Starfell: Willow Moss and the Lost Day

This is such a special book:  a truly mesmerising read!  I utterly adored everything about it:  the superb world-building, the colourful characters, the fast-paced action and the warm humour.

Willow Moss is born into a family of witches, but does not have any of their exciting powers.  Finding lost things does not seem a very important magical trait until a whole day – Tuesday to be precise – goes missing, and the most powerful, feared and revered witch in Starfell comes asking for help!

How can Willow refuse? Whilst on the outside she is sensible, deep down she craves an exciting adventure.  And an adventure she must have to save the world.  Of course, she needs to take her only friend to help:  the monster under the bed, Oswin.  Oh my goodness:  Oswin!  He is just brilliant – grumpy, easily offended, unwittingly hilarious… and did I mention? – absolutely adorable! 

Will Willow be able to find the Lost Day?  Who is responsible for taking it?  Will the magic-loathing Brothers of Wol thwart her mission?  To find the answers, the reader must journey with Willow and her companions on their incredible action-packed adventure through Starfell which crackles with action and sparkles with humour.  What’s not to love about engine-powered brooms, a portal cloak, cloud mountains, tree houses and lost spells!  The landscape of Starfell is vividly detailed and wonderfully imaginative, each part having its own unique character and inhabitants, from the broom-making part-elves of Radditch to the forbidden City of Beady Hill to the trolls of Troll Country.

Willow is just perfect!  She is kind-hearted, helpful, brave and adventurous.  She does not need her magical power to find some truly wonderful companions along her way including the kind-hearted cloud dragon, Feathering; the eccentric visionary, Nolin Sometimes; and, Calamity the sensitive hygiene-conscious troll.

There are some powerful messages in this story about discrimination, segregation and misuse of power, encased in a delightfully enchanting story full of friendship, determination and the power of good.  

This is a perfect read for children of 8+ who I’m sure will adore the magical world of Starfell and its inhabitants.

Thank you to NetGalley and Harper Collins Children’s Books for an e-ARC. I have also bought a copy for my class library!

The Girl with the Shark’s Teeth

This is an enchanting story, full of adventure, danger and hidden secrets, waiting to be discovered.  But it is also a story of heritage, self-discovery and acceptance.

Minnow lives aboard The Seafarer (a stunning pirate boat with a mermaid figurehead) with her mother, Mercy, and faithful husky, Miyuki.  She is naturally drawn towards the water, and feels out of place and awkward on land. 

The story opens with the kidnapping of her mother by three men who believe that Mercy is the key to help them capture a mermaid.  Isn’t the existence of mermaids just part of old myths and folklore, so why are they adamant that her Mum can help them capture one?  What secrets has she been withholding from her daughter?

Left with strict instructions to go to her Grandmother in Iceland, Minnow travels there aboard The Seafarer where she meets Raife, who shares her love of the sea.  Minnow has no intention of staying safe at her Grandmother’s, but has every intention of rescuing her mother before it is too late.  Once at her Grandmother’s, Minnow makes a startling discovery.  Because of who she really is, she has the power to open the Gateway to the secret Wild Deep and venture across it in a desperate and urgent mission to free her mother. 

The world of the Wild Deep is exquisitely revealed, and creates a real sense of wonder and beauty, not only at the landscape but also at the dazzling seafolk of lore which Minnow and Raife find there.  They are both beautiful and dangerous, with some prepared to help and others to hinder.   They emit a real sense of threat and menace which creates plenty of action and tension as the children try to outwit and escape from them as they struggle to cross this new world.  Will the Deep release Minnow to allow her to attempt to rescue her mother?  Will there be a price to pay?  Will Minnow be imprisoned there, unable to leave, or will she be free to travel in both worlds?

Minnow is a strong, courageous, quick-witted girl who is willing to face her fears, fight for survival in dangerous situations and make difficult decisions to protect her friends.  She builds a close bond with Raife as they come to trust, rely on and protect each other.  She is a girl of two worlds who is resolved to fit into both, with all the determination, strength and courage that this demands.

A fascinating read for children of 8+.

Storm Hound

This was a fantastically enjoyable read. Storm of Odin is such an endearing character. He refuses to accept that he is a puppy when he falls to Earth, and continues to act as if he is all powerful. This leads to some perfect comedy moments.

He is adopted from a Rescue Home by Jessie, who has just moved to Wales, and is dealing with some difficult adjustments to her new life: Storm is just what she needs to help her settle in her new home.

Mix together three magicians disguised as Professors; a Not-Boy and his ‘aunt’; a dog’s new best friend in the form of a cat called Nutmeg; and, some rather hilarious sheep, and you have the perfect recipe for a fun-filled, laugh-out-loud, magical adventure.

The Closest Thing to Flying

Wow! This is such a powerful story, told through the eyes of two brave girls, Semira and Hen. Semira is a refugee, living in London, who feels trapped, helpless and alone. When buying an old hat, she finds ‘The Feather Diaries’, the diary of a young Victorian girl. Her incredible connection to Hen becomes the catalyst for the changes that Semira is brave, and strong, enough to make in her own life.

