Blog

The Bandit Queen by Natalia and Lauren O’Hara

“O Bandit Queen!” the bandits cried.
“Little horror! Poison weed!
We’ll give you everything a queen could ever need…”

Just like its sister Hortense and the Shadow, this picture book is a treasure. An orphan girl is stolen by mischievous bandits and made their queen. But faced with the difficult and unavoidable task of growing up, she needs help– help she feels the bandits are too childish to give. Back at school, she soon realises that she misses her family, and they miss her. And the bandits promise once again to give her everything a growing queen could ever need.

“We know you felt mad,
And lonely and sad –
We’re sorry as sorry can be.
But whatever you do
We’ll always love you.
We’ll help you be all you can be.”

This is a gorgeous book about growing up and finding your tribe. The language is rich and full of rhythm and rhyme with a touch of hilarious potty humour. There’s a great contrast between some pages stuffed full of fabulous words and others with only three or four– each making a statement in their own way.

As always, the illustrations and colour palettes are stunning– vibrant and whimsical. This is a picture book aimed at small children but will definitely appeal to older ones as well– it has a ‘grown-up’ picture book feel.

Thank you to Natalia and Lauren for this beautiful copy– yet another success!

The Eleventh Trade by Alyssa Hollingsworth

“The world inside me expands. Even though my eyes are closed, I see my home.”

 

9781250155764.jpg

Back in Afghanistan, Sami’s grandfather was a famous musician. Even now in Boston, the sound of his instrument, the rebab, is the sound of home.

Then the rebab is stolen and appears in a shop for $700. Sami has no money and nothing to sell. What he does have is something to trade. 

But there are two sides to every bargain, and Sami’s chance of success depends on the very last thing he wants– help. 

Sami, a refugee from Afghanistan, begins to trade items with the kids in his new American school so that he can buy back his stolen rebab and gift it to his grandfather on Eid Al-Fith, a celebration that marks the end of Ramadan. Throughout his quest to bring the music of home back to Baba’s soul, Sami must confront his memories and learn to trust and accept help from his new friends.

This is a humbling novel that is full of the truths of the refugee crisis and the war, persecution and grief that lay in its wake. Alyssa Hollingsworth showcases the breathtakingly beautiful Afghan culture and challenges the xenophobic and stereotypical way that Islam is often portrayed in the media.

The plot is tight and fast-paced and every word has been carefully chosen. Sami is such a sweet, relatable character. His memories of his life back in Afghanistan– and the lyrical way Alyssa describes them– were completely immersive. The secondary characters are just as real and as complex as the protagonist, and Sami’s growing relationships with each of them are authentically portrayed. The scenes in which Sami experiences PTSD are painfully real and skillfully written and I finished the final chapter teary-eyed.

This is a vibrant, relevant book which reveals the terrible suffering of refugees, but nevertheless reassures us that there is always hope after trauma– and that new friendships can be the source of that hope.

The Eleventh Trade is an utterly moving debut and– in the current political climate–it’s exactly the kind of book we all need to read.

Aimed at readers aged 10-14.

Blog Tour: Matt Killeen|Orphan Monster Spy|In Celebration of Female Heroes

ORPHAN MONSTER SPY BLOG TOUR GRAPHIC

I’m pleased to be taking part in Matt Killeen’s blog tour, in which he shares with us his female heroes, both real and fictional. Matt is the author of Orphan Monster Spy, which I reviewed here.


Rebecca “Newt” Jorden from Aliens

James Cameron’s Aliens dominated my adolescence and remains one of my favourite movies, a terrifying roller-coaster piece of action that is almost perfect in its execution. To say it has influenced me would be an understatement – I spent a year or more making a living role-playing a character that crossed Apone and Full Metal Jacket’s drill-sergeant. While it did not invent the strong heroine trope, it is probably the piece of media that made it most famous. Watching Ripley turn to the opening lift doors, armed to the teeth and ready for action with a look of determined terror in her eyes, is one of cinema’s great moments. However, there are several aspects and subtexts that make Ripley a problematic figure, in a film that struggles with its feminist identity. For example, the faithless mother seeking redemption, becomes the soldier that the marines were not. It’s all very kick-ass but in a symbolically male fashion.

