Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The Year of the Rat by Clare Furniss


Fifteen year old Pearl's mum has just died.  Not only that, but she has left Pearl and her dad with a tiny, ugly rat to look after.  As if Pearl hasn't have enough to deal with, now her dad - step dad actually - spends all his time at the hospital fussing over that stupid baby.  Mum didn't even want the baby in the first place.  Why would she when she had Pearl? And now she's dead and it's all Dad's fault.  

And Mum's not helping either.  She's as argumentative as ever, even though she IS dead, and nearly gives Pearl a heart attack every time she turns up. And though it's good to have her around, Pearl can't risk telling Mum how she really feels, which makes Pearl feel more lonely than ever.

Things go from bad to worse as Pearl tries to deal with the fact that she is no longer the centre of her parents' universe.  She can't even bring herself to confide in her best friend. It's easier to just shut everybody out.  It seems that Pearl hates everybody, especially herself.

It's only when things reach crisis point that Pearl finally accepts that she is loved and loveable. That her feelings are understandable and that they don't make her a bad person, just a sad one.

I really loved this book, mainly because Pearl's character is so authentic.  She is complex, vulnerable, belligerent and self-centered.  She is filled with self-doubt, is highly sensitive and feels isolated and alone.  To a casual observer, she might seem selfish, aggressive, and harsh.  But we know better because we are party to her terrible suffering and internal turmoil.

The Year of the Rat is Clare Furniss' debut novel. And what a cracker it is!   My 11 year old read this book in two sittings.  

Note: This book contains references to alcohol abuse and emotional disturbance.
Recommended for children aged 12 years and over.

Published by Simon & Schuster, 2014
This book was given to me by the publisher though the decision to review was my own.

Follow Clare
 Furniss on Twitter: @ClareFurniss

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Waffle Hearts by Maria Parr

Waffle Hearts is the most delightful book I have read in a long time.  It's the story of Trille, and Lena, who live in a small coastal community in the Norwegian Fjords.  Reminiscent of Tove Janssen's The Summer Story, Waffle Hearts is stuffed full of fun , innocence, naughtiness, passion and bewilderment. Maria Parr captures the mood, language and logic of the children brilliantly.  

Here's one of my favourite bits.  Lena is growing up without a dad and is talking to Trille about his father.  

Lena looked at me irritated.  Then she burst out, "What use are [dads], anyway?"
I didn't really know what to answer.  Do they need a use?
"They build things," I suggested.  "Walls and so on."
Lena had a wall
"And they"
I'd never thought properly about what use my dad was.  To get ideas, I stretched up onto my toes and peeped over the hedge.  Dad was standing there muttering about his summer project, red in the face.  It wasn't too easy to come up with exactly what use he was.
"They eat boiled cabbage," I said in the end.

Together, Lena and Trille get into all sorts of scrapes.  They have a go at filling their own ark with animals, they try busking with recorders, they rescue a pony and work on finding Lena a dad of her own.  

What really makes this book special, though is that it's not just a series of funny, charming stories.  In amongst all, Trille and Lena deal with some really traumatic issues and life events.  Maria Parr approaches death, loss and uncertainty with great compassion and understanding, making this an excellent book to read aloud to young children.  It is full of hope, happiness and the warmth of a loving family.  Definitely one to cosy up with a hot chocolate and roaring fire.

Oh, and if you're thinking of getting it as an eBook, forget it.  The hardback edition of Waffle Hearts is so beautifully tactile, you'll want to carry it around everywhere with you.

I give this book 10/10. 

If you like Waffle Hearts, then you'll love Tove Janssen's The Summer Book

Waffle Hearts is published by Walker Books and is ideal for 7-9 year olds.
It has been translated from Norwegian into more than 15 different languages and has been made into a popular children's television series in Norway.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Heroic, by Phil Earle

I first met Phil Earle in the offices of Simon and Schuster when I was preparing Supermarket Zoo for publication.  In fact, Phil suggested Albie as the character's name. And it stuck. 

So when he published his first book, Being Billy, I had to read it.  It had rave reviews and won the 2012 WeRead Book Award.  It was also nominated for the Carnegie Medal, and was shortlisted for both the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and Branford Boase Award. 

Saving Daisy, Phil's second book has been shortlisted for both the Leeds and Hounslow Book Awards.

