Book Review: The City of Secret Rivers, by Jacob Sager Weinstein

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_city_of_secret_riversWho knew there was a maze of secret magic rivers flowing underneath London’s streets? Certainly not Hyacinth Hayward, the young heroine of this contemporary fantasy adventure. When she ‘fixes’ the plumbing and inadvertently releases a single drop of magic water she finds herself caught in the middle of a centuries old struggle for power.
A knock at the door reveals the strange Saltpetre Men who work for the Royal Mail. Slow moving and sibilant, they are the first of many strange characters she encounters in her race to recover the magic droplet and save her mother.

Aided by her neighbour, the elderly and feisty Lady Roslyn, the pair escape down into the sewers and into an underground escapade full of twists, peril, surprises, double crosses and riddles. Hyacinth has to trust her instincts in order to work through the situations she finds herself in. As her adventure progresses she uncovers a family connection to the magic which adds to her determination.

The story is full of clever plot points, many of which relate to real London monuments and events in the city’s long history. The characters are funny and unique; from the charming huge pig who communicates via printed cards, to the Saltpetre Mailmen and some who are seen here in a totally different guise than normal – I’m talking to you, unicorn!

Readers who enjoy magic and adventure will surely enjoy The City of Rivers and will be drawn into this engaging and well-paced story. The ending, while closing off this adventure, leaves you with a hint of further mysteries and questions to be answered in a follow-up sequel, which I am hoping is in the pipeline (pun completely intended!).
Now that we have been introduced to the magical world existing below the city streets, a visit to London will never be the same again…

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

The City of Secret Rivers
by Jacob Sager Weinstein
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406368857

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Book Reviews: Dinosaur Trouble: The Lava Melt Shake & Dinosaur Trouble: The Great Egg Stink, by Kyle Mewburn, illustrated by Donovan Bixley

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_dinosaur_trouble_lava_melt_shakeIf you are trying to get girls or boys interested in reading and they just won’t budge, then have a go at these. Short, punchy and full of gross references like farts, dinosaur poos and eating vomit this series is about as kid-friendly as it comes. Better still the plots are mind numbing and dumb and completely without morals, scruples or any hint of a message of any kind.

These two are the first in the series, with plenty more to come I expect. They are short ‘incident’ stories featuring Arg (a very clever cave boy); Hng (his teen-dumb sister); Shlok (Arg’s BFF); and his mum and dad.

The Lava Melt Shake: When the ground begins to shake and volcanoes spew flames, Arg’s tribe is in danger! Arg is confined to barracks (i.e. his bedroom) to sit out the lava-storm. But does he listen? Of course not. After all there’s dinosaurs to fight and triceratops snot to content with. Plus a heap of other gooey and sticky situations. Against the dumb advice of the adult, Arg and his friend Shlok save the day, but in a very messy way. I Really enjoyed the way that Mewburn stacks gross event upon gross event. They wants us to bring up our lunch! Throwing in something cringeworthy and icky at every turn they can. After all living in the dinosaur age was pretty ‘basic’ and er, ‘base’. I think the boys of my 6 year old’s class would be rolling upon the carpet after listening to this one. My little one was too!

cv_dinosaur_trouble_the_great_egg_stink.jpgThe Great Egg Stink: This one is more of the same. Arg our smart wonder kid discovers his breakfast when mum brings home a dinosaur egg. His food is too cute to eat. But saving his new friend gets mega-messy! And so we get to meet Krrk-Krrk, a cute and loveable microceratops, who has all the charm and manners of a new puppy. Arg has to hide the critter from his family so he won’t get eaten. But that’s not an easy task. Sticking him down his top the lil’ dino farts, wees and even eats vomit – eeeew! Cool, eh? Not exactly the way to stay inconspicuous. You’ll have to read the book to find out how Arg gets away with it.

Both of these books fit the Scholastic Books template to a T – they are designed to get kids, and I suspect mainly boys, reading. Even if they are giggling over the gross bits it’s better than burying their nose in a tablet or XBox game. With Bixley’s trademark cartoon humour and Newburn’s short snappy sentences these short chapter books are good gateways to other material like Andy Griffith and Terry Denton’s XX-Story Treehouse series, which in turn could lead toward David Walliams and even Roald Dahl. Who knows. Either way, it’s a good thing.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Dinosaur Trouble: The Lava Melt Shake
by Kyle Mewburn
illustrated by Donovan Bixley
Published by Scholastic
ISBN 9781775433675

Dinosaur Trouble: The Great Egg Stink
by Kyle Mewburn
illustrated by Donovan Bixley
Published by Scholastic
ISBN 9781775433668

Book Review: The Battle of Hackham Heath, by John Flanagan

cv_the_battle_of_hackman_heathJohn Flanagan is most well known for his Rangers’ Apprentice series, featuring Will, a young man apprenticed to the mysterious ranger, Halt. In this series, Rangers’ Apprentice The Early Years, we join Halt in his early years of training, and see how Will’s world was formed.