Hen is surrounded by some remarkable woman, especially her Aunt Kitty, who is brave, fierce and determined enough to go against the norms of society. Her story is both heart-breaking and uplifting, and, I must admit, led to that ‘lump in throat, eye-watering’ moment when I know the story has ‘got’ me.

As Semira develops her friendship with Hen, so too she bonds with Patrick, Chloe and Holly, who all take her under their wings, although, in the end, it is Semira who frees them. There are lot of powerful messages in this story: having the courage to stand up for, and to, others; the choice to make a positive difference to the lives of others; and, the pivotal importance of dreams, living life and not being trapped by it.

The birds are a metaphor for the journey for both girls of entrapment to freedom. In their shared love of cycling, they experience ‘The Closest Thing to Flying’, both finding their inner strength and escaping their respective ‘cages’. This book really was an emotional rollercoaster, but one I felt very privileged to ride.

Guardians of the Wild Unicorns

This is not your typical book about unicorns! Guardians of the Wild Unicorns is a fast-paced adventure set in the beautifully evoked landscape of the Scottish Highlands, where the last herd of wild unicorns has been captured.

Rhona and Lewis are on a school residential: one is in her element whilst the other would rather be at home. All that changes when Lewis makes a promise to one of the unicorns, a promise he is determined to keep. The affinity between the unicorns and the children, and their desire to protect them, resonates throughout the story.

This bond leads to the children being able to overcome their fears, and show determination and courage in the face of some very real threats from Ailsa, the laird’s daughter.

I loved the author’s portrayal of the unicorns as endangered animals: fearful, yet proud and fierce, and ever hopeful of their freedom.

There were so many elements I loved about this story: the authenticity of Lewis and Rhona’s friendship; a refreshingly different portrayal of unicorns with a modern twist; the representation of the Scottish Highlands; and, as I am a teacher, the depiction of the joys of a school residential!

I would highly recommend it to children of 8+

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart

This was an absolutely exquisite read, full of adventure, incredibly likeable characters and heart-warming messages.  And chocolate – lots of chocolate!

The aptly named Aventurine feels trapped by her rather too perfect and cautious dragon family, and craves nothing more than to be allowed to go on an adventure outside of the family cavern.  Ignoring family advice, she wanders outside, ready to hunt.  It is rather unfortunate for her that the first human she finds is a food mage, who entices her to drink some hot chocolate … and her life changes forever!

On the plus side, she has found her passion:  chocolate!  But, she has been transformed into a ‘puny’ girl.  Luckily, she is still a fierce, powerful dragon on the inside.  There are lots of humorous encounters and observations as Aventurine tries to fit into her human skin, and get to know the human world.  She is one feisty and determined girl, and refuses to give up on landing her dream job:  apprentice chocolatier. 

Whilst resolutely pursuing her dream, she meets Silke who becomes the friend she never knew she needed.  Silke is a fantastically clever, gregarious and resourceful girl, who suspects that her new friend may not be all she appears.  Their friendship blossoms into one of trust, playfulness, warmth and loyalty which I found wonderfully heart-warming. 

Of course, just when Aventurine finally fulfils her dream, trouble arrives in unexpected ways.  Can she protect her new ‘hoard’?  Will she have the courage and self-belief needed to unite age-old enemies?

There are many, many qualities I absolutely adored in Aventurine:

  • she is feisty, quick-witted and brave, despite her hidden pain at the loss of her dragon family;
  • she remains true to herself (“some things were more important than fitting in.”);
  • she learns to build genuine friendships, despite her deep-rooted mistrust of humans;
  • she follows her passion, no matter the obstacles in her way, and finds the inner strength to be whatever she wants to be; and,
  • she defends the people she cares about with a strength and loyalty befitting a dragon.

The action is fast-paced, the events flow skilfully, and the character interactions are incredibly engaging, all helping to create a wonderfully enchanting story, with an ending that left me feeling as warm and cosy as if I’d drunk a glass of chilli-flavoured hot chocolate.

This book is full of magical chocolatey adventure for readers of 7+!

A Girl Called Justice

Take a handful of hidden notes, a dash of secret meetings, a light dusting of deaths and kidnappings, and a sprinkling of clues at just the right moments and you have the perfect ingredients for this arresting mystery.

I really enjoyed this action-packed story which has a perfect blend of tension and intrigue throughout.  Justice Jones has been sent to Highbury House Boarding School for the Daughters of Gentlefolk, where she soon suspects a crime has been committed.  Not surprising as she is the daughter of a criminal barrister, and her recently deceased mother was a crime writer. 

Justice is a curious, clever, determined super-sleuth who is intent on solving the mystery of the murdered maid which leads to her tenaciously following her suspicions … and uncovering hidden secrets.