Therefore, my feminist heroine of choice here is Newt, the six-year-old lone survivor of the doomed colony of LV-426. Her family and community became victims of a powerful horror and it transpires, a terrible crime. This has happened for reasons entirely beyond her responsibility, yet she has not allowed herself to join them as a victim.

8567

When she is found by Ripley and the marines, she has evaded some 150 aliens by using the ventilation shafts for many weeks, a constantly defensive and non-violent tactic that relied on her own cunning and intelligence. Newt’s resilience is astounding. While clearly traumatised and damaged by her experiences, she remained and remains functional while other adults cannot. She has simply refused to give up.

She also has maintained her humanity as best she can. In addition to the necessary rations, she has gathered pretty things to decorate her ventilation shaft home, presumably at some risk. Clinging to her awards for service to the colony that no longer exists, because they are part of her identity, she also holds onto her humour, saluting Hudson and reminding Ripley that her doll is really just a piece of plastic. Most remarkable is her willingness to remain vulnerable. She takes a chance on Ripley, when her rational mind warns her otherwise, because she is brave enough to gamble on a normal life. Her only wish is sleep without nightmares.

Newt is, like most great women, also correct about pretty much everything. The soldiers did not make any difference, there are monsters and they mostly come out at night. Mostly.

The actress, Carrie Henn, was untrained, inexperienced and barely ten years old when she played Newt, coached to a stunning performance of great precocity by Cynthia Scott, who played Corporal Dietrich alongside her. Like her on-screen self, Carrie took a path of self-preservation by walking away from what would have been an instant career in Hollywood to forge a life entirely on her own terms. She reminds us that personal choice is an essential feminist act.


Thanks for sharing, Matt!

You can follow Matt on Twitter here. The next stop on the tour will be The Ya’s Nightstand.

Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen

IMG_4256

A teenage spy. A Nazi boarding school. The performance of a lifetime.

Sarah has played many roles – but now she faces her most challenging of all. Because there’s only one way for a Jewish orphan spy to survive at a school for the Nazi elite. And that’s to become a monster like them.

Survive. Deceive. Resist.

They think she is just a little girl. But she is the weapon they never saw coming… with a mission to destroy them all.

“History has to be burned into the imagination before it can be received by the reason”- Lord Macaualy.

I was drawn to this book as soon as I read the author’s letter that came with the review copy I was sent by Usborne. Matt Killeen stresses the importance of history in our society in light of the times we’re living in. How many of us would like to think we would have protected jews during the war? Are we standing up for those who are being persecuted today?

This is a terrifying book; intense, disturbingly violent and eye-opening. I couldn’t put it down.

Fifteen-year-old jew Sarah finds herself working as a spy in Nazi Germany in the build-up to WWII. Her task is to infiltrate a prestigious school for Nazi girls to get an invitation to the house of one of her classmates, in order to help sabotage the terrible weapon her father is creating. This book contains starvation, brutal nazi girls, paedophiles and murderous parents…all acting in the name of ‘The Reich’.

Thanks to her actress mother, Sarah is used to playing different roles, but now she must become one of her tormentors. She’s a little girl who goes to terrifying lengths to survive and to stay sane, navigating the traps set for her and overcoming the efforts to destroy her.

Despite her strength, we’re always aware of her youth and how gruelling and skin-crawling her task really is. Using her training as a gymnast and dancer to ‘commit to the move’, Sarah makes for an admirable character- tough and witty but with an enormous sense of justice and love. The character development, especially of Sarah, the British spy and their relationship, felt authentic.

Killeen’s writing is beautifully evocative. The descriptions, especially of food and characters, are striking.

