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Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Review: Digging in the Dark

Author: Hilda Offen

Release date: February 2012
Genre: Comedy
Target audience: Emerging Readers, 7+
UK Publisher: Catnip Publishing


Digging in the Dark is a short novel for young readers. It’s a comic family story with a real adventure and is a great first novel for boys.

Josh is as surprised as his mum and sister Izzie, when their cousin Malcolm is dumped on their doorstep. His aunt and uncle disappear without a word of explanation and Malcolm refuses to say where they’ve gone. Josh suspects they may be on the run after committing a fiendish crime. But whatever the reason, Josh is lumbered with his uncommunicative cousin. Josh tries to be friendly but Malcolm doesn’t share his interests. In fact Malcolm is only interested in one thing: archaeology.

This short novel is packed full of twists and turns. The plot is incredibly tight and even though I was sure I knew why Malcolm’s parents had disappeared, I couldn’t have been more wrong. What a talented writer Hilda Offen is! As an adult reader, I enjoyed this book so much. Josh’s character is easy to relate to. He tries to do the right thing by his cousin even though he’s annoying. There is also the great problem children face on a daily basis: embarrassing parents.

As well as the family comedy, the book is full of drama and action. There is a wild sense of freedom for the boys as they venture over the back garden and into the overgrown woodland beyond. Boys who love reading historical non-fiction will delight in reading this book. There are lots of references to the Ancient Romans and World War II.

Digging in the Dark is an outstanding novel. I can’t think of a single aspect of the writing that could be improved. There were great chapter endings that had me wanting to read on and there was a convincing witty narrative. The book is beautifully interspersed with illustrations which add to the comic, tightly woven plot. I wholeheartedly recommend it!

Source: Review copy sent by Catnip.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Review: Kenny and the Dragon

Author: Tony DiTerlizzi

Release date: Paperback edition 2009
Genre: Fantasy
Target audience: 7+
UK Publisher: Simon and Schuster


Kenny and the Dragon is a short fantasy novel reworking the legend of Saint George and the Dragon.

Kenny is a young rabbit who loves reading stories and studying natural history. He is an intelligent boy and finds it hard to fit in at school. Kenny’s dad discovers that a dragon has taken up residence on their land. Terrified, he tells his family that they need to move home as soon as possible. But Kenny being a brave and inquisitive little rabbit goes armed with the King’s Bestiary to meet the dragon.

Grahame is unlike any dragon Kenny has ever read about. He has never killed another creature and has no intention of doing so. He is a lover of words and plays and has a flamboyant air about him. Kenny and Grahame become friends and enjoy reading together. But when the townsfolk discover they have a dragon in their midst, they want him slain. Kenny visits George at the bookshop to ask for his help but what he discovers threatens to make enemies of his two best friends.

This is a sweet but bizarre little book. The story seems to me to fit a 7+ audience but the word level is more akin to a 9+ novel. Words such as: impudent, smorgasbord and uncultivated. Also, there are many references to famous literary works which I think younger children will be unfamiliar with – King Lear for instance. This leaves me in a quandary: Is the book meant to be read by adults to children? Is that why there are jokes and references that adults will enjoy but that most children won’t understand? Or is it a short book for older readers? I think it’s the former. It mentions Wind in the Willows and it seems like a contemporary twist on that type of animal tale. I believe that this book is a homage from Tony DiTerlizzi to Kenneth Grahame as the character names are a reference to him.

Kenny and the Dragon is certainly charming. The illustrations are enchanting and entirely adorable. The characters’ are beautifully drawn and their personalities leap off the page. If you wanted a short story to read to a class about Saint George and Dragon, this novel would fit perfectly. It is also a great way to discuss friendships with primary age children too – especially if one child is feeling left out after their best friend has made a new friend. Any child who loves stories of knights, castles and fairy tales will love this book.

Source: Borrowed from the School Library.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Review: The Art of Fielding

Author: Chad Harbach

Release date: This UK paperback 16th April 2012
Genre: Modern Fiction / Sport Fiction / Contemporary
Target audience: Adult
UK Publisher: HarperCollins (4th Estate Imprint)


I found The Art of Fielding on the London Underground. Or rather I saw a big poster advertising it and the cover caught my attention – it just screamed American college students. I made a mental note of the title so that I could look it up when I got home. As soon as I read the blurb, I knew I had to have it. Also there was a quote on the front from Jonathan Frazen who has this special skill for finding outstanding books. My next stop is to read a book by Mr Franzen. Anyway, all this is the story which brought me to be reading this adult novel about baseball, about relationships between people and about identity.

The story is told in the third person viewpoint (almost omniscient) following five main characters as they make their way through life at Westish College. First up is Mike Schwartz – he is on both the football team and the baseball team. The thing about Mike is that he has this knack of being able to get people to do whatever he wants. You could say he has the gift of the gab but it’s more than that. He’s passionate about winning and he manoeuvres people into making them make choices that he wants them to make. He’s not a star player, he’s not an academic genius but he gets people. I think I liked Mike best of all. But I started out being Henry’s fan. Henry Skrimshander lives for only one thing – baseball. His school days are nearly over and he thinks his dream of being a baseball star is over but then he meets Mike Schwartz.

