Thursday, December 2, 2021

A Boy Called Christmas by Matt Haig illustrated by Chris Mould

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Nikolas lives with his father. They are poor.  His father works hard and earns little, so he and his friends set off to find the elf village.  There will be a huge reward and they will all be set up for life if they can prove it exists. Meanwhile Aunt Carlotta moves in and makes Nikolas miserable. He leaves in search of his father.


He meets and befriends a flying reindeer, Blitzen, on the way. He finds the elf village but all is not well.  His father and the other men have kidnapped Little Kip. The elves are so annoyed by what the humans have done that they will no longer accept outsiders. Nicolas is imprisoned.


Some magic has happened, however, and Nikolas has enough hope inside him that he is able to float up the chimney and out of the prison.  He rescues Little Kip and brings him back to the village. His father helps him.  However, his father is too heavy for the sleigh and plunges to the ground.  We assume he dies.


Nikolas becomes popular in the village.  Elves, and apparently adopted humans, remain the age they are when they find out what they want to do with the rest of their lives. Nikolas is sixty-two, already called Father Christmas, has a rounded belly, a beard and a distinctive laugh, when he decides he wants to bring joy to good boys and girls every Christmas. The Elves and a group of flying reindeer help him with this.


This story contains some familiar tropes, some quirky passages and the sadness that Nikolas loses his father.


As well as being suitable for the fluent reader, this story may also appeal to younger children if an adult reads it out to them.


The novel is 266 pages long. It has blocked text and uses an adult font. Chris Mould’s line drawing enlivens the text. There are pages from the Daily Snow, the Elves’ favourite newspaper. At the end of the book are some puzzles.   

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Gracie Fairshaw and the Trouble at the Tower

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The story is set in Blackpool 1935 as Christmas approaches. But someone is trying to sabotage the Children’s Ballet Christmas spectacular. A piece of scenery injures a dancer, another dancer has itching powder put inside her costume and a several poisonous-pen letters are sent. Naughty chimps and escaping lions add to the drama.  The damage the chimps do often looks like part of the sabotage.   

Gracie becomes a reporter for the local newspaper. This affords the reader several details about what a writer does – and helps Gracie to do more investigating.   

There are many details of time and place here. We have a glimpse of what Christmas was like back then and in a boarding house in particular. Paper chains feature in abundance.  

Susan Brownrigg is a brilliant story teller.  This is a well-told and well-written tale. Here The Family from One End Street, meets Noel Streatfield, meets the Secret Seven, with a good deal of quirkiness and a 21st problem thrown in.  I hope Brownrigg will bring us many more episodes about Gracie.      

The mystery is solved. Albert Ramsbottom was behind all of the threats and damage.  A rumour goes around that he was eaten by a lion. Thus, Brownrigg cross-references to a well-known poem. Ramsbottom wrote his poison-pen letters on British Bulldog notepaper. Yes, he is a racist and targets the Russians and a Chinese girl. And we are kept guessing right up to the last few pages of the novel.  

The book is 235 pages long – some forty pages longer than the first book in the series.  The text is blocked but double-spaced. The font has a serif. The chapters are relatively short.  Chapter headings are in a cursive font and are fronted with a picture of an envelope with a question mark on it. At the end of the book there is a glossary which contains a lot more information about Blackpool, a note from the author on her research about the Children’s Ballet, and an author bio.            

Saturday, November 6, 2021

October, October by Katya Balen (illustrations by Angela Harding)


October lives in the woods with her father. They have a house and it even has central heating and freezers.  They get milk and eggs form a local farmer. Despite this certain measure of civilisation they do enjoy the wild.  October’s mother left long ago as she missed the city.  

October’s father has an accident one day. He falls from a tree, damaging his spine. October has to go and live with her mother.  She finds London difficult and for the first time she has to go to school. Yet she gradually becomes reconciled to school, makes friends with Yusuf, becomes a mud lark and gradually accepts that her mother cares for her.  She even begins to find some affection for her mother.

Her father does recover and he and October return to live in the woods. Now though she keeps contact with her mother and the friends she has made in London.  

At the beginning of the story October rescues a baby owl. Somewhat reluctantly her father helps her to care for it. When she moves to London the beast plan is to take her owl, Stig, to an owl sanctuary where she is further looked after and trained to be released into the wild. October accepts in the end that this is the best plan.

The text is quite literary and Katya Balen is very skilled in her use of language. It is 291 pages in blocked text in and adult font but double-spaced. There are a few monochrome illustrations.  It is written mainly in prose but there are some verses.  

