Night Watch by Terry Pratchett

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Night Watch is number twenty nine in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, and my son, Oscar has just finished reading it to me as part of our self appointed task of him reading the entire series to me. It both saddens and amazes me that we have made it this far in what seems such a short time. How can we be over half way through already?

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Night Watch was a book I never particularly enjoyed when I read the series for the first time, but it is one which I have learned to love with new passion on re-reading. Oscar has loved it right from the get go. The Watch books are his favourites in the series and he loves Commander Vimes.

We read ten pages every day, and this is one of the few books in the series where he has begged to read on to me, and on occasion I’ve had to ask him to stop because I’ve had other things that needed doing, and he has moaned at me about it. Maybe that’s what has made me love it even more this time round. His enthusiasm is infectious.

This is a momentous book in many ways. It’s Pratchett’s take on the classic, time slip novel, and he does it flawlessly, and adds a lot to the genre, which is pleasing. In terms of moving things on in Discworld, we have the momentous moment of Vimes becoming a parent, and the equally momentous moment of discovering how Vimes parented his young self as he goes back to the days of the infamous Cable Street riots with a little help from the Monks of Time.

There are so many wonderful cameos here from characters minor, like Cut Me Own Throat Dibbler, and Reg Shoe, to major ones like Vetinari, that you cannot help but be amazed and impressed at Pratchett’s utter mastery of the universe he so lovingly created. I found myself thinking of him as the writer so often during this reading of the novel. It added a certain poignancy to proceedings.

This is one of his darker novels. There’s always humour, but so often here it is black and laced with menace, and a particular vicious cynicism at the corruption of power in both police and government. It really is a novel of our time, and as ever an object lesson in how to be humane.

 

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Mint Choc Chip At The Market Cafe by Jonathan Meres

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Mint Choc Chip At The Market Cafe by Jonathan Meres was sent to me by Barrington Stoke in return for my review.

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This is one of the fabulous, Little Gems readers, which are perfect for newly independent readers aged five to eight years. They also make great bed time stories to share with younger, non readers. This book has beautiful illustrations by Hannah Coulson, and is a great story if you want to teach children about sharing.

Priya’s parents own a pet stall at their local market, and every Saturday, Priya goes to help them out. It is her favourite time of the week, and when she isn’t helping, she’s hanging out with her friends whose parents also own market stalls. One particular Saturday she meets Stan, a new friend. Priya is delighted to find that Stan’s parents own a pet stall too. She can’t understand why her parents are not as thrilled, until wise Nana-ji teaches Priya and her parents what is important.

I think this would be a particularly great story to have in an Early Year’s classroom to read aloud, and learn about how sharing can make a community work. I am particularly in love with the illustrations and very much looking forward to seeing more of Hannah Coulson’s work.

I Killed Father Christmas by Anthony McGowan

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Barrington Stoke style themselves the home of ‘Super Readable Books’ and based on the two that dropped onto my doormat for me to review this weekend, I cannot disagree.

Regular readers of this blog will already know that I am a long term fan of the publishing house and everything they stand for. What’s not to admire with books that are perfectly designed for all age ranges and abilities? Stories that are tested on the children they’re actually aimed at rather than adults? Dyslexia friendly fonts and winning partnerships between authors and illustrators that just lift the stories to another level altogether?

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First up for review this week is Anthony McGowan’s I Killed Father Christmas.

Jo-Jo is having a terrible Christmas Eve. Mum and dad are fighting, and he’s pretty sure it’s his fault. Then, worse than that, he comes to the conclusion that Father Christmas has been killed, and that’s his fault too.

Jo-Jo knows he has to save Christmas and the rest of the story maps out his attempt to do just that.

There are many things to love about this story, not least, the glorious illustrations by Chris Riddell on every page.

Then there is the fact that this is a genuinely affecting, properly Christmassy story but which avoids excessive schmaltz and sugariness. I love the fact that the story is so real, and that there is a well balanced mixture of dark moments and happiness, which makes the sweet spots all the more emotionally punchy.

I particularly enjoyed the fact that the story has depth of emotional intelligence which meant that I as an adult reader got as much from it as the child listener but on a different level. It’s very well crafted and a thoroughly satisfying read.

It’s available from Barrington Stoke via the link above, or from Amazon. Barrington Stoke have the first chapter available to read on their site if you want to browse before buying. The book is suitable for 5-8 year olds as independent readers, or younger if you’re looking for a wonderful Christmas tale to share at story time.

The Adventures of Egg Box Dragon by Richard Adams

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Richard Adams is perhaps most famous for the novel, Watership Down, a book which I couldn’t read until I was an adult because books about animals made me cry so much, my mum banned them from the house when I was a child.

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I was most intrigued when Amazon Vine offered me the chance to review his short story The Adventures of Egg Box Dragon, with new illustrations by the wonderful Alex T. Smith, author of the brilliant Claude, series.

The Adventures of Egg Box Dragon are charming, funny and luckily for me, not sad in any way at all. The story is funny and charming and perfect for sharing at bed time and story time.

Emma makes a marvellous dragon out of egg boxes and other bits of junk. When she gets home with it, the gardener suggests she wake up the magic in the dragon by leaving him in the garden overnight. She is sceptical, but the next morning when Egg Box Dragon is roaring all over the garden, she is forced to change her mind.

This is a lovely story which has been given a new lease of life by the gorgeous, funny illustrations of Alex T. Smith. I absolutely loved it.

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.

 

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.