As Justice, who has been home-schooled, settles in to boarding school life, she forms some wonderful friendships, and comes to rely on these friends to help catch the criminal which, of course, leads to dangerous situations for them all.

The setting for this story is perfect:  an isolated Gothic mansion on the edge of a marsh with its own haunted tower, basements, attics and creaky staircases.  This really helps with tension-building, especially when they are cut off by a snowstorm with no apparent form of communication with the outside world.

I would highly recommend this to any 9+ fans of detective stories.

Thank you to NetGalley and Quercus Children’s Books for an e-ARC of this book.

The Apprentice Witch

“Oh, jinxing-jiggery!”  What an absolutely bewitching read this was. 

Despite failing her evaluation to become a fully-fledged witch, Arianwyn Gribble, is sent to Lull, which hasn’t had a resident witch for many years, to continue her apprenticeship.  She is soon taking on the role of town protector, making charms and banishing dark creatures, although everything doesn’t always go according to plan:  don’t mention the snotlings!

Just as Arianwyn is beginning to fit in, her life is turned upside down by the arrival of someone from her past, which causes all sorts of difficulties, and danger, for Arianwyn and the inhabitants of Lull.

This wonderfully-imagined world has a fascinating collection of creatures:  terrifying, awesome, endearing, pesky. The story is full of fast-paced action and build-up of tension, which kept me turning page after page … until I got to the end … and was left with that warm sigh of contentment I get from finishing a genuinely good book.  I’m so glad there are two more in this series for me to enjoy:  A Witch Alone and A Witch Come True.

Where do I begin with Arianwyn?  She is such an amazing character, and one of my new favourites in middle-grade fantasy.  Despite being full of self-doubt, she is kind-hearted and determined to try her best, not only thinking of others before herself, but always being prepared to see the best in everyone.  Her courage and strength of character shine through, despite her fear and doubt, so that she is able to control her demons in the town’s greatest moment of need.

I can’t wait to introduce this fantastic book to my class, who I know will adore Arianwyn as much as I do.

Swimming Against the Storm

One of the reasons I wanted to read this book was because I teach topics on habitats and extreme weather, and thought this story would be perfect for my class.  And it is!  But, it’s also so much more than that! 

Two themes really struck a chord with me:  the devastating human and natural loss that happens to an ecosystem under threat, and the determination and courage of young people to take a stance and fight to protect their home.

When they discover that their home is under threat Eliza, her younger sister Avery and two of their friends decide that they are going to save it.  But how?  The children agree to go on a secret mission to find the legendary loup-garou who may be the key to saving their home before it is swallowed by the rising sea levels.

Their mission does not go according to plan as Avery becomes lost, and so begins an adventure full of determination and discoveries, with an underlying frisson of danger which permeates its way throughout the story. The gradual build-up of the hurricane is masterfully written, taking the children unawares and hurling them into a fight for survival. 

The writing opened a window into the breath-taking Louisiana wetlands landscape which gave me a mesmerising view of the marshlands, the bayou, the wildlife and climate:  it really made me appreciate the awesome beauty, and power, of nature.

As well as the powerful ecological message which permeates through this story, I also found the relationships between the children very authentic and touching.  The strong bond between them is grounded in friendship and love, especially between the two sisters, Erica and Avery.  The story is told through the viewpoint of Erica, the older sister, who feels the responsibility and, sometimes burden, of being the elder, but also has a powerful protective instinct towards her younger sibling.  Avery clearly adores her older sister, and has a more impetuous, strong-willed nature, which leads them all into danger, but also is the catalyst for the hope of saving their community.

I would highly recommend this book to children of 9+.

Thank you to Toppsta Book Giveaways and Hachette Children’s Group for my free copy for an honest review of the book.

The Golden Butterfly

This is an absorbing, richly-detailed historical adventure set in the late Victorian period which enthralled me from the start. 

Luciana is grieving the loss of her beloved Grandfather, the Magnificent Marko, when Thursby, the Master of the Grand Society of Magicians turns up on the day of his funeral demanding to search their home.  Luciana realises that he is searching for the key behind her Grandfather’s Golden Butterfly illusion, but she is determined to find it first.  So begins her adventure into the theatres of London alongside her childhood friend, Charley.

Luciana is a girl outside her time who is not prepared to conform to the norms of Victorian society.  She wants excitement and adventure, and protecting her Grandfather’s legacy provides her with just this.  

This story cleverly weaves together a fast-paced intriguing adventure with social issues related to women’s role in society.  Luciana, who is resourceful and determined, has no intention of letting society dictate to her as she searches out more and more pieces of the puzzle leading to the Golden Butterfly.  However, the more she finds out … the more questions are raised.  Where do her nightmares about fires come from?  What does her Grandfather really want her to discover? Will Thursby’s all-consuming desire for the Golden Butterfly lead to the destruction of Luciana’s dreams?

This story is a spectacular jigsaw which, when finished, reveals an incredible family history, steeped in sacrifice and love.

Thank you to NetGalley and Stripes Publishing for an e-ARC of this book.