Review: The Secret Dragon

Published by Puffin
Published on 30th May 2019
Cover Illustration: Ben Mantle
Chapter head illustrations: Simone Krüger

I really enjoyed The Secret Dragon even though it wasn’t quite what I was expecting.  I guess I was anticipating this story to be firmly grounded in the fantasy genre but, actually, I feel it has more of an historical science basis – with a fantasy twist! 

Don’t let anyone stop you being who you want to be.

This is the motto 11-year-old Mari lives by after the loss of her scientist father.  She has much more of an interest in exploring the past through her love of fossil-hunting than helping her Mum take care of the living animals on their farm.  She is determined to become a palaeontologist and, whilst exploring the coastline of South Wales makes an astonishing discovery: a living dragon!

She decides to keep Gweeb – a wyvern only heard of in legends – a secret.  Of course, Gweeb doesn’t understand that Mari’s discovery is meant to be a secret which leads to all sorts of capers as the rather mischievous and curious dragon wants to explore the world.

Mari is rather a complicated young girl.  She does not have any friends at school and is unwilling to play games to be popular.  Instead, she is single-minded and fiercely independent in her determination to realise her dream of becoming a scientist.  I really felt for her as she struggled to form friendships, build a closer bond with her mother and admit hidden truths to herself. 

What starts out as a scientific study turns into much more as Mari forms a mutual bond of friendship with Gweeb which I found really endearing.  Mari cares for her wyvern’s needs as a living creature and not a study; she protects it from harm; and, she trusts in this tiny creature when danger arrives.

I enjoyed the STEM focus in this story including the references to Mary Anning, Mari’s own ambition to become a scientist and the fossil facts at the end of the story. 

This story ends in a way which sets up the next book in the series perfectly.  I’m really looking forward to seeing where Mari’s and Gweeb’s adventures take them next …

Review: The Land of Roar

Published by Egmont
Published on 1st August 2019
Illustrated by Ben Mantle

Oh, my goodness!  I can’t stop smiling after finishing this wonderfully enchanting story.  This is such a joyous treat of a book, a real celebration of the never-ending importance and power of the imagination … if only we can let ourselves believe!

Twins Rose and Arthur are growing apart as they get ready to start secondary school.  Rose is too busy to play with Arthur as she becomes engrossed in the world of her phone, Youtube, make-up and fitting in with the popular girls.  And Arthur is feeling left out, lonely and worried about his new school. 

Every summer, the children are sent to stay with their Grandad where, in his attic, they had created and explored the Land of Roar:  a glorious world, filled with their loves and fears, moulded in the freedom of allowing their imaginations to run wild.  But now, their make-believe den is to be turned into a more grown-up retreat … until their Grandad is taken to Roar through an old camp-bed which is the portal into this land.  And the children follow …

What the twins discover is not the world they left behind … there is real danger, and perhaps rescuing their Grandad is not the only saving needed.  Joined by Arthur’s best ‘non-real’ friend Wininja and Rose’s dragons, Pickle and Vlad, they must attempt to rescue their Grandad and foil Arthur’s nemesis, who is just the right amount of scary to make him the perfect adversary … revengeful, dark and deliciously evil! 

I really loved the superb world-building, captured through both the rich description and Ben Mantle’s illustrations which are just divine, really helping the reader immerse themselves in this truly magical, and sometimes frightening, world.  I can just imagine two young children sitting in an attic room, looking for adventure, drawing the map of Roar with its ‘Dungun’, ‘Tangled Forest’ and ‘Bad Side’ and venturing off into this world for many a happy hour, filled with fun, excitement – and a desire to scare each other!

Our Grandad is important because he believes in magic.

The Land of Roar has the most wonderful cast of characters from the very young-at-heart Grandad, whose imagination is still strong, to the fierce and daring Lost Girls.  I must admit that I have a real soft spot for Wininja, the wizard-ninja whose ninja powers are a little more advanced than his wizarding powers, but who is just so carefree and full of joie de vivre, not to mention hilarious, and a wonderfully fearless friend.  Arthur and Rose are such believable characters who find a way to reconcile the land of their imagination with the land of reality, and I really hope they get to venture into Roar again!

I wonder if every child has a world like this, only not all of them are lucky enough to find it.

I so hope every child can find a world of imagination, if not on their own, then through the inspiration of such fantastic stories as this one! 

#Six for Sunday: Perfect Pool Reads

The July theme for Six for Sunday, hosted by A Little But a Lot is Summer Reads and today’s prompt is for: Perfect Pool Reads. I’m posting this late as I just had to finish my current read which, for a change, is not a middle grade book! These are all books that I would choose to indulge myself with by the pool … although it has been a while since I’ve been on a pool holiday.