Monday, October 25, 2021

Hide and Seek by Robin Scott-Elliot


Amélie’s parents and older brother are taken by the Gestapo form their Paris apartment as she hides in the wardrobe with her mother’s fur coat.  She survives for a while by eating all the food that is left in the apartment.  She spends her days in the museum.  She has removed her Star of David from her coat but Cécile who works there realises this. Cécile takes Amélie in.  Cécile works for the Resistance and soon Amélie is doing the same.  However, there is a traitor in the network.  Amélie and Cécile wrongly accuse Alain. It is in fact Raymond, whom Amélie pushes form a train when she realises this.  Amélie lies about her age and is eventually recruited for the SOE (Special Operations Executive) after she has accompanied a British airman back to England. There she goes first to a boarding school and then to a government establishment where she is trained for SOE.  That she is a native speaker of French is very useful. This enables her to return to Paris where she also becomes involved in rescuing Jewish children.  Some are hidden amongst families in Paris and the others are smuggled into Switzerland. One little boy, Lou, doesn’t make it through the fence and returns to Paris with Amélie where they both wait for the end of the war and for their older brothers to return. The final scene is of Amélie meeting her brother Paulie at the station. We do not learn whether her parents or Lou’s brother return.    

This is a fiction but some real characters are mentioned in the text.  An afterword by Robin  Scott-Elliot explains this.         

The book is 325 pages long in blocked text which uses an adult font.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

The Monster Belt by Ruth Estevez


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Both Harris White and Dee Winter encounter monsters and drownings in their early lives.  Harris loses his friend ten-year old Jonty to the Mediterranean from the island of Formentera, just off Ibiza.   Twenty-four children have drowned in the lake at Thorpemere.  Both Harris and Dee are there when the twenty-fifth, Jordan King, is taken by the mere. Dee as a little girl has met monsters, or so she believes, and Harris thinks a monster took his friend. The year Jordan drowns the convention about monsters , held at the hotel where Dee works, is closed early. The following year, Harris is about to offer an explanation about what really happened to his friend.  Was it, according to the dictionary definition, really the act of a monster? The attendees do not get the chance to find out.  Time and place are taken over by an event that is probably to do with climate change.

Both Harris and Dee grow and this is to some extent a bildungsroman for each of them. We are with Dee most of the time though occasionally the point of view passes to another, more often than not to Harris.  

Are the monsters real? Do they and the Monster Belt really exist?   We are kept guessing until the end and throughout more important is what is happening to Dee and Harris.

This is a long read – 351 pages of blocked text in a serif font. At the back of the book is a little information about the author and news of other books published by the innovative UCLan publishing company, the publisher that involves student on the publishing courses from the University of Lancaster.                  

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Kintana and Captain’s Curse by Susan Brownrigg

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The story is set around Nosy Boraha, Pirate Island and Madagascar. Susan Brownrigg introduces some real people: Captain Blackbeard, (Edward Teach), William Kidd, and Israel Hands, who in the book is Kintana’s father. Many of the animals mentioned are native to Madagascar –an island that has 25,000 different species, many of which are only found there.

We also have the normal ingredients of a pirate story; treasure, parrots and a man with a wooden leg.

There is plenty of pace.  The story just does not stop moving. The chapters are also short, almost all ending with a cliff-hanger.

There is also a domestic story of a sound relationship between a father and daughter who spend their time looking after animals and managing a pet shop. Kintana also befriends the naïve cabin boy, Bartholomew.  

The book is 174 pages long.  The text is blocked but double-spaced. The font, Kingfisher 10 -16, has a serif.  It is actually small in the book.  At the front of the book there are sketch maps of the two islands. There are also monochrome pictures of eight of the animals. Each chapter heading has a monochrome picture of a parrot and a skull and cross bones.

At the end of the book there are a useful glossary, a note from the author about some of the facts in the story, an author bio and some acknowledgments. These may be of more interest to adults than the chid reader though the glossary may be helpful to the young reader.                

Saturday, July 3, 2021

I am Thunder by Mohammad Khan

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Muzna Saleem is the only child of Pakistani parents.  Her mother and father have high hopes of her becoming a doctor but she wants to be a writer.  Her father loses his job and a cousin takes pity on them.  They move into a flat above the cousin’s Michelin-starred restaurant and her father becomes a waiter.

This offers Muzna an opportunity to reinvent herself as she starts at a new school.   She is still a   serious scholar and gets on well with English teacher and form tutor, Mr Dunthorpe. And she meets Arif Malik.

She becomes convinced by Arif and his brother Jameel that the Islamic faith is the right one but just in time realises that Jameel is a terrorist.  She goes to the police.

Mohammad Khan’s narrative is very convincing.  We really get to know Muzna well and can understand how she almost became radicalized. The issue is complex. Muzna’s teenage rebellion against her parents takes the form of her becoming more religious.

This is truly a bildungsroman. Muzna learns to make her own mind up. It has an upbeat ending: she successfully helps the police to prevent a disaster, she is reconciled with her parents and in the final scene she meets Arif again.  There is every hope that their relationship can continue.            

A Boy Called Christmas by Matt Haig illustrated by Chris Mould

click on image to view on Amazon  2021 Nikolas lives with his father. They are poor.   His father works hard and earns little, so he an...