So what's all the fuss about? 
Both Being Billy and Saving Daisy are gritty, no-nonsense stories of children's lives in care, inspired by Phil's own experience working in care homes in his early career.
Heroic is a little different.  It's the story of Sonny and Jammy, streetwise brothers living on the rough and unforgiving Ghost estate.  Driven by poverty and a desire to make a difference, older brother Jammy and his friend Tommo sign up with the military and are soon posted to fight in Afghanistan. But the promise of glory is overtaken by the true horrors of war as Jammy fights for his life and that of his friend Tommo.  Meanwhile Sonny is fighting his own battles at home, as he struggles with his own identity and his older brother's glowing reputation.  When Jammy returns home on leave, Sonny is forced to take charge, and become the brother, friend and son he always longed to be. 
Interview with Phil Earle
In a recent interview with The Guardian, Phil Earle says that while he has no personal experience of basic training or active service, he did lots of research and hopes that his accounts of his characters' experiences with the Taliban ring true.  Phil says, "I've never been interested in sugaring the pill, or telling a half-truth... It's a sad reality that [the Taliban] have tortured their own people for perceived "acts of disloyalty" towards British or American soldiers. It is common for them to set improvised explosive devices indiscriminately, and for these to have wide-reaching casualties. I didn't feel I could ignore this, and didn't want to. Young adult readers deserve the truth and demand it too!"
I feel that Phil has approached the issue with sensitivity and understanding, conveying something of the horrors of war without being overly graphic or sensationalist.  His focus is on how war is glamourised, and how vulnerable people - people with few other choices - can end up on the front line. 
Battles closer to home
But this story doesn't only deal with war per se.  It also looks at life on a rough inner city estate and the pressures on the young people living there.  Pressure to commit crimes, pressure to take drugs , pressure to create a reputation in order to survive in a world run by violent gangs.  All this while trying to make a better life for themselves and their families.
Heroic is a brilliant, honest and sensitive tale, pitched perfectly for children aged 12 and above and I heartily applaud Phil Earl for what he has achieved. 
Other brilliant books by Phil Earle

Heroic is published by Penguin.  The book contains some strong language and reference to drugs and violence.  Suitable for 12 years plus.

You might also like: Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

The Poison Boy by Fletcher Moss

I discovered Fletcher Moss on Twitter, though I can't remember who followed who first.  Anyway, I was intrigued because he was about to be published for the first time as a result of winning the Times/Chicken House Children's Fiction Competition.   

So I checked out his blog and we got talking.  His book, The Poison Boy, sounded as intriguing as the story of its publication, so I was super pleased when I discovered that Fletcher Moss and I were both going to be involved in an event for looked-after children in Derbyshire.

After the event, I managed to get my hands on a signed copy (well, there have to be some perks for doing a free event!) and tucked the book into my holdall to read on holiday. And I was not disappointed.  It's an absolute cracker!

From the first page to the last, The Poison Boy is packed with action, mystery and adventure.  It tells the story of orphan, Dalton Fly, and his best friend Sal Sleepwell, as they try to find out the truth behind the horrific death of Benny Jinks, their friend and fellow food-taster.

All three boys were part of Oscar's honest dozen - a group of children trained to detect hidden poison in the food of the upper classes.  When Bennie is killed, Dalton Fly and Sal Sleepwell are sucked in to a dangerous hunt that tests their wits and courage to the full.

Fletcher Moss weaves a complex but rock-solid plot that ties together beautifully by the end of the story.  His characters are strong and believable and his prose exciting, clean and purposeful.

I have to say, I was slightly put off by the cover illustration, as I think it makes the book look like a horror story, which it is not.  Perhaps it's because I'm a girl!  Anyway, cover aside, Fletcher Moss has created a real page-turner so if you like an exciting edge-of-your-seat adventure, look no further!

The Poison Boy is published by Chicken House and I've heard Fletcher is now working on a sequel!  Can't wait!