Mike observes Henry in action after a game. Henry is a shortstop. (If like me you don’t have a clue about baseball, don’t worry. You can still figure out the essential stuff.) Mike does his thing and Henry ends out going to Westish. When he gets there he meets his roommate, Owen Dunne. He too is on the baseball team. He earned his place at Westish after winning an Award. He’s a literary intellectual. Owen helps Henry navigate college life. He is perhaps more of a “knowing” character than the others. He gives off an air of self-confidence and being comfortable in his own skin which the others do not.

Our final two characters are father and daughter. Guert Affenlight is the president of the college. He was once a Harvard professor but he is Westish through and through. His estranged daughter Pella, 23, arrives having left her husband without telling him. Their two lives become intertwined with our three baseball heroes and their ambitions.

Harbach’s characterisation is so detailed that it makes you feel every emotion and believe every sentiment. It is as if you live these five lives as you read and become at one with the story. You live the highs and the lows of college life. I haven’t mentioned the plot and that’s because this is a novel about characters – if you need a plot, then it’s centred upon them following their dreams and the difficulties they face in trying to make them come true. That sounds so clichéd but it really isn’t. This is not a Hollywood movie.

I love this book. I love the setting of Westish. I love the characters and their quirks. I love the literary references to Moby Dick. This is a debut novel and that makes me sad because I want to read another book by Chad Harbach. When I voiced this to my husband, he said “but that means you have so much to look forward to. All the books he’s yet to write”. I guess he’s right.

Recommended for fans of:

·         Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

Source: Bought from Amazon  

Monday, 21 May 2012

Picture Books by Theme: Pirates

A list of picture books on the theme of Pirates! We've been using these at school to support classroom learning.

Pirate House Swap by Abie Longstaff

The Pirates Next Door by Jonny Duddle

The Pirate Cruncher by Jonny Duddle

The Treasure of Captain Claw by Jonathan Emmett

Class Three All at Sea by Julia Jarman

Cats Ahoy! by Peter Bently

The Night Pirates by Peter Harris

Pirate Small in Big Trouble by Julie Sykes
If you have any other suggestions for this list, please share them in the comments. I'm always looking to develop our collection.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Review: The Magicians' Guild

Author: Trudi Canavan

Release date: Paperback Feb 2004
Genre: Fantasy
Target audience: 12+
UK Publisher: Orbit
ISBN: 978-1841493138


The Magicians’ Guild is a high fantasy novel with an endearing cast of characters.

Sonea is a girl from the slums which encircle the outer wall of the city. Uneducated and impoverished, Sonea despises the magicians who do nothing to help the poor and enable the soldiers to abuse them. Once every year the magicians purge the streets of the underclass and the children of the slums rebel by throwing stones at their powerful shield. This year the purge is different from any other. Sonea stands with her friends and readies herself to throw a stone at the shield. She wills it to pass through the shield and with a great flash of light, it does just that. No one is more surprised than Sonea that she has magic. It was believed by all, including the magicians, that only those born into the Great Houses had the gift.

The attention of the Guild turns towards Sonea. With the help of her friends, she goes into hiding to escape the magicians. But they are searching for her and it is a race against time. Sonea’s powers are growing and soon she will lose all control and endanger the lives of everyone around her.

The first half of this book was incredibly frustrating to read. Sonea is in a very passive position once she goes into hiding. She does little more than test her magic in a locked room. The wait for the Guild to locate her became more and more irritating as I felt the outcome was inevitable. It was difficult to see if the obstacles she had to overcome were actually needed for her character development or the plot. Sometimes it seemed the author was stalling for no obvious reason. Having said that once the Guild had finally located Sonea I couldn’t put the book down. I was enthralled and really enjoyed her emotional journey. In the second half of the book the plot events had real meaning to her development. I was actually so addicted by the end of the story that I had to pick up the second book straightaway. It is such a luxury these days to read a series back to back.

One of the more unusual things about this YA series is that the author follows multiple viewpoint characters in the third person. Sonea is certainly the main character. But we also follow Rothen. He is a Guild magician, an older man, a teacher at the University and a character with a great sense of responsibility. Then there is Dannyl, he was once Rothen’s novice. Dannyl has a terrible problem with curiosity. It leads him into all kinds of interesting and highly dangerous situations. Then we also follow Cery. He is Sonea’s best friend and will do anything to protect her. All the viewpoint characters have an individual charm. I really warmed to Canavan’s characterisation.

Regardless of the slow and winding first half, I really did enjoy this book. It was full of dark and mysterious figures, twists and a compelling fantasy world. I definitely want to read more by Trudi Canavan once I’ve finished The Black Magician Series.