I have not read the first in this series, but I found the story flowed very well regardless. Events in The Tournament at Gorlan were explained in enough detail to carry this story on and fill in the blank spaces. Having read the first few Rangers Apprentice books, Halt was no stranger to me. Hackham Heath picks up with Gorlan left off. Morgarath is exiled and in hiding, building an army by recruiting powerful wolf-apes known as Wargals, and plotting his vengeance on King Duncan. Halt is employed to uncover Morgarath’s secrets, whilst his friend Crawley is tasked with protecting the Queen and the heir she carries. Both tasks will require the young rangers to take great risks and make difficult choices, choices that will change their lives forever.

What follows is a fairly standard, albeit rather clever, medieval fantasy. Flanagan certainly knows his tactics and techniques, and creates a convincing and compelling battle (on Hackham Heath, as you may have guessed) that will keep younger readers eagerly turning the pages. There are several nods made towards the Ranger’s Apprentice series too, which should appeal to fans of the latter. Overall, a solid plot, characters that display appropriate levels of heroism, and a lot of action.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

The Battle of Hackham Heath
by John Flanagan
Published by Random House
ISBN 9781742759326

Book Review: Princess Cora and The Crocodile, by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Brian Floca

cv_princess_cora_and_the_crocodileAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

“Dear Grandmother,” goes the blurb on the back of this new book by Newbery Medallist* Laura Amy Schlitz, “Nobody listens to me. My mother and father won’t let me have a pet and Nanny says I don’t even want one. But I do. And I’m sick and tired of everything. Please help me. Love, Princess Cora.”

Yep, Princess Cora is in trouble. She’s totally constrained by her parent’s desire for her to be the best Princess ever! That means an eternal diet of study, physical training, etiquette schooling and absolute hygiene and cleanliness—at all times! Her life is full of exercises and regimes intended to prep her for her role as Princess. But she’s sick of running in circles around the dungeon gym. And she’s absolutely sick, sick, sick of taking three baths a day! There’s no time for play, getting grubby, reading comics—just being a kid. And she’d love a pet—a dog, a cat anything. Actually, she doesn’t really want one but she’d love the opportunity to decide for herself.

So, Cora writes to her fairy godmother for help.

However, she doesn’t expect that help to come in the form of a crocodile—a crocodile who does not behave properly (just like that rumbustious Cat in the Hat, it seems!). She becomes so frustrated that she falls under the spell of that wicked crocodile who sneaks her away from Princess duties for 24 hours. It’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for junior royalty! Well not quite. But things do get a little crazy but by the end both Cora and her parents learn a lesson. All things in moderation, in balance, a mix of what needs to be done and a time for play. A mix of the clean and the dirty. It’s a lesson for all of us. And uniquely told. How they get there, exactly, I’ll have to leave to you, dear reader. All I can say is – don’t trust a crocodile – ever!

With perfectly paced dry comedy, I found this to be a absolutely delightful adventure. A real balance between rebelliousness and responsibility. My 6-year-old could tell the difference, even offer a few cautious gasps here and there. But, on the other hand, there’s a lesson for us parents, too, to allow time for climbing trees, getting dirty, inventing, making mess and having fun! While Cora’s alter ego wreaks utter havoc inside the castle, our obliging royal helicopter parents must reconsider their ways. Before it’s all too gone. Sound like a bit of a comment on modern parenting?

As beginner’s chapter books go, this one is nicely meted out, with 8-10 pages per chapter and liberally interspersed with large, clear water colour style illustrations, courtesy of Caldecott Medal* winner Brian Floca. His simple pen and wash drawings have a slight likeness to some of my favourite English illustrators from the first half of the 20th Century (even though they are Americans). Personalities such as EH Shepard and W. Heath Robinson could ever so carefully sum up the middle classes with simple gentle humour. They always portrayed their people with pointed noses and flushed cheeks. Floca does the same with his. It’s like a throwback to the days of the Winnie the Pooh books or Enid Blyton—a time when a child’s life was less cluttered by electronica and there was more room for the imagination to grow. I’m not saying that Schlitz and Floca want to move back to that time entirely but it’s a move in that direction. As respected producers of children’s books they know what works and draw their inspiration from a classic period of children’s writing.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Princess Cora and The Crocodile
by Laura Amy Schlitz, Illustrated by Brian Floca
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9780763648220

*The John Newbery Medal and Randolph Caldecott Medal are awarded annually recognise the preceding year’s “most distinguished American picture book for children”. They are awarded to writers and illustrators by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA).