“He was not comfortably plump or slightly overfed, not jolly, round or chubby as some people can be, but excruciatingly bulbous. It was a fatness that looked like it came from a deliberate, sustained and highly disciplined over-consumption that had no hint of pleasure in it. The increasing sense of hunger that had been a feature of the last few years yawned to life inside Sarah and she knew instantly that she loathed this man.”

“She put her hands around the scalding cup and raised it to her lips, letting the warm updraft touch her face. Her nose brushed through the froth, but it gave like soap suds and vanished, popping in a million tiny crackles. The rich, dark liquid flowed through it and cooled as it tore the bubbles apart and slid into her mouth. Both sweet and bitter, sharp and comforting, invigorating and calming like strong arms carrying you through a storm.”

The pages are also peppered with shorter, snappier sentences that build the tension and show Sarah’s fast-thinking and survival instinct. There were just a couple of instances where I found myself skimming over the flowery writing as I was excited to get to the action, but this was rare. The story is full of plot twists and danger- especially towards the end- and had me on the edge of my seat throughout.

Katherine Locke has commended the historical accuracy of Orphan Monster Spy on Twitter, saying that the British spy Sarah works for  ‘is not perfect, or flawless, and he’s no hero, really, the way Allied forces are often portrayed.’

She praises the fact that ‘… ON THE PAGE, it’s acknowledged that it does not matter that [Sarah] is only half Jewish, that she’s never been to synagogue, that she’s not religious, and that she’s Aryan-passing. She. Would. Still. Be. Killed. For. Being. Jewish.’

Sarah never stops being aware that people are dying and her driving force is to work towards the effort of preventing this. She’s only Jewish by birth, yet ‘she does not ignore the plight of other Jews, even though she has no community connection to them. She is a girl who grew up, was given a label, and the label killed her mother and put her life in danger. She is aware of it on every. single. page.’

Read this book, and then think about the Rwandan Genocide, the attacks on Syrian immigrants and Muslims, police violence against black people, the deportation of US and UK citizens and the degradation of people from ‘shit-hole countries‘. Seem familiar?

This novel serves as a warning against allowing history to repeat itself and as a reminder that we can and must prevent that, whether we have ‘community connection’ to those being persecuted or not.

“We are, right now, looking at the conditions that created the Third Reich and all it will take, to paraphrase Burke, is for good people to do nothing.” – Matt Killeen.

A must-read for teens and adults alike, Orphan Monster Spy will be published by Usborne in March 2018.

*Quotations taken from a proof copy of Orphan Monster Spy and may be subject to change.

 

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

 

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart was a glorious read, pairing dragons and chocolate in a unique story that has quickly become one of my favourites.

[The following may contain some spoilers!]

Adventurine is a young dragon in search of her passion. Her brother has his philosophy and her sister has her poetry, and Adventurine feels like a disappointment. Determined to prove to her family that they underestimate her, she sets out to catch a dangerous prey: a human. But her chosen victim is a food mage who tempts her with the most delicious thing she has ever tasted- chocolate- and he enchants it so that it turns her into a defenceless girl. Forced to fit into human society, Adventurine begins her quest to live out her delicious, new-found passion and become an apprentice chocolatier.

The plot of this novel moves forward so satisfyingly, never too fast or too slow. Something happens in every scene and it builds up beautifully to the final resolution. The characters are vivid and teach Adventurine some valuable lessons about friendship, identity and courage. Silke proves to Adventurine that girls can be as fierce as dragons and Marina shows her that nothing is more important than work well done.

Adventurine has to work out how to be both dragon and girl and this comes together in the most exciting and unlikely way. I love how she keeps her dragon fierceness, is constantly puzzled at how humans do things and how she comes to see her new life as a treasure to be guarded. Adventurine’s first taste of chilli chocolate brings her two identities together in a fireball of flavour and was very fitting for the storyline.

But a sudden, startling wetness pricked at the back of my eyes. I’d thought I would never feel that heat in my throat again. I’d thought I’d lost my flame forever.