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding brought me many happy laugh-out-loud moments and I have such fond memories of devouring this and The Edge of Reason. It’s one of the few books that I shared a love of with my best friend.

Last Chance Saloon by Marian Keyes is, I suppose, as close as I come to chick-lit! Funny, friendships, relationships … a perfect pool side read. And I managed to convince my sister to read this – no small feat!

I think Lady of Hay by Barbara Erskine was the first adult timeslip novel I read. I love the idea of someone travelling back in time to discover past lives, and this is still my favourite book in that genre. Just thinking about this one makes me want to sit by a pool and re-read it.

Val McDermid is probably my favourite crime author and this story was the first of her books I read. I don’t really know why crime novels and thrillers appeal as a pool side read, but they do!

The Cruel Prince by Holly Black. The world of Faeries … and Prince Cardan. I loved this dark and dangerous world … perfect escapism.

I have to admit that I loved the Trueblood TV series and, when I discovered the books by Charlaine Harris, I devoured them in very quick succession.

Review: A Girl Called Owl

Published by MacMillan Children’s Books
Published on 26th January 2017
Illustrations: Helen Crawford-White

A Girl Called Owl is a marvellously magical read, full of wonder, danger and adventure which spans both a wintery real world and a secret hidden world – truly beautiful!

All her life, Owl McBride has been told by her mother that her father comes from a magical wintery land, but folktales are just for little children, and she’s not a child anymore.  Owl is searching for the truth … but the truth may be more than she ever imagined …

As winter approaches, 13-year-old Owl notices strange and beautiful frost-like patterns on her skin … her tears are ice … and the new boy Alberic keeps staring at her!  When her mother finally reveals the truth of who her father is, Owl refuses to believe it …

… to be different is difficult …

Owl’s paternal problems are just beginning, but her best friend, Mallory, also has family problems to deal with – and these are grounded very much in reality.  Both girls are fragile, and this leads to friction in their friendship, but there is also incredible support, trust and loyalty.

Unable to control her newfound frost-magic, Owl needs Alberic’s help to distract her classmates from noticing her powers.  Alberic clearly knows more about Owl’s background than she does herself, and seems to be trying to help her … or does he have ulterior motives?  A fledgling friendship develops between them, but where has Alberic come from, and why does he seem to be following her?

Owl decides to take action, and wanders into the local winter landscape, which she feels an affinity towards, to attempt to attract her father’s attention.  But his attention is not at all what she had hoped for …

In her desperation to find out more about her father, and build some kind of relationship with him, Owl finds herself lying to her mother, in danger of losing her humanity in her magic, and making choices that could put her life at risk, all in order to connect to her father, no matter the consequences.

Owl is a wonderful character, who is more believable, despite her other-worldly quality, because she is fallible.  She lies, feels guilty, argues, but she’s also brave, determined and a real fighter for what she believes in. 

I loved the magical quality, steeped in frost-magic and folklore, but also the authenticity of the relationships very much grounded in reality. 

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!

The boy growled, dropped to all fours and took one end of the stick between his teeth.  The dog at the stick’s other end – a hefty Alsatian with long ears – bared its gums and slobbered.

Any ideas?

I’ve seen lots of good reviews about Scavengers and just recently spotted it on my local Waterstones shelves, so took it from their shelf to add to mine!

Goodreads synopsis:

Landfill has lived his whole life as a scavenger, running with wooflers, swimming with turtles and feasting on fresh gull. Old Babagoo has always looked after him, on one condition – follow his rules. Never come looking Outside. Never rise above the wall. But despite the dangers, Landfill longs to see Outside. And some rules are made to be broken.

Review: I, Cosmo

Publisher: Nosy Crow
Publication Date: 1st August 2019

Spoiler/Not Spoiler:  Cosmo does not die, so now you can enjoy his wonderful story.

I, Cosmo is a ‘woof-tastically’ heart-warming story, full of life, heart and humour which will appeal to any dog-lover, adult or child.  Telling the story from the perspective of Cosmo, the 13-year old family golden retriever, is genius!  The tone is conversational and authentic:  I can really imagine that this is exactly how a dog sees himself within a loving family.  Cosmo is wise, humorous, devoted and loves ‘doggedly’.  I’ll let Cosmo explain the last one himself:

“There is a word I’ve learned in my twelve years:  doggedly.  It means “with persistence and full effort.”  Humans attribute this to a dog’s stubbornness – our refusal to give up chewy sticks, the way we freeze in the doorway when it rains.  But really, it’s the way we love, with our whole hearts, no matter the circumstance.  I vowed to protect Max – and my family – doggedly, for the rest of my life.

