed time story and from my own experience, Claude books make excellent stocking stuffers for those in their late teens as an unexpected and wholly welcome Christmas gift.