Reviews: Owen and the Soldier and A Most Peculiar Toy Factory

Both Owen and the Soldier and A Most Peculiar Toy Factory are published by Barrington Stoke who publish dyslexia-friendly books.  They both have a Reading Age of 8 and an Interest Age of 8-12. Both these books are written by popular children’s authors who write middle-grade fiction. Lisa Thompson is the author of The Goldfish Boy, The Light Jar and The Day I was Erased. Alex Bell is the author of The Polar Bear ExplorersClub books.

Illustrator: Mike Lowery
Publication Date: 15th June 2019
Pages: 87

This poignant, beautifully written story really tugged at my heartstrings.  It is a short story, but it packs so much into those pages. 

Owen hasn’t seen his Dad in two years, his Mum is struggling at home, and he finds making friends difficult.  Until the day he encounters a crumbling stone soldier sitting on a memorial bench in his local park. 

He begins to talk openly to him, sharing his fears, worries and dreams.  The soldier helps assuage some of his feelings of intense loneliness.  I loved the genuine regard he shows towards the soldier and what he represents:  showing respect in remembrance of the sacrifices made by fallen soldiers. 

His English teacher is keen for him to write and recite a poem at the opening of the school library, but he refuses to do it as he doesn’t like speaking in front of others. 

When the town Council decides to remove the stone soldier, it becomes the catalyst to propel Owen into taking action which forces him to confront some of his fears.   

His courage in the face of his terror is both heart-breaking and heart-warming as he faces up to his fear of public-speaking:

My poem is about my Dad … And I’d like to dedicate it to the stone soldier who sits in the memorial garden.

I must admit, I cried when I read his poem which is so touching, given how it resonates with him.  The ending of this story is uplifting and demonstrates the importance of seeking help in difficult circumstances. 

Illustrator: Nan Lawson
Publication Date: 15th September 2019
Pages: 114

This is a terrifically creepy and really rather chilling read which had me on the edge of my seat throughout, eager to turn the next page, but worried about what I might discover.

Shadows of teddy bears flit across windows.  Dolls whisper behind closed doors.

Hoggle’s Happy Toy Factory has been closed for five years amid rumours of strange and evil occurrences, until the day that the new owner, Marmaduke J Hoggle, re-opens it.   Ten-year old Tess Pips is intent on saving her family farm from closure, so is determined to overcome her reluctance to work there when it becomes apparent that Mr Hoggle will only employ children in his factory.

The build-up of tension and sense of dread which pervades the Pips’ children’s entry into the factory is brilliant.  Of course, it is not long before they have reason to be afraid.  The sinister goings on in the factory are ominously portrayed, giving the reader that edgy, jumpy feeling that watching a horror movie gives … and the chapter cliff hangers are just perfect for adding to this.

The use of sights, sounds and unexpected twists play a large part in building the creepy atmosphere:  doors painted with manically grinning toys.

The clever use of horror fantasy, magical creatures, and an incredibly eerie setting leads the reader on an irresistible path to unravel hidden secrets and make new discoveries … The action is fast-paced and relentless in a good way.  So much plot happens in this short story, but I can’t talk about it because I’m too worried about giving away spoilers, and this story needs to be read without knowing what to expect in order to have the full impact it definitely intends to have on the reader.

Tess is a wonderfully strong protagonist who overcomes her fears to protect her siblings and has a very matter-of-fact approach which helps her deal with whatever the factory throws at her … and it sends a lot her way!  Can I just say … the ending … oh my … the ending!

# Six for Sunday: Autumn Feels

The October theme for Six for Sunday, hosted by A Little But a Lot, is Autumn Feels and today’s wish is for:  Autumn coloured books. When I think of Autumn colours, I always think of the leaves changing colour from rich greens to wonderful reds, oranges, golds and yellows. So these are the colours I’ve chosen for my six books today.

This is a book I’ve had on my TBR since it was published, so I really need to get round to reading it. It is a re-telling of The Pied Piper of Hamelin which definitely appeals to me.

I picked this one up at my local library as both the blurb and front cover captured my interest.

I loved the first book in this series, Cogheart, so am looking forward to catching up on the rest in the series.

Even though The Switching Hour has a drought and heat at its centre, the colours and bare tree also make me think of Autumn. I love the colours on Scavengers.

I adored Nevermoor, the first book in this series. I’m hoping to catch up with this in my half term as it is quite a lengthy book, and I want to be able to savour it in one sitting!