Cosmo has been bought as a puppy by the family, shortly before the birth of their first son Max, who has a heartfelt bond with Cosmo, each being the other’s champion and best friend.  One of the aspects which really engaged me in this story was how Cosmo reminisces about his life with his family, recalling many humorous and heart-warming moments.  This makes the family break-down in the ‘present’ of the book all the more poignant.   Cosmo is told by the children’s Uncle Reggie to: “Protect their hearts.” And he does so, with all his heart.

I fell in love with Cosmo for a two main reasons: his devotion and sensitivity towards his family, and especially to Max, which is wonderfully depicted; and, his sharp, witty observations which permeate the story, lending it many humorous moments.

Humans can learn many lessons from Cosmo’s honesty and wisdom, and from his love of old movies and dancing!  Indeed, dancing is pivotal in his attempt to save his family and avoid separation from Max.  The courage, perseverance and devotion shown by Cosmo, despite his own afflictions due to age, is genuinely touching.

My favourite quote, which I think will resonate with many is:

…I do believe that, with the right human by your side, it’s possible to leap fearlessly into the unknown.”

Will Cosmo, with his dancer’s soul, be able to save his family?  Will he become a movie star?  Will he remain with Max, his best friend?  Will he defeat his nemesis the sheepdog?  So many questions, so wonderfully answered in this exceptional story, with the most uplifting, hopeful ending. Just perfect!

Thank you to Nosy Crow for an ARC in exchange for my honest opinion.

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’m currently reading The Frozen Sea by Piers Torday.  I requested this via NetGalley and was very excited to be approved.  I loved The Lost Magician and am looking forward to finding out what happens!

I’ve now started my summer holidays, so I’ve been able to do more reading than I usually would.  This week I have read:

Malamander by Thomas Taylor: This was such a wonderfully atmospheric read, full of mystery rooted in a great legend.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill: This has been on my TBR pile for a while and it was definitely worth the wait. A dark fantasy which completely captured me in its magical quality.

A Girl Called Owl by Amy Wilson: I loved Snowglobe so was eager to read this one. It was such a beautiful, fantastical story – and wintery! Review pending.

The Space We’re In by Katya Balen: I requested this one via NetGalley. It is being published on 5th September. This is told from the viewpoint of a ten-year-old boy with a younger autistic brother – raw and very emotional.

I hope to read The Land of Roar by Jenny McLachlan, The Last Spell Breather by Julie Pike and The Secret Dragon by Ed Clarke, and maybe another one from my #20BooksofSummer.

Top Ten Tuesday

This is a weekly meme now hosted by That Artsy Girl Reader.  This week’s theme is a freebie! I have been enjoying so many fantastic middle-grade books this year which feature witches, whether as main characters or side characters, that I’ve decided to go for my top 10 ‘witchy’ books! I’ve included both books I’ve read and ones I’ve got on my TBR pile which I’m really looking forward to.

These are part of a trilogy which sees Mup’s Mam taking her into a rather terrifying world of witches to rescue her father, who has been kidnapped by them in order to entice her back to Witches Borough . The second book sees her Mum expected to rule over the Borough and the best depiction of a ghost I’ve ever read! Incredibly powerful story-telling. I can’t wait for the final instalment!

The Widdershin sisters are just amazing, trapped by an ancient curse and making use of three magical objects to help them escape it. I can’t wait for their next adventure!

Willow Moss is born into a family of witches, but does not have the most powerful gift: she has the ability to find lost things. When a whole day goes missing, the incredible adventure begins.

Arianwyn Gribble is my favourite good witch in middle-grade. Despite being an apprentice witch, she is sent to the town of Lull to take on the role of town protector – and what a good job she does! I’ve read The Apprentice Witch and have A Witch Alone on my TBR.

There are both good and bad witches in this dark fantasy which really reminded me of my love of fairy-tale witches: both the evil, nasty sort and the good, kind-hearted ones.

The Northwitch is a side character in The Eye of the North, but she is an incredible character who filled me with awe and left me slightly terrified!

This is on my TBR and I’m so looking forward to it. The magical system sounds amazing and I’ve really got to meet the fox!

After reading The Girl Who Drank the Moon, I have decided to move this one up my TBR. It was written before it, but I think it might have Xan who I loved from The Girl Who Drank the Moon

Review: The Girl Who Drank the Moon

Published by Piccadilly Press
Cover Illustration by Yuta Onoda

This is a wondrously dark fantasy which is a symphony of gorgeous story-telling and lyrical imagery which completely entranced me as the magic within unfolded like a kaleidoscope of lightness and darkness. 

