‘When the World Was Ours’ – Liz Kessler

While this story will seem familiar in some ways, it offers an approach to the topic of the Second World War that will not fail to impact on readers.
At its heart this is a story about faith, love and having the courage to stay hopeful even in our darkest moments. It covers a period in history that cannot fail to shock, but what struck me in this was the emotional impact the book held.
Our story focuses on three children – Max, Leo and Elsa. Best friends, their story begins with a memory of a wonderful birthday celebration where they rode on a fairground ride, shared cake with one another, smiled and laughed. They each have a picture of that day. That picture becomes significant.
Told through their alternating perspectives, we start to see the fracturing of their idyllic childhood. Living at a time when fascism is on the rise, we know things are going to get tense. When we learn that Elsa and Leo are Jewish, we sense the personal conflict to come. Once we learn that Max’s father is becoming a much respected member of the Nazi party we get an inkling of how this might go.
Ambitious in its scope, we focus on a substantial period of history. We are given facts about the experiences the children have, while learning about the reality of the period. Disturbing, yes, but necessary if we are to ensure people do not forget what happened. There are details that will shock and upset readers – but I think this is inevitable when grappling with this historical experience. Told from the views of the children there is a simplicity to their accounts that, perhaps, renders events a little less upsetting.
Each of the children has a very different war-time experience. Leo manages to flee to England with his mother, desperate for news of his father who was sent to Dachau. Elsa remains with her family through many of the indignities bestowed on her simply because of her faith, but she is separated from them when they are taken to Auschwitz. Max has always been desperate for his father’s approval, and his need to belong and gain admiration makes him susceptible to the indoctrination of the Nazi party. As his father rises in power, Max follows. He too ends up in Auschwitz.
As we drew to the close of the book I had to face the stark reality that these three characters were not all going to get their happy ending. Some might not even survive the experience. By the end, that picture had come back to haunt us. Such a simple image, but it came to mean so much.
I’m grateful to NetGalley for allowing me to read this in advance of its late January publication, and will have no qualms about recommending it to readers.

 

‘The Star Outside My Window’ – Onjali Q. Raúf

Aniyah and her brother, Noah, have gone to live with Mrs I and the children she fosters. We know very little about their circumstances but can glean something major has happened. Both are traumatised by their experiences and talk of their mum becoming a star hints at what might have happened.

As the story progresses we learn of the games they used to play with their mum that clearly indicate a life of abuse at the hands of their father. Their wariness and defence mechanisms are tough to read about as an adult.

Reading this as an adult was probably quite a different experience to that of the target audience. Much is hinted at and the details are sparse, but they offer enough to firmly place you on the side of these kids and others like them.

The main focus of the story is the madcap plan to get to the Royal Observatory in order to make sure that the newly discovered star is given their mother’s name. Ignoring plausibility this was the kind of madcap scheme that had you hoping they’d succeed. It was also a welcome relief to have the madcap dash – involving a brilliant moment with squirrels – to offset the high emotional impact of this story.

Though it was clear what had happened, the final stages of this where Aniyah has her moment of acceptance were hard. In spite of sitting on the bus reading I had tears rolling down my face and found myself needing a moment to digest what, for me, was a sensitively told story but what, for many, will be a grim reality.

 

‘The Graveyard Book’ – Neil Gaiman

 

The Graveyard Book opens by plunging us into the horror surrounding a young toddler. His family are murdered by a sinister man known only as Jack, but he is saved by his curiosity because earlier in the night he escaped his cot and made his way outside and to the graveyard at the top of the hill near his house. Marked from the very start as a rather unusual character, our young toddler is saved by the Owenses…who just happen to be dead.

From his unlikely beginning our young toddler – Nobody Owens – is granted the right to live in the graveyard and to learn their ways. He is very much alive, but is given these magical skills to enable him to escape detection. His guardian, Silas, protects him and ensures someone is always available to look after him.

We watch Bod grow. He makes a tentative friendship, examines the world around him and is privy to many of the mysteries surrounding the dead. His curiosity develops as he learns about the world around him – and all too soon he shows a dangerous (yet very understandable) desire to learn how to navigate the land of the living.

Going to school causes problems. Bod can’t help but draw attention to himself, and so we watch the noose tighten as those who started by trying to kill him return and attempt to finish their task.

There was a wistful tone to this as we know Bod has to live his life, but his life with the dead was so positive it felt awful that he had to make this step.