Review: Skeleton Keys: The Unimaginary Friend

Published by Stripes Publishing
Illustrated by Pete Williamson
Published on 17th September

The Unimaginary Friend is a delicious treat of a story, wrapped up in Guy’s wonderful, humorous story-telling and Pete’s spectacular, Gothic-like illustrations which complement the story perfectly:  a book to be savoured – or devoured – in one sitting. 

‘Ol Skeleton Keys may be a little scary on the eyes, even though he’s a  rather dapper chap, but goodness, is he THE most marvellous creation of a brilliant imagination.  Which is just perfect, as this is a story wholeheartedly celebrating the power and wonder of the imagination. 

Imagine if what we imagined could become unimaginary, no longer trapped in our minds, but joining us in the real world:  what a brilliant concept!  Mr Keys became unimaginary many years before the story he shares with the reader.  He is a fantastically engaging character – a real gentleman of bones with a set of keys for fingers which open portals to other places– using old-fashioned language and creating new vocabulary in a playful and clever way.  Fantabulant! 

And strange things can happen when the imagination runs wild.

Skeleton Keys introduces us to ten-year-old Ben Bunsen on his tenth birthday.  Ben’s family moves around a lot which has made it difficult for him to form real friendships.  But he does have an imaginary friend, the Gorblimey, who is always there for him – in his imagination.  After a disastrous birthday party, Ben imagines the Gorblimey into existence.  At last, he has a best friend, of a rather nervous and fearful disposition, but one who is prepared to protect Ben.

Enter Skelton Keys!  He has felt ‘The Twitch’ that warns him a dangerous unimaginary friend is on the loose, and he is on a single-minded mission to send it to Oblivion.  Unfortunately for Ben, the unimaginary he has set his keys on is the gentle, nervous and kind-natured Gorblimey!  Could Skeleton Keys have made a mistake, even though his Twitch is never wrong? 

So begins an incredibly fast-paced, fun-filled adventure with just the right amount of delightful scariness … an adventure brimming with secrets to be unravelled, danger to be overcome and unimaginary friendships to enjoy.

There is just so much for young readers to enjoy in this story which is perfect for 7-9 year olds.  I’m definitely a fan of ‘Ol Mr Keys and am really looking forward to the next time he shares one of his stories. 

Review: Guardians of Magic

Written and Illustrated by Chris Riddell
Published by Macmillan Children’s Books
Publication Date: 19th September 2019

This is an absolute magical treasury of a story which I utterly adored, from the wonderfully delightful characters to the interweaving of fairy tales into the fabric of the story.  The illustrations are truly stunning and completely captivated me as I journeyed through this richly-drawn world, meeting the most fantastic characters, and becoming caught up in their lives and stories.

Following a wish upon the legendary cloud horses, each of the Guardians of Magic finds a magical item which has been specially made for them in order to help them protect the magic of Thrynne from those who seek to destroy it.

The Guardians, Zam, Phoebe and Bathsheba live in different towns in Thrynne, each of which has its own problems, from mafia-like rats to tree-destroying Tin men to giant-slaying princesses …

Each of the Guardians becomes displaced from their home for different reasons linked to their magical items and happenings in their towns, but I won’t delve into this any more for fear of spoilers.  Eventually, they find refuge and a home in the Tumbledowns – a place which collects people who don’t fit in elsewhere – where they come together to hatch a plan to protect the ancient magic …

I adored all three Guardians who are extremely likeable, brave, resourceful and determined to protect the magic of the Forever Tree.  I loved that they wished on cloud horses:  the granting of their wishes leads them on an action-packed, magical adventure which unites them in friendship and a shared path as Guardians of Magic

The homage to fairy tales throughout this gorgeous story is just brilliant.  I loved how familiar characters took on lives outside their tales, and were often represented in a completely different light to what a reader might imagine. 

The heart of this story relays important messages related to the need to protect the natural environment from destruction, to fight against prejudice based on preconceived notions, and the importance of finding a place where we can belong.

The Cloud Horses are the creation of dreams – I can’t wait to see where their adventures with the Guardians leads them next.  Oh, and don’t we all want our own cloud horse … just a little more wishing and believing in magic should do it!

This is a superbly enchanting and heart-warming adventure which is perfect for readers of 8+.  I’m very much looking forward to introducing it to my class who I know will be just as entranced by the characters and adventure as I was.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for sending me an e-ARC in return for my honest opinion. I loved it so much that I have also bought a hardback copy for myself.

First Lines Fridays is a weekly feature for book lovers hosted by Wandering Words. What if instead of judging a book by its cover, its author or its prestige, we judged it by its opening lines?