Book Review: William Wenton and the Luridium Thief, by Bobbie Peers, translated by Tara Chace

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_willian_wenton_and_the_luridium_thiefWilliam Wenton and the Luridium Thief was a big hit in Norway, where it walked away with the Ark’s Children’s Book Award in 2015. It has now been translated into 30 languages (including, obviously, English) and is set to become a feature film.

Eight years ago, William’s father was badly injured in a car accident and his grandfather vanished without a trace. Now his family are maintaining a low profile “hiding out” in Norway. William doesn’t know why, but he does know he must not draw attention to himself.

However, the arrival of the “Impossible Puzzle” proves an irresistible lure… and William’s love of cracking codes lead him to expose his talents, and therefore his family. Before they get the chance to flee to a more obscure location, William is captured and drawn into the mysterious Institute for Post-Human Research. Here he meets a wide range of bizarre robots with highly specialised skills, is given a special globe puzzle to solve and learns the secret of luridium, a rare metal that if it fell into the wrong hands, could cause disaster. Unfortunately there is someone else who wants it and will stop at nothing to have it – and William – under their control.

Aside from a few mild twists, the story followed fairly predictable lines. The pacing was good, with plenty of action and a few laughs, and, combined with the relatively simple language and short chapters, make it a good choice for the more reluctant or inexperienced reader. I did find it a bit disappointing that, despite being about code-breaking, there were no codes in the book for the reader to solve. Indeed, none were described in any detail, with William merely relying on his intuition to solve them.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

William Wenton and the Luridium Thief
by Bobbie Peers, translated by Tara Chace
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406371703

Book Review: Awatea’s Treasure, by Fraser Smith

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_awateas_treasure.jpgThis book is a great delight to read.

Awatea, the main character, has been sent to stay with his grandparents and uncles in the country because his dad is not well. The story is set in the far north of New Zealand, and the atmosphere created by Fraser Smith’s writing is very credible and evocative of life in a reasonably remote area.

I was drawn in to this book from the outset. The uncles, prone to fairly rough practical joking, were scarily good and set the scene well for the development of the book.
It has everything – the already mentioned scary uncles, relaxed but firm grandparents, an empty – possibly haunted – house next door, and beaches and forests to explore, neighbours (a long way away) with a nutty parrot and an unseen son. Magic, adventure, what’s not to like?

It’s an excellent story and I don’t want to give away too much detail, but Awatea finds a tree house with some things which surely belonged to the boy who built it – but who is he? Where is he? Is the treasure really valuable? And where does the guy with the horse fit in?
Just read it! I am sure that like you won’t put it down till you have finished.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Awatea’s Treasure
by Fraser Smith
Huia Publishers 2016
ISBN 9781775502944

Book Review: Clover Moon, by Jacqueline Wilson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_clover_moonJacqueline Wilson is admirably prolific. Penning her 100th title, Opal Plumstead, in 2014, Wilson is one of the biggest names in children’s literature in the UK and abroad. Clover Moon continues her fabulous work with vivacious female characters in historically-set fiction for children.

Clover Moon lives with her large family in the squalor of Cripps Alley, a slum in Victorian England. She’s the eldest of six children, and she spends most of her time entertaining and looking after her four half-siblings, her beloved sister Megs, and the other children who live in the alley. Clover’s own mother died in childbirth with Megs, and her father has since remarried a wicked woman named Mildred, who cares very little for Clover and beats her given any opportunity. Life in Cripps Alley is grim, yet Clover (who has been taught to read and write by the crippled doll maker, Mr. Dolly) remains forward-thinking and mostly hopeful about her future.

That is, until she loses the one person she loves most in the world, her sister Megs, to scarlet fever. With a life of servitude to Mildred or poorly-paying factory work ahead of her, Clover plans to escape Cripps Alley and runs away to a home for destitute girls, where a new realm of challenges and surprises awaits her.

Wilson does a fantastic job of truthfully exploring the grim realities of slum life in the Victorian era, without resorting to melodrama. Yet while Clover Moon explores the harsh realities and deep sadness of the time, the unwavering vibrancy of Clover herself keeps the tone up-beat and the plot moving.

At a hefty 385 pages, I would find it difficult to recommend Clover Moon as a gateway for new readers into Wilson’s work. However, veteran readers of Wilson’s fiction will no doubt devour this new tale from the bestselling author – it even features a short cameo appearance from Hetty Feather, one of Wilson’s most well-known heroines. Best of all, the ending is open and abrupt – it’s very possible we’ll be reading more about Clover Moon in the future.

Reviewed by Emma Bryson

Clover Moon
by Jacqueline Wilson
Doubleday Children’s Books
ISBN 9780857532749