Recommended for fans of:

Source: Borrowed from my sister.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Review: Beat the Band

Author: Don Calame

Release date: 1st February 2012
Genre: Comic Realism
Target audience: 12+
UK Publisher: Templar


Beat the Band is the sequel to the hilarious Swim the Fly. You can read my review of the first novel HERE.

This novel is another comical, daft teenage drama. Told from Coop’s point of view, the story follows the three guys through their first semester of the new school year. After an epic summer, Coop, Matt and Sean are back to reality. Matt is still hopelessly devoted to the lovely Valerie. Sean is still loopy. Coop is the guy who ropes them into all kinds of trouble.

Cooper is a really funny viewpoint character. He is crude, all about self-preservation and has pretty much a one track mind. When the hand of fate deals up Helen Harriwick as his health partner, Coop is desperate to save his image. What could be worse than having to do a project with the school outcast? Doing a project with the school outcast on the topic of contraception. Coop is traumatised by the thought that his sex life will be over before it has even begun. He can’t face the social ridicule dumped on him because he has to work with Helen. He isn’t exactly your heroic type of guy. But that just adds to the believability factor. Cooper is really self-centred. He decides the answer to his problems lays in the Beat the Band contest because who gets more respect and chicks than a rock god?!

Coop is on a mission to revive the band and convinces Matt and Sean that they must help. I really liked that Coop was always leading the other two guys astray. The plot was perhaps not all that surprising but it had its own unique voice and twists which carried it off in glorious fashion. In fact, I was completely invested in the story. Despite all his self-centredness, Coop can’t help but see beyond the hideous reputation Helen has to see the funny, caring, intelligent girl underneath. But odd habits die hard for Coop and even though he begins to have feelings for Helen, the prospect of ruining his chances with the popular girls, stops him from confessing his mistakes.

One of the things that I really liked about this book was the portrayal of Cooper’s parents. His dad recently lost his job and he is having trouble dealing with it so he throws himself into managing Cooper’s band. The themes of recession, employment and parental illness all feature in the novel and it was refreshing to see an author engaging with them. It is all too tempting to “get rid of the parents” and let’s face it, most teenagers are dealing with them. Beat the Band is full of issues that teen readers with identify with.

It’s a fantastically funny story, full of vibrant characters and brilliant dialogue. Beat the Band is a must read! (Especially if you want to know how a teenage boy’s mind works!)

Recommended for fans of:

Source: Bought from Blackwells.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Review: Insurgent

Author: Veronica Roth

Release date: 1st May 2012
Genre: Dystopia
Target audience: 12+
UK Publisher: HarperCollins

Insurgent is the sequel to the Divergent. If you haven’t read the fantastic first novel, check out my review of Divergent HERE. Do not read the Insurgent review below because it will spoil the epic adventure you have yet to partake of. You have been warned!

***I am Team Erudite!***


The question on every reader’s lips must surely be: is Insurgent as good as Divergent? I am thrilled to tell you that it is. Insurgent will not disappoint you. If it is possible, Insurgent may be even better. I absolutely loved it.

We return to the Divergent world of a future Chicago. Tris is exactly where you left her at the end of the last book. Accompanied by Four, Caleb, Peter and Marcus, she is on the train heading for the Amity community. Centred upon their belief in peace, Amity will surely offer refuge to those who have defected from their factions. Surely they are the one faction who can help resolve the discord and destruction caused by the Erudite’s manipulation of the Dauntless.

Tris is in a state of grief and despair. The loss of her parents is a hole that cannot be filled. Her guilt threatens to consume her as she hides the reason she can’t face holding a gun from Four. But he is keeping his own secrets and a wedge is driving between them.

The plot of this story is focused upon finding out why Jeanine – leader of the Erudite – was trying to exterminate (or mind-control) the Abnegation. Tris is sure it was more than just power she was after and she is determined to find out the truth. Then there is the other problem – just what does it mean to be divergent and why is Jeanine hell-bent on identifying every single one of them? It’s an explosive, full-throttle, roller-coaster ride to discover the answers.

I think this book is an interesting exploration of the idea of peer pressure and conformity. When we join a group, the identity of the group can usurp our own. It is easier to let the group pull you along than consider actions and consequences and make your own choices. We are somehow more accountable for our individual choices than we are for ones we make collectively. Isn’t this how wars are won and fought? We can dehumanise those outside of our group rather than think of each person as an individual like us. It’s a fascinating concept which the author explores and really made me stop and think.

Insurgent is a complete page turner: thrilling, emotional and thought-provoking. At the heart of this story is human nature. We are flawed. Society is flawed. Roth examines the question of our emotional ties. Are our family more important than our friends? Is the truth more important than anything? I cannot wait for the next instalment.  The Divergent future is surely going to be hypnotic and compelling!

Recommended for fans of:
Source: Review copy sent by HarperCollins.