  • Pick a book off your shelf (it could be your current read or on your TBR) and open to the first page
  • Copy the first few lines, but don’t give anything else about the book away just yet – you need to hook the reader first
  • Finally… reveal the book!

He came out of nowhere , a man in the smoke. He was nothing more than a shadow at first, a smudge of black in the grey. But as he loomed closer, he grew bigger, became more solid. My heart was a drum.

Any ideas?

I’ve had this one on my TBR for a while. I must admit, this opening has re-captured my attention, so I think this one will be moving into my Believathon prompts for ‘A book with real life issues’ or ‘a strong sense of friendship.’

Goodreads synopsis:

First the accident, then the nightmares. The shadowy thief steals all the colours from Izzy’s world leaving her feeling empty and hopeless. Will her new neighbour and a nest full of cygnets save Izzy and solve the mystery of the colour thief? A heartwarming story about families, friendships,school, nature, hope and self-confidence.

After a frightening car accident, Izzy’s mum is in a coma. Her family is in pieces. Her best friend at school has dumped her. And her nightmares are haunted by a shadowy man stealing all the colours from her world. She’s trying so hard to be brave, but Izzy thinks everything is her fault. Then she meets her new neighbour, Toby, paralyzed after a skateboarding accident, and together they find a nest of cygnets who need rescuing. Particularly the odd one out, called Spike. Will saving Spike save Izzy? Will she and Toby solve the mystery of the colour thief and bring hope and happiness back to Izzy’s life? Written with insight, compassion and empathy – an authentic story about real life and how to survive it.

WWW Wednesday

This is a meme hosted by Taking on a World of Words.  It asks three questions:

1.      What are you currently reading?

2.      What did you recently finish reading?

3.      What do you think you’ll read next?

I’ve been reading a lot of fantasy recently, so thought I’d try an historical setting for my current read. I’ve got very good vibes about this one!

I’ve finished Guardians of Magic which is just gorgeous, with the most fantastic illustrations. The Little Fir Tree was a nostalgic read for me as I love Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales, although this one had a happier ending! OMG! I absolutely adored The Last Spell Breather. It has everything I love about fantasy: fantastic world-building; characters who make an incredible journey through their emotions; and, one of the BEST magical systems I’ve ever read!

I adored The Train to Impossible Places, so I’m really looking forward to reading this one: love the intriguing title and the gorgeous cover!

Six for Sunday: Autumn Feels

The October theme for Six for Sunday, hosted by A Little But a Lot, is Autumn Feels and today’s wish is for:  Books you’d take on an Autumn walk.  As an adult, I love going for walks in the crisp autumn air when the leaves are changing colour. I also love sitting down to a hot drink and a sweet treat afterwards!

When I was a child living in the heart of the countryside, I loved spotting woodland creatures on walks so, in homage to this, I’ve based my choices on middle-grade fantasy books with animals I would love to spot … although admittedly, some from a distance – and if I was visiting another country!

The Last Spell Breather by Julie Pike. I started this last night and am already engrossed in it. I intend to spend my afternoon finishing it.

I loved The Clockwork Crow and have the newly released The Velvet Fox on my TBR. I’m really looking forward to reading it.

I’ve been looking forward to this one for ages as I love Amy’s writing. Snowglobe and A Girl Called Out were both magical reads, and I have no doubt I’ll love this too. It’s not due to be released until 17th October, but I manged to get a sneaky copy yesterday from my local bookshop.

I read this at the start of the year, and absolutely adored this tale of a very brave rabbit who so rightly deserves his legendary status! I can’t believe I haven’t managed to read any of the next three in this series yet – but I do have them all in my bookcase!

This is another book I read at the start of this year, by one of my favourite authors. It also has one of the best opening lines I’ve ever read: Once upon a time, a hundred years ago, there was a dark and stormy girl.

I’ve completely and utterly fallen in love with Sophie’s two books, The House with Chicken Legs and The Girl Who Speaks Bear. Both are steeped in Slavic folklore, and have strong female protagonists whose discoveries as their story unfolds are incredible. Sophie’s writing style is just magical … completely immersing the reader in these wonderful tales.

Review: The Little Fir Tree

Published by Frances Lincoln Children’s Group
Publication Date: 1st October

This gorgeous story is based on the original tale by Hans Christian Anderson.  The vibrant palette and richness of the illustrations are stunning, and evocative of a simple appreciation and celebration of the wonder and beauty of the natural environment as they immerse the reader in images of forest and woodland creatures. 