The description of the intricate process of chocolate making and the different flavours was one of the best parts, making the book mouthwatering and authentic. Reading it took me on an adventure like no other, so much so that it was refreshingly difficult to guess where the story might lead.

The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart is a delicious middle-grade novel that I can’t wait to recommend! The Girl with the Dragon Heart, which stars Adventurine’s friend Silke, will be published in 2018. Read more about Stephanie Burgis and her books on her website, here.

 

 

The Huntress: Sky by Sarah Driver

619SvznqVVL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

Seek the scattered Storm-Opals of Sea, Sky and Land, before an enemy finds them and uses them to wield dark power . . .

The trail of the Storm-Opals takes Mouse further than she has ever been before. With her little brother Sparrow and friend Crow alongside her, she stumbles into the world of Sky, where fortresses are hidden amongst the clouds, secret libraries (skybraries) nestle atop gigantic icebergs and the sky swirls with warring tribes and their ferocious flying beasts. Can they solve Da’s message before it’s too late for their ship, their tribe and the whole of Trianukka?

Mouse is back on her quest to find the Storm-Opals and be reunited with her Da.

The second book in The Huntress series begins with Mouse and her friends discovering the legendary Sky-Tribes. It introduces us to some incredible new characters, including my favourite, Kestrel. She’s very different to Mouse and strong in her own unique way- she’s gentle, fiercely loyal and has a vision for the future that she’ll defend to the death.

I was never a fan of books written in the present tense until I read Sea. It works so well in this trilogy and makes me feel fully immersed in the world Sarah has created. This book is non-stop action and we flit between riding ferocious beasts to breaking into fortresses to dream-dancing and sailing through poisonous frog infested waters. Like the first book, it’s full of great cultural expressions related to Mouse’s world and the Sea Tribes, such as ” don’t take your sails down yet” and “have raw eels poisoned your brain?” I love how each community Mouse comes across during this adventure has its own unique qualities and culture.

The novel is full of irresistible new creations such as draggles, the Skybrary where the books belonging to the divided clans are preserved and wish-tea, which tastes of whatever you wish for. Mouse, Crow and Sparrow are fantastic characters, complex and three-dimensional. I feel like they had grown up a lot in their own different ways by the end of this second book and I enjoy following their character development, how they make sense of the world and the quest they must carry out.

Full of twists and shocking reveals, The Huntress: Sky is a magical sequel to The Huntress: Sea and a book for adventurers!

The Huntress: Storm will be released on the 31st of May 2018. Read my review of Sea here.

 

Hortense and the Shadow by Natalia and Lauren O’Hara

IMG_3926

“Through the dark and wolfish woods,
through the white and silent snow,
lived a small girl called Hortense.
Though kind and brave, she was sad as an owl because of one thing . . .
Hortense hated her shadow.”

Hortense and the Shadow is a beautifully illustrated debut picture book written and illustrated by sisters Natalia and Lauren O’Hara. They tell the story of Hortense, a girl who hates her shadow so much that she decides it must go…until she realises just how small she is without it.

IMG_3923

This is a beautiful story of identity and self-acceptance. It shows us just how scary a shadow can be to small children and how they perceive themselves and the world around them. It’s not a rhyming picture book but the lyrical rhythm in which the story is told makes it seem like it is.

As she fell,

Hortense knew

her shadow hated her too.

The illustrations are stunning; whimsical yet very dark in places- a mix of pastel colours and black ink. The story seems to be set in a (perhaps Poland-inspired?) fairyland, with domed palaces and pink trees and ushanka-wearing bandits to be spotted throughout the book.

IMG_3925

Delciously dark but with a happy ending, Hortense and the Shadow is an utterly lovely picture book with an empowering message, and it reads like a classic fairytale.

Hortense and the Shadow will be published on the 5th of October. Thank you to Lucy at Penguin Random House for sending it so beautifully packaged!

IMG_3856