‘Rumblestar’ – Abi Elphinstone

The time it took me to listen to this on audio is, in no way, a sign of my feelings about the book. I am pretty new to using audiobooks and find certain conditions/settings make it easier for me to follow the story when I don’t have the physical text in front of me.

This is a great adventure, with characters that you can’t help but admire, want to succeed and which made me feel a lot braver just reading about them. Eleven year old Casper likes routine and his life is led by his timetables. Unfortunately, these timetables mostly consist of helping him to avoid the school bullies determined to make his life awful.

One day Casper finds himself hiding in a clock to escape them, and is transported to a magical world. Rumblestar is a strange place, full of whimsy, but the characters he meets as he tries to prevent the evil taking over the world. From Arlo the dragon to his first proper friend, Utterly Thankless, these characters were full of life.

There was a great blend of fear and humour, and our character’s journey was inspirational. Huge thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for letting me listen to this prior to publication.

 

‘The Haunting of Aveline Jones’ – Phil Hickes

There’s a chill in the air, the leaves are starting to come down and we’re almost into October…so this was a perfect time to curl up on the sofa and read this ghost story.
Aveline Jones is a serious young girl, used to spending time alone and she loves nothing more than to read ghost stories under the covers. As her half-term approaches, Aveline is upset to be forced to spend the holiday with her aunt in the Cornish seaside town of Malmouth.
From the moment she arrives Aveline senses something odd about the place – from the remote setting to the strange child-shaped mannequins that decorate many of the houses. Her aunt’s home makes strange noises and for a child used to living in the city this is a place where her imagination can run riot.
Aveline finds herself pushed into visiting the local bookstore. There she finds a friend in its chatty owner and his nephew, but she also discovers a mysterious book telling some of the local stories.
The setting is perfect for this quite charming story. Everything is quickly put in place, and though we have an idea that something scary is going to happen (which is, naturally, linked to the book Aveline has bought) there’s a reassuring adult presence to stop it being too scary for its intended audience. Aveline is a determined and resourceful character, whose imagination is to be lauded but there’s a resilience to her that I couldn’t help but admire.
A must-read for those who like to be scared without being terrified, and the illustrations were perfect for setting the mood of each chapter.
Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to review this before its release…and I can’t be the only one excited to see there’s a second book to come.

‘Hollowpox: the Hunt for Morrigan Crow’ – Jessica Townsend

What an October treat this will be for many readers, and I’m thrilled to have been given the opportunity via the publishers and NetGalley to read it before publication (and desperate for my pre-order to arrive so I can read it again).

For a book targeting younger readers, our third instalment takes a dangerous turn that brings darkness to Nevermoor. The threat comes in the form of a virus (I did wonder if Townsend had the ability to see into the future!) called the Hollowpox that infects wunimals and forces them to act in self-destructive and dangerous ways. The infection rate is small, initially, but quickly takes hold and rises to the level that means it cannot be ignored. Restrictions are imposed and fear of what is to come spreads.

Alongside this very real threat hovers the fear Morrigan has of Squall, the link they seem to share and what it will mean for her to be a Wundersmith. Now in her next year of studies Morrigan is granted the opportunity to study more of the craft that few seem to understand, many fear and yet which offers real potential. Through some inventive teaching methods she gets to learn more about Wunder and how she can manipulate it. It also means she gets to see more of Squall, and comes to see him as human.

Throughout the book the focus is on the Hollowpox and its impact. However, Townsend seamlessly blends this bigger picture with the emotional journey of Morrigan and some cracking scenes that really had me racing through the pages. The writing, throughout, is vibrant and there are several moments (you’ll know them when you get there) that really had me guessing in which direction this was going to go.

I can safely this was a read that I’d highly recommend.

 

‘Thirteens’ – Kate Alice Marshall

Kate Alice Marshall’s first foray into middle grade books…and it is a beauty!

The town of Eden Eld is a quiet, prosperous town where nothing really happens. Eleanor (always known as Elle to her mum) has just moved there to live with her aunt after an awful incident. She feels ill at ease, and is definitely not made any more comfortable by the strange things she sees and hears around her.

On her first day at school Elle is befriended by Otto and Pip, two larger than life characters who can also see these strange creatures. They try to help Elle settle in, but it quickly becomes apparent that these three have been brought together for a reason.

