‘Following Frankenstein’ – Catherine Bruton

 

Frankenstein has always had a special place in my reading experience, so as soon as I saw the title I was hooked.

Maggie Walton is the daughter of a man obsessed with Frankenstein’s creation, a man who has brought the family to nothing in his pursuit of the infamous monster. Maggie and her pet mouse, Victor, have grown up with stories of the search for Frankenstein’s creation. So, when her father decides to try one last time to find him, Maggie decides to stow away.

Her journey involves characters from many literary tales. Each plays their part in guiding Maggie to a journey that could not be believed in her wildest imaginings. A journey that involves the son of Frankenstein’s creation.

This was a story that took us through numerous landscapes, and which had – at its heart – the message to look beyond superficial differences and to value people for who they are. For a Frankenstein fan it was a real treat, but I think it could inspire new readers to dip their toes into Shelley’s world.

Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for allowing me to read this before publication.

‘The Bewitching of Aveline Jones’ – Phil Hickes

Summer holiday, and Aveline is with her mum in a remote cottage in a little village in the middle of nowhere. Boring…or at least it is until Aveline befriends one of the local girls who isn’t quite what she seems.

We can tell where this is going a mile off, but the story is engaging and offers some genuinely creepy moments. If you loved book one, this delivers another similarly engaging read.

Hazel and her desire to be friends with Aveline could have gone very differently, but we sense things will resolve themselves.

A quick read, giving just the right amount of creepy vibes. Thanks to NetGalley for letting me read this before publication.

 

‘The Book of Stolen Dreams’ – David Farr

 

When things are tough, you want those around you to be people you can trust. In the world we encounter at the start of this wondrous story, that is not necessarily the case. Under the rule of Charles Malstain life is dreary, and anyone who does not do as he requests is made to disappear. This is a time of dark secrets, where family are suspicious of each other and where things are about to get worse.

We don’t know why this has happened, but Farr immediately sets up a tense and unsettling atmosphere. We are introduced to our protagonists, Robert and Rachel Klein, when they accompany their father to the lending library where he works. This journey is done at night, and nobody is told about it so we know it is dangerous. All we know is that it has something to do with The Book of Stolen Dreams that Felix Klein steals – rumours are that it is scheduled to be destroyed – and charges his children with protecting until they can hand it over to a man called Solomon.

The children escape, but have to watch their father beaten by Malstain’s forces. They are subject to intimidation in their home as those under Malstain search desperately for the Book that the children vow to protect, though they don’t really know why.

As we follow Rachel and Robert in their task, they are placed in extreme peril. They suffer in the way that only young children in stories can. The odds are against them. They are pitched into a battle they might not win…but their determination to do the right thing and their bravery makes for a gripping story.

Along the way we meet a host of characters – at both ends of the spectrum. Malstain is a shadowy villain, orchestrating terrible deeds for his own selfish reasons. Opposing him are a motley crew, and not all are guaranteed to do the right thing when asked.

From the outset this was a book that delighted. Due for release in September 2021 I can’t wait to see the buzz it generates, and I’m grateful to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read it early.

‘The Dollhouse’ -Charis Cotter

The Dollhouse is a wonderfully atmospheric read, which blends seamlessly the ghostly with everyday life.

Our main character is Alice, a young girl whose parents are talking about getting a divorce. Alice is obviously in a state of upheaval, so it takes some time to establish what is happening and what is a reaction to those events. When her mother takes Alice to her new job – caring for the elderly recluse Mrs Bishop – Alice is struck by the strangeness of the home she has come to, but she puts her initial unease down to the lingering effects of the concussion she received in a train crash on the way down.

Mrs Bishop is suitably cantankerous, and Alice – understandably – is curious about this rambling home she has been brought to. When she discovers secret passages and locked rooms, of course she wants to know more.

The first part of the book sets up the characters well. There then felt to be a rather lengthy period where Alice is experiencing strange events linked to the dollhouse she finds in the locked attic. This part of the book was slow, and it seemed quite obvious what was happening. However, as we move further along it started to feel rather more ominous, and there was a noticeable creepiness to some of the events taking place.

All in all this was rather predictable in parts, but it was genuinely entertaining and well written. Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for allowing me to read this before publication.

 

‘The Forest of Stars’ – Heather Kassner

As a foray into fantasy this would be a great starting point. Darkness blends with magic, in this world where nothing is quite as it seems.

Louisa is only twelve when her mother dies. When she talks of love bugs eating her mother we know that things are rather different here. Left to fend for herself, Louisa is in a dangerous position. She fears anyone finding out her secret. She fears being alone. She yearns to find her father, who disappeared years ago. The only thing Louisa knows about him is that, like her, he can float.

When Louisa finds a ticket for The Carnival of the Stars she feels that this will be the place to go…a world where strange is welcomed. Can it help her on her quest?
What Louisa finds at the Carnival is unexpected. She finds friendship and security. She feels a hitherto unknown sense of belonging…and is reluctant to leave, even though she knows she should.

When strange accidents start to befall members of the Carnival Louisa recognises that someone is manipulating their collective magic. She, along with her new friends, is determined to learn who is behind it.

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this in exchange for my honest thoughts.

 

‘Amari and the Night Brothers’ – B.B. Alston

Amari and the Night Brothers is a book I’ve seen a few reviews on in the last few weeks, and though it’s firmly marketed as middle grade it will appeal to older readers too.

Our main character is Amari Peters, a young girl all too used to being judged because she comes from the wrong side of town. Her brother went missing and nobody has any idea whether he is alive or not, but Amari firmly believes that he was part of a secret organisation.

With our character set up, it doesn’t take long before we’re learning – along with Amari – of the existence of a whole new world. In this world, the supernatural and human co-exist and nobody has to hide their special skills.

Thanks to her brother Amari is offered a place at the summer camp run by the Bureau. Amari sees this as an opportunity to finally learn the truth about her brother-but first she has to master the challenges set if she is going to succeed in her mission to become a junior agent.

Learning about the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs at the same time as Amari was great fun. There was – I have to say – a very definite sense of being able to predict the general setting and character details, but though there was a sense of familiarity to the general details, there was a freshness to the specifics that completely won me over.

Amari is a quietly courageous character, a good friend and determined to see the best in people. She makes mistakes, but learns from them. She wants to help others and she has some of the best experiences (though they are pretty terrifying when you read them).

Having bought this for myself, I’ve just bought a physical copy to share with students in school and it’s on the list of bedtime stories to share with my ten year old. Loved it!

 

‘Maybe He Just Likes You’ – Barbara Dee

A timely read, and one I’ll be highly recommending to my students – male and female.

Our main character, Mila, is a student like so many others. Shy in some situations, self-conscious and keen to do the right thing. Very aware of how her peer relationships are changing, her experience will resonate with many readers.

One day Mila finds herself caught up in a situation that she is uncertain how to deal with. A group of her male classmates trick her into giving someone a birthday hug. Over subsequent days she finds the boys coming up with excuses to touch her. This makes her feel uncomfortable, but she worries about who she could talk to.

Her best friend Zara says it’s flirting. Others in their group suggest she should tell someone about it. They recognise it’s making her feel bad, but none of them are able to articulate what is happening.

Following events from Mila’s perspective allows us to identify with her and her reactions. It was fascinating to see how some of the characters reacted to events, and this is certainly a book that would make people pause awhile and consider what part they might play in encouraging all to feel comfortable in themselves and their environment.

 

 

‘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.