The story is told from the viewpoint of a little fir tree who is unhappy with his life deep in the forest.  He sees older, bigger trees being cut down and taken away, and longs to find his place in the world, to have a sense of purpose …

Don’t wish your life away, little tree.

Eventually, the little fir tree gets what he has spent his life wishing for as he becomes part of a family’s festive celebrations.   However, his new-found purpose may not be all that he had expected …  

This story conveys an important message: to appreciate the beauty in the natural world around us, and to cherish what we have rather than wishing our lives away with things that may not fulfil us as much as we thought they would.

I love how children’s stories, no matter how seemingly simple, convey important wisdoms, and this story does just that.

Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for an e-ARC in exchange for my honest opinion.

Review: The Wind Reader

Published by Inspired Quill
Published on 28th September 2018

From the opening pages, I was completely captured by this character-driven story of political intrigue in a richly imagined fantasy setting where there are very apparent divides in society.

When Mountain Fever strikes, 15-year-old Doniver finds himself quarantined on Rin, separated from his mother and young sisters in the Uplands who he is desperate to return to, following a tragedy at sea which sees him lose his father, a man who instilled a sense of honour in him.

The rock solid center of a man is his honour, Doniver.  You lose your honour, you lose yourself.

Doniver is a deeply sympathetic character:  a survivor, full of grit and determination, battling with feelings of guilt and shame as he fights to survive and maintain his sense of self-worth amidst the hardships of street life. 

Trapped and alone on the perilous streets of Rin, he meets two other street kids, Jarka and Dilly who befriend him.  I loved the honesty and depth of their developing friendships, forged out of the deprivation faced on the streets and the need for human connection.  Even though their friendships were sorely tested, the sense of loyalty they had towards each other was incredibly moving. 

Jarka introduces Doniver to a way to survive, a way to earn money to stave off the desperate hunger he experiences and a way to provide for his new-found friends.  In order to earn his keep, he feels compelled to pretendto be a wind reader by telling fortunes through a windbox.  This deception causes him a real moral dilemma as lying costs him a loss of honour, but it is necessitated by a basic human desire to survive. 

Wind-reading also puts him in the path of Prince Beran of Rinland, a meeting which puts him in very real danger … and propels him inexorably into a viper’s nest of political intrigue and religious persecution which makes this a real page-turner of a book which kept me engrossed as I journeyed with Doniver through the murky workings of court politics …

This story explores the almost impossible choices which are necessitated by misfortune and harsh deprivation, but which also celebrates the power of friendship and loyalty, and the strength inherent in honour and bravery.    

Thank you to the author, Dorothy A Winsor and Inspired Quill for sending me an e-ARC of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

Review: The Magic Story Shop

Published by Oneworld Publications
Published on 3rd October (UK)
Illustrated by Florentine Prechtel
Translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp

I really enjoyed this gentle story which has at its heart themes of friendship and family.  This would be a perfect read for children of 7+.

The story is written in the wonderfully talkative style of Clara who must say goodbye to her best friend, Lottie as she is moving to another town with her mum due to a difficult family situation.  Of course, the best friends do not want to be parted and where better to hide out than their favourite place:  Mrs Owl’s Story Shop.  The bookshop is a special and magical place to Clara, who is a real bookworm, and this is where she goes to try to help her come to terms with her best friend’s absence.

Having to say goodbye to your best friend feels like a broken heart.

The owner of the bookshop, Mrs Owl, is just wonderful:  she is full of wise advice, has a kind heart and is nurturing.  She is ably assisted by her rather unusual companions:  a rhyming cat called Gustaf and a very grand mirror called Mr King who is incredibly perceptive.  Both can be understood by Mrs Owl and Clara, and they offer plenty of humour throughout.

Clara’s family really look out for her, trying to cheer her up and involving themselves in events at the bookshop.  Of course, no matter how much they try, Clara can’t help missing Lottie. Things get worse when she goes back to school:  will she ever be able to accept that not having her best friend doesn’t mean that she can’t give others a chance?

As well as having to come to terms with Lottie’s move, Clara also needs to help Mrs Owl who is having some problems of her own at the bookshop, problems that could result in its closure.  I loved both the use of the bookshop as a location through which a lot of the action occurs, and its importance to the community. I also enjoyed how some reading stereotypes are overturned.

This is a perfect read for any child coming to terms with a best friend moving away, any child who enjoys the magic of books, or any child who just wants to read a wonderfully feel-good, uplifting story with heart-warming character.

Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for an e-ARC in return for my honest opinion.