Interview with Fletcher Moss
Fletcher very kindly agreed to answer some questions for me about his writing and about the book.  Here is what he says: 

What inspired you to write this book?
I visited a garden up in Alnwick in the North East - it was a poison garden. Every plant in it was deadly poisonous - you had to have a guided tour in case you accidentally fell into a killer shrub or something. It was the names that got me - Doll's Eyes, Clotbur, Heartbreak Grass, John Crow - great names for such deadly plants.It all started there; I dreamt up a kid called Scarlet Dropmore who was going to be a poisons expert working in the kitchens of a great castle; Dalton and Sal soon followed, then the whole premise changed when I thought up poisonboys and sentaways. 
Is it the first novel you have written or have you written other stories too?
This is my third completed novel - but the first I'd publicly put my name to; the others are awful! 
Did winning the Times/Chicken House Children's Fiction Award changed you in any way?
It was so strange, being plucked from this big pile of over a thousand entrants. Doubly weird because in a way Dalton's story - going from obscurity to relative prominence - mirrored mine. I knew how he was feeling! The other day at work, I said to a colleague, "I was having a chat with Melvin Burgess recently and he said..." Then it struck me how my life had been suddenly transformed. I still feel incredibly lucky.  
Do you have another job as well as being an author? If so, what do you do?
I'm an Assistant Headteacher in charge of the Sixth Form of a comprehensive school in Greater Manchester. Long hours, hard work...
Your characters have some intriguing names - where did the name Dalton Fly come from?
Some of them are linked to plants I found when researching poisons; Scarlet Dropmore is just Dropmore Scarlet reversed; there's a plant called Speedwell that became 'Sleepwell' when I misread it. But Dalton Fly's origin is seedier, I'm afraid. There's a beer called Blandford Fly that I enjoy a pint of now and again. 
You use several made-up words in the book, for example, a wine glass is called a "flicker" and "Kite" is used as a name for God and as an expletive.  Why did you decide to do this?
Ah! Well; I wanted a semi-feral gang of street-kids, so they had to be pretty coarse in their language. But I didn't want too much swearing (there's two swear-words in the whole book) so I went about making up a list of alternative swear words that sounded almost rude. 'Flogged' for broken, 'dreck' for rubbish, 'kite almighty' sounds pretty blasphemous, and things like 'scut and feathers', whatever that means. The rest I got from canting dictionaries, which you can find online. I teach A level English Language now and again so I've done lessons on cant, argot, other forms of slang before. I think 'flicker' is a real canting term for a wine-glass. I had to take a few of them out during the editing; I had different types of pistols, more about getting 'ruined' on 'fever-tea'... it was a bit too adult, apparently. 
If The Poison Boy was made into a film (which I hope it is!), who would you like to play Dalton, Sal and Scarlet?
Good question! As they're so young, we'd need a gang of talented unknowns. Being plucked from obscurity would be fitting, I think.
I hear you are writing a sequel to The Poison Boy.  When is this going to be published?  Can you give us any clues about the plot or is it top secret?
I was planning on setting off on a sequel straight away, but something else caught my eye. So my next book will be entirely unconnected. I fancy a trip back to Highlions sometime soon though... 
Are you planning any other books in the near future?
My next one is pretty much plotted and planned, due to be OK-ed by Chicken House (I hope!) so I'm ready to write. I'll hopefully have it done by Spring of next year, but I don't expect it will see the light of day until early 2015. 
Follow Fletcher Moss on Twitter: @FletcherMoss

Buy this book:

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

The Other Royal Baby by Babette Cole

I am a real fan of Babette Cole's books so I was very pleased when she asked me to review The Other Royal Baby!

It's a re-release of her classic story, King Change-a-lot which is now, sadly, out of print.  The new book is available as an e-book for iPad and I'm told it has lots of added extras including a video of Babette reading the book herself.  Sadly I don't have an iPad so I can't review that part of the story, but Babette kindly sent me a paper copy of the original book to review.  
So here goes:
Prince Change-a-lot was fed up of being treated like a baby, even though he was one!  His parents were making a real mess of running the kingdom, wasting people's taxes on fancy parties and ignoring the dragons, giants, bad fairies and huge blubber worms who were rampaging around the place.  So he rubbed his magic potty and out came a baby genie who could understand baby language. 
Straight away, Prince Change-a-lot put the baby genie to work.  He turned his parents into babies, made a rubber disco castle for the giants and locked up the bad fairies.  He fed the blubber worms cakes till they exploded and gave the dragons video games to play so they would stay at home.  Everyone agreed that things were much better with King Change-a-lot running the place.  And, it seems, they all lived happily ever after! 
I absolutely LOVE Babette Cole's written style. They way she talks about crazy things in such a matter-of-fact way is pure genius.This, combined with her wonderfully detailed and quirky illustrations make all her books real gems of children's literature. 
I'm very tempted to go out and buy an iPad, just so I can read and listen to the e-book version!  Perhaps if I rub my magic pencil-case...? 
Although The Other Royal Baby, aka Prince Change-al-ot, is out of print, many of Babette Cole's other books are still available to buy.  If you don't own any, add some of  these to your collection - you won't regret it!