The reason is linked to a mysterious book of fairy tales that Elle remembers her mother reading to her. The stories talk of a character called Mr January who struck a bargain with the inhabitants of Eden Eld…that every thirteen years he would take three children, all born on Halloween, and they would never be heard of again. In exchange the town would prosper.

Naturally, our three new friends learn that they’re the intended targets for this year’s sacrifice. We follow them on their quest to break the curse.
As the mother of a child born on Halloween I couldn’t resist this. The story is slight fully quirky – dark and yet not overly scary. I love the hints of more to come…wouldn’t it be great to see them again and see whether they succeed in their new aim?

 

‘The Lost Soul Atlas’ – Zana Fraillon

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this in advance of publication.

We know little about Twig, but when he wakes up at the start of the book we’re told he is in the Afterlife. He is in a world like nothing he’s ever seen before, and his guide through is a raven called Kurrk! who gets more than a little frustrated at Twig’s refusal to follow the rules expected of him. With just an atlas and an assortment of other objects, Twig determines to find his way to the other side and to avoid the guardians looking for him.

During his journey we learn a little more about Twig and his life on the streets. We’re never entirely sure what happened to his Da, and whether the creature he calls the Hoblin is really his gangland grandmother or a made-up thing. We find out a little about his life on the streets and how – along with petty thief Flea – he is forced to steal to survive.

While Twig’s life is not one you would aspire to, he has a bond with those he lives with that is to be envied. Fraillon uses these characters to highlight some of the injustices in the modern world, while the magical elements keep it from being too bleak.

 

‘Death Sets Sail’ – Robin Stevens

I can’t believe we’ve arrived at book nine of Daisy and Hazel’s adventures already, and that this is it. Due in August 2020, I feel privileged to have been given the opportunity to read it early…and, boy, is it a treat!

Death Sets Sail really is a homage to Agatha Christie, with the girls taking part on a cruise on the Nile as they are invited on holiday with school friend, Amina. Along with the boys from the Pinkerton Agency, Daisy and Hazel quickly get caught up in the activities surrounding a mysterious group of wealthy individuals who all believe themselves to be reincarnations of Egyptian leaders. When one of their group is murdered, we have a quick confession and everything seems straightforward.

Nothing is ever so simple. The girls – with a little help from Hazel’s amazing little sister who is, most definitely, a voice to watch – are not convinced the sleepwalking murderer story is wholly plausible. With their usual spirited and wholly intuitive approach to detection, Daisy and Hazel are determined to crack the case.

From the outset we’re alerted to a truly shocking fact. This looms large and overshadows every single advance in the investigation. As we moved towards this moment I felt genuine horror that we might actually have to face this, and there would be no last-minute reprieve or a twist we weren’t expecting. When it finally arrived I was a little surprised that we had waited so long and wondered why Stevens had organised things as she did.

Not wanting to spoil anything for anyone reading this I apologise for sounding so cryptic.

So, it really is over. I’ve loved this series and watching the girls develop as characters as they learn about their world. Each book has its charm, but I think this really does go down as my favourite because of the possibilities it leaves open for me to create my own ideas about the future for those involved.

 

‘Bloom’ – Kenneth Oppel

The last book I read by Kenneth Oppel was Inkling, so this was quite a different experience but similarly engaging.

Our story takes place on a small island, and our main focus is three younger characters who are somewhat isolated from their peers. We have fostered Seth, Anaya who is allergic to everything and Petra who is allergic to water. We are not quite sure what unites these three at first, but when the rain comes we start to get little clues that there might be more going on than we might have ever dreamed of.

With the rain comes new plants…black vines that grow rapidly and spread pollen that causes extreme allergies in anyone coming into contact with them. Before too long the vines are taking over and we have a worldwide state of emergency. Something has to be done, but we see that nobody really knows what to do when they’re facing something they’ve never dealt with before (the parallels with the current situation regarding Covid-19 make this all the more terrifying). The only thing we do learn quite early on is that Seth, Anaya and Petra are seemingly immune to these plants.

What we get is a rather slow start but the tension is quickly ramped up once we find out a little more about the plants. Oppel creates a drama-filled experience and an awful lot gets thrown into the mix, but it works.

It was great to see the bond develop between the three characters, and there were positives in terms of the initial threat. They come out on top. But the chilling ending serves as a reminder that we’re dealing with something new…something that might have more to come…what will the people of Earth do when the second wave hits? I can’t wait to find out.