In the Protectorate, people live in a perpetual state of sorrow with the awful burden of knowing that a child will be sacrificed to the witch in the cursed forest each year in order that their community will be protected for another cycle.  What the people don’t know is that the witch is not a child-eater, but saves each of the children from certain death.

Xan, the kind and caring witch of the forest, rescues each child and feeds them starlight to sustain them on the long journey to the Free Cities where they are welcomed and brought up as the Star Children.  However, things do not go quite according to plan when she saves Luna, who becomes enmagicked when she is accidentally fed moonlight, a powerful source of magic which is both wonderful and dangerous.

Luna is adopted by Xan and her two companions, Glerk, the wise and gentle Swamp Monster and Fyrian, the humorous Enormous Dragon – who is the size of a dove!  All three love and protect Luna, who is mischievous, curious and energetic, and she in turn adores them.  But her magic threatens to become such a danger to herself and others that Xan has no choice but to lock her magic deep within her, until she turns 13, when her magic begins to re-emerge …

The narrative has multiple viewpoints, but mainly switches between Luna’s story and Antain’s story.  He is the Elder-in-Training who, at the demand of his despicable, power-hungry Uncle, the Grand Elder Gherland, carries Luna into the forest on the Day of Sacrifice, a horror so unbearable that her mother is driven to madness and locked up in the Tower presided over by Sister Ignatius, who has her own secrets and needs.  Filled with guilt and determined to stop the cruelty of the sacrifice, Antain begins to dig deeper into life in the Protectorate …

All the elements of this story fit together like the pieces of a glorious, intricate jigsaw puzzle which, once they are brought together, creates a story of so much depth, beauty, pain and release.  The themes are deeply rooted and profound:  the craving for power at the expense of humanity; the manipulation of the weak by the powerful; the inherent strength in good people to effect change; forces of nature, spirituality and magic; and, the power of hope to overcome grief and sorrow.

I love the way the chapters are named and start with ‘In Which …’ to give a flavour of the content … it’s almost like breadcrumbs are being laid in a trail to entice the reader to follow … should they dare!  I also enjoyed the italicised interludes which leant a deeper understanding to the main story.

This is a beautifully dark and intricate story of the deep protective love and loyalty within family, with magic at its heart, which certainly cast a spell over me.

Review: Malamander

Published by Walker Books
Publication Date: 1st May 2019
Cover Illustration: George Ermos
Author & Interior Illustrations : Thomas Taylor

I was completely mesmerised by the wonderfully old-fashioned, timeless quality of this story which had a Victoriana feel, and a truly exceptional cast of characters.  The mysterious atmosphere is perfectly realised with the winter setting and rolling sea mist, just perfect for hiding, and revealing, secrets at exactly the right moments.

Herbert Lemon is the Lost-and-Founder at the Grand Nautilus Hotel, and he prides himself on being rather good at his job.  However, his life is about to take a rather dramatic turn … when he finds himself face-to-face with a girl who is being chased by an enraged man with a boathook for a hand! 

Because I’m lost … and I’d like to be found.

Violet Parma is looking for her lost parents, and she needs Herbie to help find them.  They went missing from Eerie-on-Sea, leaving her abandoned as a baby at the hotel 12 years previously.  What happened to them?  Does their disappearance have anything to do with the legend of the feared Malamander? 

Rather reluctantly, Herbie agrees to help solve the mystery … and what an adventure it takes them on.  Violet is prescribed a book by the rather creepy Mermonkey at the Book Dispensary which sets them on the trail of the local legend, but they are not the only ones seeking its treasure …

In a place like Eerie-on-Sea, legends can sometimes have a little more … bite.

There is an abundance of tension, danger and fast-paced action as the children race to solve the clues they find before a cast of deliciously nasty characters including Boathook Man, who is much more than he appears, thwart them.  I love the fact that the reader is never quite sure who is a friend and who is a foe, as secrets are revealed and more mysteries appear.  As they get tantalisingly closer to the truth, I was completely swept into the legend … and willing it to be true.  The mixture of present, past and legend fascinated me … and the reveals are just astonishing!

If the impossible is possible anywhere, it’ll be possible in Eerie-on-Sea.

Herbie and Violet are fantastic protagonists who complement each other brilliantly.  Herbie’s background is something of a mystery as he was found washed up on the beach in a crate of lemons.  He is rather cautious and deliberate in his actions whereas Violet is much more adventurous, feisty and daring.  They are both brave and look out for each other, regardless of the danger and fear. 

I have to mention the wonder that is the map of Eerie-on Sea and the splendiferous place and character names:  Mrs Fossil’s Flotsamporium, The Whelk & Walrus Pub, Lady Kraken, Mr Eels:  just brilliant!

Malamander is a truly glorious read which completely hooked me, and reeled me into a world which I definitely want to visit again.