Other wonderful books by Babette Cole

One of the first anti-fairy tales I ever read - brilliant!

A hilarious (and informative) book about the scary bits and hairy bits that appear during puberty
An honest and amusing look at where babies come from. 
And the good news is that she is adding more and more titles to her e-book collection.  Check out to find out more. 
The Other Royal Baby is published by Inky Sprat and is available to download from the iBookstore.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Mr Big by Ed Vere

Everyone was afraid of Mr Big. He was just so - well -


When Mr Big went to a cafe...everyone had other things to do

When Mr Big got on a bus, everybody else got off.

Poor Mr Big.  If only people would stop around long enough, they might find out what he was like on the inside.

One day, Mr Big found an old piano.  He took it home and started to play.  And as tears of loneliness rolled down Mr Big's cheeks, his beatuiful music drifted through the night air. 

Soon everybody wanted to know where the music was coming from. Who was the mystery pianist? So they posted a letter through Mr Big's door, inviting him to join their band.  

And then everyone got to know the real Mr Big. And they LOVED him!

This is a heartwarming story about misconceptions and acceptance, of compassion and friendship.  It illustrates beautifully the pain many people feel at being left out, or mis-understood, or judged unfairly, and the joy at discovering just how amazing people can be, once we get to know them.

Ed has created a wonderful character that children will instantantly identify with. He is like everyone's favourite uncle.  A bit on the large side, a bit old-fashioned, with a funny hat and a bow tie, but underneath he's a real treasure.  Someone you would want to spend a lot of time with.  I love the expressions that Ed has given him, and the other funny characters help lift the story and stop it being too sad.  


Activities and Discussion
How many different sorts of people are there?
What would it be like if we all looked the same?
Which is most important, how we look, or how we behave?
Do you know anybody who always gets left out? 
Write down or draw one thing about them that people don't like.
Now think of three good things about them.  How does this make you feel?

Have a go at drawing Mr Big!

Other Fab books by Ed Vere

Other books about difference

Vist Ed Vere's Website

Follow Ed Vere on Twitter: @ed_vere

Mr Big is published by Puffin.

Buy this book:

Monday, 19 November 2012

The Famous Adventures of Jack by Berlie Doherty

I was lucky enough to win a signed copy of this book in a Twitter competition run by Berlie Doherty herself.  In fact, I also went to her house for lunch with Caroline Pitcher and Pauline Chandler, but that's another story...

So I won this book and I read this book and I LOVED this book!

The story is based around a little girl called Jill, who is sent to an old woman's house meet a boy called Jack.  She brings with her a bag of things which will help the old woman to find him. 

"They're all called Jack around here," says the Old Woman. "There's Cousin Jack and Grandfather Jack, Uncle Jack and Son Jack, and some is daft and some is dead and some is disappeared. And some is lazy and good-for-nothing and waste-of-a-wishbone like my very own son.  But they're all called Jack."

But Jill doesn't know which Jack she is supposed to meet, so the Old Woman settles her down and tells her each Jack's story in turn, prompted by objects taken from Jill's bag.

This is a delightful book, in which the author weaves together a mix of legendary Jack stories to make a new tale. It is a captivating and magical read that whisks the reader into a world of giants and talking cats, kings and princesses, impossible tasks and an enchanted snuff box, a giant beanstalk and a magic belt.  The words flow beautifully, without a stumble or a trip and the narrative is wonderfully traditional without being old-fashioned or stuffy. 

Definitetely one for a cold winter evening by the fire, with a snuggling child or two and a nice glass of something warming.  I fact, that is a VERY good idea.

The Famous Adventures of Jack is written by Berlie Doherty and published by Catnip Publishing

Other Lovley Books by Berlie Doherty

Visit Berlie Doherty's Website
Follow Berlie Doherty on Twitter: @BerlieDoherty

Buy this book